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In Kyrgyzstan, the standoff between the old regime and the new authorities reaches new heights

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has stripped a powerful ex-president of immunity, and now this Central Asian state is moving towards an all-too familiar scenario.

Kamila Eshaliyeva
10 July 2019
Supporters of former president Almazbek Atambayev gather outside his residence, Koy-Tash
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Source: Facebook / Almazbek Atambayev

At the end of June, Kyrgyz MPs removed former president Almazbek Atambayev’s immunity from prosecution by 103 votes out of a possible 109. Parliament’s decision is based on a new law signed by current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, which provides a mechanism for removing immunity from former heads of state.

The General Prosecutor’s Office has found evidence of serious offences in Atambayev’s actions during his six year-long presidency (2011-2017), which means that he may now face criminal charges. Atambayev himself rejects the accusations and, by all accounts, is preparing for a fight.

A political immunodeficiency

In November 2017, then-president Atambayev completed his six year presidential term and received a number of privileges, as envisaged under Kyrgyz law. These included immunity from criminal and administrative prosecution for actions he took (or didn’t take) during his rule, and a monthly payment to the tune of 75% of his successor’s salary.

However, less than two years after the end of Atambayev’s presidency, Kyrgyzstan’s MPs have raised the question of removing this immunity. This happened after a speech made by Atambayev at a public meeting on 8 June, advertised under the slogan “For a Real War on Corruption”, where Atambayev described MPs as “snotty-nosed” for their “indecisiveness”. This outburst led to tempestuous debate at a plenary session of parliament and the decision to set up a special commission on stripping the former president of his immunity.

“Everyone knows how many political opponents had serious charges fabricated against them – seizure of power, treason, corruption”

The swiftly formed commission compiled a list of potential accusations against Atambayev. These included charges of harassment of MPs, judges, public figures and the media; embezzlement in the modernisation of Bishkek’s heat and power plant; non-transparent ownership of companies; illegal acquisition of land for his residence; complicity in illegal coal deliveries to the Bishkek power plant and the illegal release from prison of notorious criminal boss Aziz Batukayev.

On 20 June, MPs approved the commission’s decision to strip Atambayev of immunity and forwarded their submission to the General Prosecutor’s Office. They didn’t have long to wait for a response: on 24 June, Kyrgyzstan’s supreme regulatory body confirmed that there was evidence of five crimes, but did not include usurpation of power and political persecution among them.

Not everyone, however, agreed with the conclusion of the Prosecutor’s Office. The Political Prisoners’ Defence Committee believes that Atambayev’s most serious crime was, in fact, his usurpation of power. “Everyone knows how many political opponents had serious charges fabricated against them – seizure of power, treason, corruption,” said the Committee in a statement. “Many of them have now been released from prison, but their trials are far from over: they are still waiting for their honour and dignity to be returned to them, not to mention their innocence of crimes they didn’t commit.”

Almazbek Atambayev | (c) Roman Gainanov/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

Klara Sooronkulova, a former Constitutional Chamber judge, confirms Atambayev’s complicity in the persecution of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition. “The position of ex-president is an honourable status and Atambayev should have behaved accordingly, but instead he decided to indulge in somewhat unsavoury activity in the political arena,” says Sooronkulova in an interview. “Something had to be done, because he is now playing a pretty destabilising role. But I’m sure that his activities were definitely criminal within the meaning of the act.”

In defence of democracy

As parliament has stripped Atambayev of his immunity and status as an ex-president, he can now face criminal charges. His family’s estate in the village of Koy-Tash, near Bishkek, has turned into a base where his supporters have set up a “People’s Headquarters” and a press centre. The residence is surrounded by concrete perimetre, supposedly for construction work, and strewn with heaps of stones hidden under hay bales.

For days there were several dozen people around the place, showing their support for Atambayev and protecting him from potential arrest. And at night the grounds were patrolled by people on horseback, sworn to “stand with Atambayev to the last”. The American Embassy also reacted to the situation: its diplomats called on US citizens in the country to refrain from visiting Koy-Tash, because of the “risk of unrest” at Atambayev’s residence.

Almazbek Atambayev at a rally in his support | Source: Facebook / Almazbek Atambayev.

Meanwhile, Atambayev regards all accusations against him as “total rubbish, absurd” and has announced that this is just President Jeenbekov trying to “see off a political opponent”. And after the MPs’ decision to strip him of his immunity, he said that he “doesn’t recognise the legitimacy of Sooronbay Jeenbekov as President” and would resist any arrest.

The current government remains silent on its plans, although presidential advisor Aybek Azyrankulov now openly supports Atambayev. Azyrankulov recently visited Koy-Tash and stated that he had already resigned from his job in April.

Et tu, Sooronbay?

The loss of Atambayev’s immunity has already been called the result of a conflict between Kyrgyzstan’s previous government and the current regime. Sooronbay Jeenbekov was the pro-government candidate at the 2017 presidential election, running for the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) - of which Atambayev was, until recently, chairman. Indeed, Atambayev campaigned for Jeenbekov, seeing him as an ideal successor. Even after Jeenbekov’s victory at the election, Atambayev called him his “friend” and “party comrade”. But soon, it seems, their relationship soured.

“Jeenbekov was never a puppet. You can’t have this kind of situation in Kyrgyzstan: a puppet president isn’t a legitimate figure for people here"

The story began in February 2018 with a meeting of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, where the newly-elected President Jeenbekov criticised law enforcement agencies for failing to tackle corruption properly.

This angered the ex-president and a month later, at the annual SDPK conference, Atambayev pointed out to Jeenbekov that it was during his presidency that the war on corruption had begun. As a result of the breach in relations between the two old colleagues, former high-ranking members of Atambayev’s team were replaced by new people and his closest associates began to be arrested and accused of corruption – among them PM Sapar Isakov, ex-Customs Head Kubanychbek Kulmatov and former Bishkek mayor Albek Ibraimov.

Atambayev himself was also forced to resign as the head of the SDPK after the breach in the party, which split into two parts: the “SDPK without Atambayev”, which has remained loyal to the present government, and the official SDPK, which re-elected its present head but continues to support Atambayev. Atambayev himself has declared that his support for Jeenbekov’s presidential candidacy was a mistake.

President Sooronbay Jeenbekov | Source: President of Kyrgyzstan

Atambayev’s support for Jeenbekov may have had something to do with the latter’s background, political scientist Mars Sariyev tells me. Kyrgyzstan’s political and cultural division between north and south means that Atambayev, a northerner, was supposed to be followed by a politician from the south. (The birthplace of presidential candidates can play a major role with Kyrgyz voters.) Sariyev believes that Atambayev was planning to rule through his successor - and therefore had banked on southerner Jeenbekov. Yet Jeenbekov, a former deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration, emerged quite quickly from the former president’s influence.

As a result, Atambayev’s circle of associates shrank - and parliament put the finishing touch to the situation by stripping him of his immunity.

“If Atambayev had a good relationship with the present government, these issues would never have come up,” Sariyev tells me. “Jeenbekov was never a puppet. You can’t have this kind of situation in Kyrgyzstan: a puppet president isn’t a legitimate figure for people here. And the question of immunity was resolved very quickly, in fact. Our parliament, as we know, is easily managed: 70% of MPs are business people, who easily give in to pressure and can be manipulated. This is why they made such an explosive decision.”

Indeed, Atambayev has ended up on bad terms with both the current and previous governments of Kyrgyzstan. Ex-president Rosa Otunbayeva, who headed the government between July 2010 and December 2011, called the decision to remove Atambayev’s immunity a “logical development” of events. In a formidable speech, Otunbayeva decried the fact that the General Prosecutor’s Office had still not found any confirmation of repressions and persecutions carried out by Atambayev. “They are all on the surface,” she said. “They have been reported umpteen times in the media and case files, but cynically ignored in court rulings.”

“This could all end very badly. Stop, Jeenbekov, think again and clean up your entourage”

But it’s not only Atambayev facing potential prosecution, now Raisa Atamabayeva, his wife, has also been the subject of allegations in the press. Kyrgyz public broadcaster KTRK recently broadcast an investigation into raids carried out on Chinese businesses in Kyrgyzstan, which contained footage of the former head of the presidential office giving evidence against Atambayeva. According to Manasbek Arabayev, Atambayeva “brought influence to bear on court cases, which led to raids on businesses”. Kunduz Joldubayeva, the deputy head of the SPDK, referred to this report as a “smear campaign” against the Atambayevs.

Don’t play with fire

The standoff between Atambayev and the government is only gaining momentum. Roughly 1,000 demonstrators gathered on 3 July for a peaceful rally against the “old elite” and in support of Atambayev. In an incendiary speech, the former president criticised the current government and warned Sooronbay Jeenbekov “not to play with fire”. “The present government is blind, it can’t see how discontented people are,” said Atambayev. “This could all end very badly. Stop, Jeenbekov, think again and clean up your entourage.”

Despite concerns, the demonstrators didn’t head for Bishkek City Hall. Instead, they passed a resolution demanding an end to lawlessness, the government’s resignation, police reform, the release of political prisoners, lustration of officials and appointment of new people in senior positions. At the end of the event, Kunduz Joldubayeva threatened that “if these demands haven’t been met after two months, the people’s forum would organise mass protest actions throughout the country,” and demand the early resignation of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and dissolution of parliament.

The government did not respond, but on 8 July Atambayev received a summons asking him to come to the Interior Ministry as a witness. The ex-president refused to come for questioning and passed the case papers to his legal counsel for examination. There is as yet no word on which case the former president may be called as a witness.

Atambayev is the first elected president in Central Asia to have left power after his term of office without a fight. During his presidency, many politicians found themselves behind bars, such as MP Omurbek Tekebayev, Sadyr Japarov or ex-Secretary of State Dastan Sarygulov. But Atambayev hasn’t managed to avoid accusations by parliament, and he may face criminal charges in the future. Kyrgyzstan has a record of presidents fleeing the country, and though it’s hard to say whether Atambayev will end up in the dock or leaving the country, experience suggests that either scenario could be on the cards.

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