What is happening in Kyrgyzstan?

With the arrest of a powerful former president, Kyrgyzstan’s political scene prepares to “clean house” once again.

Kamila Eshaliyeva
19 August 2019, 12.01am
Almazbek Atambayev's arrest at his home in Koi Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Source: Facebook / Almazbek Atambayev

In recent weeks, tensions in Kyrgyzstan have reached their limits. Former president Almazbek Atambayev, who ruled the country between 2011 and 2017, has been arrested in a highly public special operation, though security forces were successful in detaining him at his compound only on the second attempt - and after causing mass injuries. Atambayev is now facing a number of serious charges - 14 at the current count.

Here we recount what happened at Atambayev’s residence, different opinions on the events in question and what could happen next in Kyrgyzstan.

How was Atambayev detained?

On 7 August, a Kyrgyz State Security Committee special unit attempted to storm the residence of former president Almazbek Atambayev. Several weeks prior, the Kyrgyz parliament had voted to strip Atambayev of immunity following allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Indeed, Kyrgyz special forces appeared at Koi Tash, Atambayev’s residence, just as crowds of his supporters had gathered there – in recent weeks, people had come to his residence every evening to greet Atambayev and hear him answer questions.

Almazbek Atambayev give an interview at his residence, 31 July
Source: Facebook / Almazbek Atambayev.

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By this point, Atambayev had failed to attend questioning - as a witness - at the Interior Ministry on three occasions. The case in question centres on the 2013 unlawful release of Aziz Batukayev, an organised crime figure, from prison. In any case, the security operation did not end in success, and Atambayev, just as he promised, offered active resistance. Hundreds of his supporters helped to push back the rather smaller special forces unit, taking their weapons and several of them hostage.

The crucial - and tragic - moment came in the standoff when special forces officer Usenbek Niyazbekov was shot. He later died of his injuries. It’s unclear who is responsible for Niyazbekov’s death, but Atambayev has claimed publicly that he was the only person armed in his home and fired shots at special forces during the raid.

Events at Koi Tash, 7 August. Source: Radio Azattyk

It was later revealed that the State Security Committee unit - an Alfa unit charged with counter-terrorism, no less - was carrying out the orders of an Interior Ministry investigation group.

The captured special forces officers were released the following day, but security forces decided to attempt the arrest of Atambayev a second time. This time, more than 2,000 police officers were deployed to the ex-president’s residence. Facing armoured personnel carriers, helicopters and water cannons, in the end, Atambayev admitted defeat and handed himself over to the police. More than 170 people were injured during the clashes at Koi Tash – the majority at the hands of Kyrgyz law enforcement.

The tense stand-off reminded residents of Bishkek of all-too recent history, when Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the second president of independent Kyrgyzstan, was forced out of power in the “April Revolution” in 2010. This time, as a result of the confrontation, the city’s major shopping centres closed early, as did jewellery shops and banks. By evening, Bishkek was empty aside from central Ala-Too square, where 800 people gathered in support of Atambayev.

Dispersal of protesters in central Bishkek, 8 August. Source: Kaktus.media

The angry crowd shouted slogans, while others set waste bins on fire and broke the windows of state buildings. Law enforcement reacted quickly, dispersing the crowd with tear gas – but not before two million soms ($28,672) worth of damage had been caused, according to the Mayor’s Office.

Was it lawful?

Current Kyrgyz president Sooronbay Jeenbekov was on vacation when police raided the home of his sworn enemy. Cutting short his holiday, Jeenbekov returned to Bishkek for an emergency session of parliament on 8 August. “If before yesterday Atambayev had been summoned as a witness, then he will now be treated as a suspect in a serious crime,” Jeenbekov threatened in his speech to parliament, stating that Kyrgyz security forces had acted “strictly in accordance with the law” during events at Koi Tash.

Not everyone was resigned to the arrest of the former president. MP Irina Karamushkina, from Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party (SPDK), wrote an open letter to President. “The whole world has seen and understood that the special forces burst in and started shooting to carry out someone’s ambitious order. Almazbek Atambayev has not been judged a criminal, nor a terrorist by a court,” Karamushkina wrote on Facebook.

Almazbek Atambayev is the first president of Kyrgyzstan to be arrested – the last two managed to flee the country before criminal cases could be opened against them

Either way, Atambayev will remain in the State Security Committee’s investigative detention centre until 26 August. There are currently 14 serious charges against him, and the list is constantly updating: corruption offences connected to the modernisation of Bishkek Power Plant, ownership of a building via a nominee, illegal ownership of land in Koi-Tash, violence towards law enforcement authorities, murder, hostage-taking and organising mass unrest. The investigation has now frozen assets, bank accounts, automobiles, stocks and other property belonging to the former president and his family. The list includes more than 100 properties, including 22 apartments, 39 non-residential properties, 11 parcels of land, 19 workshops and eight cars.

Alongside Atambayev, Kyrgyz law enforcement has also arrested key allies of the former president: presidential adviser Farid Niyazov, Kyiaz Smaliyev, head of Atambayev’s public campaign to defend the former president, Alga Kylychev, a leading member of Atambayev’s SDPK party, and Amantur Zhamgyrchiyev. These four allies are charged with the taking of six special forces officers hostage during the standoff at Atambayev’s residence. Law enforcement are summoning other Atambayev supporters for questioning and searching their homes.

Kyrgyz security forces have also closed the April TV channel, which belongs to the former president. This channel periodically criticised the current authorities, but was also criticised for its biased coverage. In response to the closure, Kyrgyzstan’s media community called the move “a fatal mistake by the government”. OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media Harlem Desir also expressed dissatisfaction, stating that it was important to protect press freedom and pluralism even in difficult situations. Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry stated that April TV has been frozen as property belonging to a suspect in several “serious crimes”.

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 11.17.06.png
Sergey Slesarev, legal counsel to Almazbek Atambayev, speaks to reporters outside Bishkek city court, 16 August
Source: Facebook / Almazbek Atambayev

In a session at Bishkek city court on 16 August, Sergey Slesarev, Atambayev’s lawyer, stated that “it’s impossible to agree” with the charges against his client. “There are many violations of the Criminal Procedural Code and Constitution. You cannot detain a former president on suspicion. We will be working to get Atambayev freed. We will demand that the illegal court decision is revoked,” Slesarev said.

Ideally, Atambayev should have been initially summoned as a suspect, rather than a witness. In this scenario, the investigation could have informed him of his status as a suspect in a crime prior to raiding his property, says lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, former legal representative of ex-prime minister Sapar Isakov.

“This was wrongful because Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Chamber is currently examining an appeal by Atambayev regarding the removal of his status as former president,” Toktakunov says. “Law enforcement should not have conducted the special operation to forcefully summon him as a witness, not least with the level of aggression and the use of firearms.”

Moreover, after Atambayev was stripped of his immunity in a parliamentary vote, the former president did not lose his State Security Committee protection. Toktakunov believes that the lives of his official bodyguards were also subject to risk, despite the fact that they carried out their direct duties in defending the former president from Kyrgyz law enforcement.

“On the whole, the special operation was carried out poorly. At a minimum, I suspect there may have been negligent actions [by security forces], although there are also grounds to suspect a provocation. A provocation that was specially designed to cause injury and loss of life, to then strengthen their own position,” Toktakunov adds.

By contrast, State Security Committee Chairman Orozbek Opumbayev has stated that Atambayev “needed blood to be spilled in order to carry out a state coup”.

“It was bound to happen”

In 2017, the year his presidential term ended, Almazbek Atambayev was supposed to become Kyrgyzstan’s first elected president who peacefully gave up power. For a long time, Atambayev and his successor Sooronbay Jeenbekov were members of the same party and, by all accounts, friends. Indeed, Jeenbekov drew on Atambayev’s support when he put forward his presidential candidacy at Kyrgyzstan’s 2017 presidential elections. But by 2018, the relationship between the two politicians had soured.

Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov
(c) Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Hostilities between Atambayev and Jeenbekov emerged over the former’s criticism of Kyrgyz law enforcement, which struck a nerve in the presidential administration. Shortly after, high-placed members of Atambayev’s team began losing their jobs and facing arrest, mostly on corruption charges – former prime minister Sapar Isakov, former Bishkek Mayor Albek Ibraimov, as well as former customs chief Kubanychbek Kulmatov.

Atambayev then announced that he would be “forced to stay in politics”, accusing his successor Jeenbekov of treachery, nepotism and “following” the course set by former president Kurmabek Bakiyev, turfed out in the 2010 April Revolution. As a result, Jeenbekov and Atambayev began a political war – one that ended in Atambayev losing his immunity and winding up in investigative detention.

Kadyr Atambayev, the former president's son, told openDemocracy that his father “did not want to make peace with the family-clan system of rule” in Kyrgyzstan. After all, he pointed out, it’s no secret that relatives of current President Jeenbekov occupy positions of power as parliamentary deputies and ambassadors abroad. “My father received hints: “You need to leave the country, we won’t touch you then.’ But he couldn’t leave his supporters who suffered for the real fight against corruption – Sapar Isakov, Kubanychbek Kulmatov.”

“Kyrgyz society is, on the whole, tired of the same formula of civic and internal conflict happening over and over again"

Yet the former president was also involved in “dirty political games”, according to political scientist Almaz Akmataliyev, rector of Kyrgyzstan’s Presidential Academy of Public Administration. “Atambayev supported an allegedly weak person [Sooronbay Jeenbekov], who was supposed to have followed his words to the letter and agreed to everything. He wanted to make a young man prime minister [Sapar Isakov] and his obedient friend – president,” says Akmataliyev. “But Jeenbekov didn’t choose him [Atambayev], but a position of justice, as an elected president should. This is where the conflict between the two men came from. It was bound to happen.”

In terms of what’s next in Kyrgyzstan, Akmataliyev believes that the former president’s guilt will be proven. “It’s a great shame. Our president started well, but ended badly. He should not be released under any circumstances. The investigation should continue its work. If he wasn’t in prison, then there could be bloodshed,” says Akmataliyev.

Political scientist Arkady Dubnov is cautious on the risks of a civil war breaking out in Kyrgyzstan. “Objectively, there are risks [of a civil war] - it’s another question of how big they are,” says Dubnov. “Kyrgyz society is, on the whole, tired of the same formula of civic and internal conflict happening over and over again. They’re tired from the two coups, in 2005 and 2010, from the many casualties, the constant upheaval, loss of property, and expecting the worst.”

Almazbek Atambayev is the first president of Kyrgyzstan to be arrested – the last two managed to flee the country before criminal cases could be opened against them. Now he’s facing a life sentence. But this outcome only provokes doubts in the future of the country. After all, no one can be sure that the country’s next president will leave his post peacefully either – as they should in a democratic country.

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