The rise of Kyrgyzstan’s increasingly authoritarian president is an unusual story. Fergana News recalls some of its stranger chapters.
In civilised states, the president’s health, whether mental or physical, is not considered a state secret. Everywhere, the press and the opposition are needed to keep madmen from coming to power. A sad example is the election of Donald Trump — a man who many, to put it mildly, don’t consider to be presidential material. And how could one not compare him with Kyrgyzstan’s president Almazbek Atambayev?
It’s not for nothing that both have declared the press as their main enemy. With Trump, it’s more or less clear why. But as Kyrgyzstan’s crackdown on journalists intensifies, one wonders what they did to so displease Atambayev? Perhaps they paid a little too much attention to the oddities of his behaviour?
On 31 August 2016, as Kyrgyzstan celebrated its 25th anniversary of independence, president Almazbek Atambayev gave a speech, shown live on air, which was judged by the whole country. A sense of gloom overshadowed the festivities on Bishkek’s main square. Online, social media networks were abuzz as a video live-stream showed a silent ex-president Roza Otunbayeva leaving the stage as Atambayev, during what was supposed to be a celebratory speech, began to insult his advisers, such as Otunbayeva, from the days of the acting government after the 2010 revolution, who were standing nearby.
Ex-president Roza Otunbayeva leaves the stage as President Atambayev begins to insult her publicly. Source: Radio Azattyk.
Otunbayeva had been acting president during this transitional period. Six years ago, she supported Atambayev’s candidacy in elections and oversaw the transfer of power to him with almost motherly care and devotion. Atambayev declared her a usurper, whom the people had not supported, and compared the Kyrgyz people to a herd of goats, in a play on words with the surname of opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev, who is considered the father of Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution.
This odd behaviour by the head of state didn’t go unnoticed, and surprised even his most ardent supporters. There was a gap between what should have been said by the country’s leader, and what he actually ended up saying, was simply too wide for people to react any other way.
On 19 September 2016, the aeroplane of Kyrgyzstan’s leader stopped over in Istanbul en route to New York, where the president was to attend the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations. Turkish media showed how Atambayev, lying on a stretcher, was taken in an ambulance to a hospital on the Aegean Sea to be treated for heart problems. A little later, however, the internet portal Haberler stated that Atambayev had not been hospitalised at all, but was living it up in the luxurious Sheraton Hotel in Çeşme, western Turkey.
Kyrgyzstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldaev stood in for Atambayev at the UN’s assembly. After a slight delay, the Kyrgyz presidential press service admitted that the president had taken a short break from his duties due to deteriorating health, but didn’t give details. Just two days prior, Almazbek Atambayev had been happy and healthy, having just celebrated his 60th birthday on a grand scale.
But the public’s concern for the president soon gave way to more banal gossip. His fondness for a drink is the subject of many tales and rumours. Azimbek Beknazarov, the country’s former chief prosecutor and member of the transitional government (ed. after the ousting of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev following the revolution of 2010), described in some detail in his book how Atambayev’s presidential campaign in 2009 was ruined by it. Kyrgyzstan’s television channels repeatedly rolled footage (the video is now available on YouTube) of a public speech in which Atambayev was visibly intoxicated.
Let’s go back ten years. In 2007, barely after protests had begun to settle down, another “information bombshell” hit Bishkek. Almazbek Atambayev, who had just been appointed prime minister, came to a parliament session and declared that somebody had tried to poison him right within the walls of the White House [ed. Kyrgyzstan’s presidential seat]. In his words, he was in his office on 11 May and drank a glass of water, after which he lost consciousness for two days.
“I was unconscious for two days. I know that it was an attempt to poison me,” said Atambayev, adding that he underwent blood transfusions over two weeks. He never specified exactly gave him the glass of water, and who he suspected of the crime — but simply said “this won’t intimidate me. Now I certainly won’t resign.”
No doctor confirmed the fact of the prime minister’s poisoning, nor did Atambayev ever offer any medical evidence to prove it. Sources from the state guard told journalists in secret that Atambayev didn’t drink any water that day, but another transparent liquid — and on the way home, he had to endure the same iniquities as he later would during his layover in Istanbul.
Much can be said about the Kyrgyz president’s inimitable speeches — but here, a few illustrative examples will have to suffice.
In December 2016 during a visit to India, Almazbek Atambayev suddenly started to teach Indian businessmen how to make money. “I started up my own business in 1989,” he began. “I was the wealthiest of them all, and drove around in the latest Mercedes model, while our president [Askar] Akayev had to make do with a Swedish Volvo. I also know a Turk who made millions by selling Indian tea in Kyrgyzstan — he headed to Moscow in 1993 with no money to his name, and in Turkey he’s become a respected figure.”
December 2016: President Atambayev starts lecturing on business strategies in India. Source: ELTR TV.
“This means that you’re still slumbering — your business hasn’t worked up!” intoned Atambayev, leader of a small and obscure state, in conversation with the businessmen of a country whose population is one-sixth of the world’s total, the home of world-ranking billionaires such as Lakshmi Mittal and Anil and Mukesh Ambani. “Kyrgyzstan is God’s summerhouse!” Atambayev added, before an audience of bewildered Indian businessmen.
At the end of February 2017, Vladimir Putin visited Bishkek. The Russian leader felt rather uncomfortable on several occasions, when Atambayev invaded his personal space, embraced him, then took Putin by the arm and began to speak to him in an inappropriately casual, even cheeky, way. Atambayev’s behaviour was sarcastically described in a Kommersant article by a regular journalist on the Kremlin’s beat, Andrey Kolesnikov. Putin’s discomfort was only to increase during a joint press conference, when Atambayev’s abrupt, “tough guy” demeanour made the Russian president appear somewhat modest in comparison.
“I want to remind you all that the leader of both of the last two revolutions was Atambayev,” said the Kyrgyz leader, in the third person. “And there won’t be a third revolution, since I won’t be behind it… when Atambayev was a multi-millionaire, Salymbekov had just started out, and Babanov was still studying at the agricultural institute,” he concluded, comparing himself to two wealthy local businessmen.
Putin kept his cool and behaved diplomatically, but nonetheless flew out of Bishkek without even spending the night. Kyrgyzstan’s citizens began to speak about their multimillionaire president with even more concern — and even more sarcasm.
A few days later on 6 March, Atambayev was presenting a batch of state awards to distinguished citizens. It soon became clear that he preferred to talk about something other than the recipients: he declared that he’d like to dissolve parliament. In Atambayev’s opinion, all its deputies did was sit around and gossip — and one of the parties represented in it was “stinking.” On 9 May, the party in question, Ata-Meken, appealed to the general prosecutor to make a legal assessment of Atambayev’s statements, and conduct a psychiatric examination of the president.
“The latest statements made by Almazbek Atambayev give serious cause to question whether he is fit to rule. We demand the formation of a medical commission of independent specialists to assess the condition of the head of state’s health” read the declaration, written by recently arrested party leader Omurbek Tekebayev from his jail cell.
While accepting the diplomatic credentials of newly-appointed foreign ambassadors on 15 March, Almazbek Atambayev complained to his guests about the behaviour of “his journalists”, though chose less than diplomatic language. He once again used the world “stinking”, for which he had already been brought before court — but now, he used it six times in just five sentences.
“How can you believe such stinking politicians?” he began. “Of course, tomorrow they and the leaders of one stinking party, will appear before court — having called us ‘stinking’ again! I’ll have to explain everything to these mankurts, who don’t even know their own native language. They’re strangled by the stench and spirit of fancy perfume — Chanel and Dior — but are involved in very dirty deals. Those politicians are called ‘stinking’ by the Kyrgyz people. Naturally, if a stinking politician leads a political party, then what else can you call him but ‘stinking’?”
In addition, Atambayev insulted a large number of representatives of local and Russian media, naming names and wondering aloud whether they owned several foreign passports. When it came to the Russian journalists, he forgot all about his embrace of Putin and criticised their country’s lack of democracy. “We’ve had enough of the games of the US state department and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty,” declared the Kyrgyz president before several foreign ambassadors, also calling out a number of “slanderers” within the media.
“Slanderers are monsters, without morals. They’re cannibals, who eat their relatives’ cold, dead bodies,” said Atambayev, giving substance to the libel lawsuits which Zanoza, Radio Azattyk [ed. RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz-language service] are currently facing, and Omurbek Tekebayev’s lawyers, which were filed recently by Kyrgyzstan’s general prosecutor. The following day, property of the Ata Meken party’s lawyer and a Zanoza journalist was seized by the authorities.
The odd and peculiar behaviour of countries’ leaders is its own subject — and one for the specialists to research. Across the world, hundreds of articles and many academic papers have been written on the topic, alongside artistic and documentary films.
Unfortunately, crazed rulers are far from the stuff of ancient history — they’re with us today, too. And the most widespread malaise among them is paranoia.
The word “paranoia” is an ancient Greek word, which roughly translates as “madness of thought” or “closeness of thought.” There is the medical diagnosis of chronic psychosis, one characteristic of which is the gradual formation of systematic and logically-constructed delusions. Those suffering from paranoia are distinguished by their tendency to see enemies and conspiracies against them in the most accidental and coincidental events. But some sufferers retain their ability for logical thought and a healthy approach to reasoning. Paranoiacs differ from many other sufferers of mental illnesses due to their purposeful, consistent, and to some extent predictable behaviour.
The patient’s pathological conclusions include many elements of reality, formally believable on the basis of his paranoid delusions. Like other chronic ailments, paranoia has its own ups and downs — and alcoholism is one factor which intensifies it.
Megalomaniac paranoia is one form of this illness, known as the “madness of Caesars”. An illustrative example of this is the Roman emperor Caligula, who named his horse as Incitatus of the Roman senate. Since then, the word “Incitatus” has become a common byword for the excesses of absolute power — bizarre edicts which, no matter how strange, are enforced, along with the appointment of wholly unsuitable people to powerful positions.
Atambayev’s opponents, too, accuse him of this behaviour — of the rule of an “Incitatus”. After all, the president has appointed his driver Ikram Ilmiyanov as deputy head of the presidential administration, and his former bodyguard Ulan Israilov as minister of the interior. Another of Atambayev’s former bodyguards, Bolot Suyumbayev, recently became deputy head of the state committee for national security. Meanwhile, the new chairman of this intelligence service — a role previously filled by former generals — is now Abdil Segizbayev, a graduate of an agricultural institute, a former employee of the Soros Foundation and former press secretary to president Askar Akayev.
Caesar’s word, after all, is law.