Kyrgyzstan: An elite fallout in Bishkek

Key sectors: all

Key risks: civil unrest; political violence; political stability

It took two dramatic raids in order to detain ex-president Almazbek Atambayev. Although his arrest on 8 August had been on the cards for the past year, Atambayev resisted fiercely, first seeking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s protection in Moscow, and then mounting an armed defence against the first raid; one member of the special forces died. Given Atambayev’s loyal support base, Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic divides, and history of civil unrest, his trial risks aggravating sectarian tensions and fuelling further unrest in a country that has a history of removing leaders through protest.

Atambayev had expected to still call the shots in Bishkek when his protégé, current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov succeeded him as president in 2017. However, over the last 18 months, Jeenbekov began removing his predecessor’s allies from government and positions of power. Atambayev’s hopes of sharing power as prime minister backfired, as Jeenbekov publicly accused him of trying to influence his rule over the country. After declaring his formal opposition to Jeenbekov, parliament stripped Atambayev of his immunity, paving the way for corruption charges to be brought against him, and his eventual arrest.

The feud is an elite conflict over power-sharing rather than a manifestation of the country’s underlying tensions regarding historic identity issues, with Atambayev hailing from the country’s north, and Jeenbekov coming from the south. The North-South divide has long played a role in the country’s politics, but it was Atambayev’s reign that saw them largely displaced by elite interests, and conflict, as the driving political forces. By ordering the arrest of Atambayev in such a dramatic fashion, Jeenbekov has sought to neutralise Atambayev’s ability to generate popular opposition and discredited his support base in the process.

The feud does pose risks and is likely to hamper Bishkek’s ties with the Kremlin, which has a military base in the north of the country. Just over a week before his detention, Atambayev flew to Moscow to curry support from President Vladimir Putin, who warned Jeenbekov against charging Atambayev with criminal actions, ostensibly for the sake of Kyrgyzstan’s political stability. Clearly Jeenbekov ignored this in the belief that arresting Atambayev would provide a larger benefit. Jeenbekov has prioritised ending the feud and thereby consolidating power.

Atambayev’s detention is likely also motivated by the return of Omurbek Babnov, the runner-up in the 2017 presidential election that Jeenbekov won. Having spent almost two years in Russia since the vote, Babnov returned on 9 August amid the chaos of the elite feuds. With Jeenbekov’s reputation weakened by his feud with Atambayev, Babanov posed a threat to Jeenbekov’s presidency, particularly given his southern power base and support from ethnic Uzbeks. The timing and force used to arrest Atambayev will disincentivize other rivals from challenging Jeenbekov and sought to pre-empt Atambayev’s attempts to escalate civil unrest by his supporters, which would have risked a dangerous vacuum.

In effect, this has worked. Initial protests numbering over 1,5000 people in the capital have subsided. Though shops and restaurants in central Bishkek bordered up their windows, customers are still coming in. While Atambayev’s trial will likely see protests by his core supporters, as the conflict amounts largely to an intra-elite feud, these are unlikely to set off the tinderbox of sectarian tensions. Rather than risking a third revolution in 20 years, Jeenbekov’s action against his former mentor may help to concentrate power.