On 23 June, Almazbek Atambaev, former president of the Kyrgyz Republic, was sentenced in Bishkek to 11 years of prison for his release of the mobster Aziz Batukaev in 2013. The court also mandated the confiscation of Atambayev’s properties that include luxury items, houses and several bank accounts, and the withdrawal of all his state awards. Together with him, Indira Joldubaeva, former head of the legal office of the president, Abduhalim Raimzhanov, former head of the National Haematology Centre, and Kalybek Kachkynaliev, former advisor to the penitentiary service, were also found guilty. The ruling refers to the sudden release in 2013 of ethnic Chechen criminal Aziz Batukaev, who had been sentenced to 16 years of jail in 2006 for crimes that included the murder of a Kyrgyz lawmaker. The decision was based on fake medical exams that diagnosed the mobster with terminal leukaemia. Immediately after leaving prison, Batukaev fled the country to reach the Russian Chechen Republic.
The sentence comes as no surprise, as Atambaev’s relations with his successor Sooronbai Jeenbekov and with the Kyrgyz parliament have recently been tense due to Atambaev’s highly critical remarks and lawless behaviour. Before stepping down as Kyrgyz president in 2017 due to the 2010 constitutional law that imposes the limit of one six-year presidential mandate, Atambaev had worked hard to place familiar faces in the country’s most strategic roles. The main example was Jeenbekov himself, reportedly handpicked by Atambaev as his perfect successor due to his unquestioned loyalty and lack of charisma. After Jeenbekov’s election, Atambaev attempted to draw a new political role for himself as head of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). In addition, the 63-year-old began voicing strong criticism of Jeenbekov and of the parliament, which he called “snot-filled”. This resulted in Jeenbekov’s removing all of Atambev’s loyalists from their posts and in parliament’s stripping him of presidential immunity based on his numerous criminal records (corruption, expropriation and freeing Batukaev among others). With his immunity rescinded, the time for his first trial came rapidly. In August 2019 his repeated refusal to be interrogated led the special forces to engage in a full-blown armed battle in front of his Koi-Tash mansion, on the periphery of Bishkek. The fight between Atambaev’s armed supporters and the police ended with Atambaev’s arrest, after two days of violence that cost the life of a policemen. Since then, the former president has been in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior and refuses to participate in trials in person.
The conflict between Jeenbekov and Atambaev proves that a tradition of tumultuous transmissions of power is hard to die, particularly in a country where the last two leaders were overthrown by a revolution. Furthermore, it is hard not to draw a comparison with other countries in the region. Islam Karimov’s death changed the path of the country with a smooth move towards an opening up of the economy. However, the fate of Karimov’s legacy and family was hardly peaceful in that a similar pattern of removal of Karimov’s loyalists was implemented, together with harsher treatment of his older daughter Gulnara Karimova, whose sentence for corruption was changed in 2017 from 5 to 13 years of prison. Finally, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbaev’s voluntary retirement, probably the most peaceful yet, did not turn out precisely as he imagined, with President Toqaev demonstrating a more autonomous tendency than expected at his election.
Atambaev’s recent narrative seems to reproduce Nazarbayev’s moves to maintain some sort of control over his country. Firstly, the former Kyrgyz leader seems to have tried to replicate a Kyrgyz version of the role of Elbasy, the first Kazakh president, playing the role of ‘older brother’ giving good advice when speaking of Jeenbekov’s failures. Secondly, his attempt to rule the SDPK mirrors Nazarbaev’s retention of the role of Chairman of the Nur Otan Party after his retirement in 2019. However, what is missing in the comparison is that the Nazabayev family still wields power in Kazakhstan, while Atambaev’s role was more that of a reformer after the 2010 violent unrest and regime change and less that of a powerful leader. The fact that his first reform was the introduction of a constitutional limit to his mandate as president is indicative of a very different political situation and a very different country. What is unclear, though, is the direction that the country is taking. Using the law to selectively remove political enemies is hardly a sign of change in Kyrgyzstan, where political corruption is allegedly the only way to access power.
The widening rift between Jeenbekov and Atambaev, which started in 2018 with the removal of Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, is leading Jeenbekov to slowly acquire complete control over national politics. In parallel, in a country known as fairly liberal, where NGOs were allowed to work and freedom of the press was upheld, there are signs of increasing repression of activists and actions against investigative journalism. Another example of the new trend is the country’s approach to non-state media during the COVID-19 crisis that made it virtually impossible to thoroughly report on the epidemic in the country. It appears that Jeenbekov, far from being a loyal successor lacking charisma, is building his personal path towards power and towards his own idea of Kyrgyzstan, which could be very different from the partially free country that Atambaev left him. The current president of the so-called ‘island of democracy in Central Asia’, who is now at half of his constitutional term of six years, seems to be showing his true colours and the complete removal from power of his predecessor might not be a good sign for political freedom and human rights in Kyrgyzstan.