Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s only genuine democracy. A split within the ruling Social Democrat Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) was threatening to factionalise the party and engender political instability, but the president has now wielded the knife.
A tale of two presidents
In October 2017, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov of the SDPK was elected president, marking Central Asia’s first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits each president to a single six-year term, preventing his predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev – also a member of the SDPK – from running for a second term.
Atambayev’s endorsement of Jeenbekov prior to the election reinforced the notion that he considered the new president to be his protégé and that he expected to continue to wield influence in national politics through him. During the transfer of power Jeenbekov made a number of complimentary remarks about his mentor and gave no reason for Atambayev not to expect Jeenbekov to pursue his predecessor’s policies. This harmonious handover was not to last.
In the months after leaving office, Atambayev kept his distance from politics, in public at least. This changed when he was elected chairman of the SDPK on 31 March. After the closed-door session, Atambayev used his time in front of the microphone to condescend to the new president, explaining that he has known Jeenbekov for 23 years and knew him as an ‘old friend’ but like an ‘older brother’ he occasionally had to correct Jeenbekov’s path.
Atambayev went on to criticise his former protégé, accusing him of mismanaging a crisis that followed the breakdown of Bishkek’s thermal power plant in January only a few months after renovations costing USD386million. The power plant’s breakdown left residents without heating or power for four days in -27°C conditions. The ex-president noted that Jeenbekov’s team were responsible for the power plant maintenance tender. Jeenbekov declined to hold a press conference in response to this criticism, claiming it would be unwise to react to Atambayev’s ‘emotional comments’.
Atambayev’s behaviour might be explained by a speech given in February by Jeenbekov, in which he criticised the scale of corruption in Kyrgyzstan. Although he did not mention Atambayev’s name, it offended the former president, who prided himself on his anti-corruption initiatives while in office. It’s likely he took this as a personal attack from a man he had believed would continue his legacy.
Atambayev’s former chief of staff was the first to go under Jeenbekov
Before Atambayev stepped down as president in 2017, he made it clear he intended to put himself forward for the SDPK chairmanship, a role which would allow him to help prepare the party for the 2020 prime ministerial election. His intention was to retain influence through the chairman’s role, he did not anticipate Jeenbekov turning against him.
The removal of Atambayev’s allies
The split between the two men assumed tangible form when President Jeenbekov began to dispense with Atambayev’s appointees. The first Atambayev ally to leave office was Farid Niyazov on 7 March. Niyazov served as chief of staff to Atambayev and continued to perform the same role for Jeenbekov when he assumed the presidency.
Then, a week after the former president humiliated him at the party conference, Jeenbekov dismissed both Abdil Segizbayev, the chairman of the state committee of national security, and Segizbayev’s deputy, Bolot Suyumbayev, on 7 April. Both were close to the former president. Suyumbayev’s main qualification for his national security role was that he was Atambayev’s former bodyguard.
On 11 April, parliament voted to dismiss the prosecutor general, Indira Joldubaeva, who was appointed by Atambayev in 2015. Like the dismissed national security officials, she had cracked down on journalists and opposition lawmakers, who were prosecuted and occasionally imprisoned. Her departure was therefore welcomed by everyone except Atambayev’s support base, strengthening Jeenbenkov’s hand. The parliament’s voting record on her dismissal was the first indicator of the strength of the new president’s support, 105 legislators supported the motion while only two voted against, 13 abstained.
Prime Minister Sapar Isakov – also of the SDPK – headed the ruling coalition. He was one of Atambayev’s last remaining allies in government. On 17 April the three opposition parties began taking turns to criticise Isakov’s performance during a special hearing allowing parliament to discuss the government’s annual performance under Article 85 of the constitution. The hearing lasted nine hours and largely focused on his involvement in the failed Liglass Trading contract.
In July 2017, under Isakov’s supervision, this relatively unknown and failing Czech company was awarded a contract to construct a hydroelectric power plant in the Upper Naryn cascade in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Shortly after winning the contract, Liglass Trading admitted it lacked the funds to undertake the project. Kyrgyzstan’s politicians viewed the scandal as deeply humiliating. Nevertheless, despite the frustration with Isakov, opposition figures were broadly in favour of allowing the prime minister to continue in his post in the interests of stability and continuity.
Isakov’s chance of political survival plummeted on 16 April when he appointed the vastly underqualified Suyumbayev – Atamabayev’s former bodyguard who was dismissed on 7 April – as head of the government’s anti-corruption department. The appointment of an Atambayev loyalist to such a politically sensitive post would have allowed Atambayev to undermine Jeenbekov and his allies by potentially manufacturing false corruption claims. It would also have allowed for the protection of Atambayev’s partners through the discretionary pursuance of investigations into alleged graft.
This was the turning point for a number of legislators who saw it as a clear indication that the new president and the prime minister were unable to work together. The constitution allows parliament to call a vote of no confidence following the annual review, allowing the president the option of dismissing the government if the vote achieves a majority, 61 of the total 120 legislators. On 19 April, 101 lawmakers voted in favour of disbanding the ruling coalition, effectively dismissing Isakov, Atamabayev’s last remaining key ally. Jeenbekov disbanded the ruling coalition later that day.