Kyrgyzstan: Risk of a third revolution?

Kyrgyzstan: Risk of a third revolution?

Notwithstanding the recent violent unrest in Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev’s saga is unlikely to lead to a violent overthrow of the government, which occurred in the country in 2005 and 2010.

A political turmoil has shaken Kyrgyzstan. After hours of tense confrontations between protesters and police, former President Almazbek Atambayev was detained on 8 August. The arrest of Atambayev is the latest development of a six-week standoff, which started when current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov lifted his immunity from prosecution last June.

Initially charged over multiple incidents of corruption, Kyrgyzstan’s former President is now accused of organising mass unrest and killing an officer during a raid on his compound; though the list of alleged crimes could keep growing.

The arrest of Atambayev did not come as a surprise. Although he backed Jeenbekov during the 2017 presidential election, the two had a public falling out just months after Jeenbekov took office and have publicly criticised each other for more than a year. Atambayev had a plan; or, to put it another way, the assumption he could stitch together a better version of the Putin-Medvedev scheme, by remaining the informal leader despite a formal departure from the presidency. However, problems arose when Jeenbekov refused to share power with him. By April 2018, he had already dismissed most of the key high-level officials from Atambayev’s administration, with some being arrested over corruption charges.

With tensions still simmering, a former presidential candidate during Kyrgyzstan’s last election in 2017, Omurbek Babanov, has recently returned to Bishkek. Babanov had fled to Russia amid a criminal probe into alleged incitement of ethnic hatred and plotting a coup. As the parliamentary elections come closer, Babanov’s return will only add to the anxiety of Jeenbekov, at the expense of Kyrgyzstan’s political and social stability.

Will Kyrgyzstan witness another revolution?

Concerns have been mounting for some time as relations between Jeenbekov and Atambayev started to deteriorate following Jeenbekov’s inauguration. Atambayev’s arrest in August, which sparked riots in the northern region of Kyrgyzstan, including the capital Bishkek, raised speculation that a third revolution could be on the horizon.

Kyrgyzstan has seen two presidents step down after civil unrest called for their resignation. In 2005, protests against the falsified parliamentary elections led to the removal of President Akayevich Akayev, who was replaced by the then-popular Kurmanbek Saliyevich Bakiyev. Only five years after the uprising, President Bakiyev himself was forced to leave the office after the broadly perceived dissatisfaction with the government triggered violent protests across the country.

Parallels can be drawn between Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing political feud and the country’s previous revolutions since there are a few traits in common between what’s happening today and the events of 2005 and 2010.

Parallels to previous revolutions

First of all, the regional divide still resonates in Kyrgyzstan’s politics. The North and South of the country remain divided over identity, ethnicity and wealth. Originally from the Northern region of Chui, Atambayev draws his support from the north of Kyrgyzstan, while Jeenbekov has his stronghold in the south. As the battle to arrest the former President started to unfold in August, social unrest immediately revealed its regional component, with riots and gatherings in support of Atambayev taking place in the northern village of Koi-Tash and the capital Bishkek. Notably, during the uprising in 2005, there was resentment that the power equation had shifted in favour of the north, while in 2010 in support of the south.

Secondly, even though Kyrgyzstan has muddled through several peaceful elections, including in October 2015 and 2017, there is a norm of using social grievances to alter political relations. After the 90s, regional divide, lack of economic development, corruption and repression of political opposition triggered a self-perpetuating cycle, in which one revolution led to another. Babanov returning to Kyrgyzstan in the middle of a political turmoil shows how periodic political crises have become the way to challenge the elite. Thinking that he was popular enough in the northern parts of the country, Atambayev himself sought to exploit Kyrgyzstan’s deep regional grievances to retain political power.

But this time it worked against him, whether he fully believed in a politically possible way forward or not.

Little room for manoeuvre

Atambayev’s popularity is fickle, and there is no real opportunity to capitalise on the momentum. Although riots against his arrest quickly spread to the capital Bishkek, similarly to the unrest in 2010, which culminated in the ouster of President Bakiyev, his support is insignificant. Only a few hundred people protested against Atambayev’s arrest in August, with some participants being bribed to show up. The protests that started in Naryn in February 2010 against Bakyev were triggered by a long history of inadequate economic measures, including tariffs on electricity, heating and mobile phones. Ultimately, there is no groundswell movement with a genuine appeal, which Atambayev could exploit to pursue his agenda. 

Also, Atambayev is isolated. This is mostly because of a loss of political control over the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), of which he was the Chairman until May. Despite Atambayev’s deteriorating relationship with Jeenbekov, it seemed like the SDPK had united behind him when they announced their decision to join the opposition against the ruling coalition earlier this March. However, Atambayev has since lost his influence and eventually had to leave the SDPK. 

Many of the former President’s supporters have sided with Jeenbekov or even defected to other parties. On April 3, hundreds of activists, who created the splinter groupSDPK Without Atambayev,” rallied in Bishkek for what they called the SDPK’s 8th Congress. In a political system like Kyrgyzstan’s, where the president has the power to influence the political forces for better or worse, maintaining informal networks is generally more critical than advancing public goals. 

This is probably another significant difference between the present power struggle and Kyrgyzstan’s previous revolutions. The events in 2005 and 2010 have shown that holding the top office is not enough to manage complex political processes. They brought together various opposition groups with different agendas, who rallied around organised social movements against the widely perceived corruption, economic stagnation and clan politics. Both the upheavals ended up bringing to power several political forces, rather than just a single individual.

International front

Finally, on the international front, the future for Atambayev is not looking great either. By all appearances, the Kremlin seems more interested in securing the loyalty of the incumbent President rather than offering protection to Atambayev. In late July, the former Kyrgyz President fled to Moscow in a desperate attempt to secure an endorsement from Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. This proved to be unsuccessful. Notwithstanding a face-to-face meeting with Putin, as soon as Atambayev returned to Kyrgyzstan, the Russian President only issued a boilerplate statement about how all Kyrgyzstan’s political forces should make an effort not to destabilise the country. 

Atambayev’s arrest is problematic for Vladimir Putin, and there is no question he would rather avoid it. Whichever form of power transition we will see in the next Russian Presidential election in 2024, declining public popularity, infighting among the elite and a relatively stronger political opposition have the potential to destroy Putin’s hopes of a smooth presidential succession.  The arrest of Atambayev might inspire Putin’s foes to capitalise on the increasing number of domestic challenges to seek his prosecution. 

Putin is more likely to continue to side with Jeenbekov. As Russia still perceives its former-Soviet neighbours as part of its inalienable sphere of influence, the Kremlin has an interest in supporting autocrats and strongmen in Central Asia in the likeness of its regime. Though Jeenbekov was elected Kyrgyz president relatively democratically, he has since consolidated his power, sometimes at the expense of a competitive political environment. Atambayev’s has been implicated in several corruption scandals. However, Kyrgyzstan’ s former President would not be stripped of his immunity if Jeenbekov did not decide to turn against him. Under these circumstances, the fallout of Atambayev shows that Kyrgyzstan is being pulled towards greater authoritarianism – something that plays in favour of Russia’s political calculations. 

What’s next for Kyrgyzstan?

The standoff between Jeenbekov and Atambayev will continue to dominate Kyrgyzstan’s political life, at times causing localised clashes between Atambayev’s supporters and security forces, especially as his trial unfolds. 

However, Kyrgyzstan does not face the risks of a third revolution. Atambayev’s position is precarious. On the domestic front, he lacks both genuine public support and strong political allies to sway things in his favour. Internationally, though Russia has played ambiguous games in the latest power struggle in Kyrgyzstan, Putin will continue to support Jeenbekov. If anything, the situation is likely to remain contained, at least until the next parliamentary election in 2020. 

Babanov faces serious criminal charges. While there are questions as for how or if he will resume his political career, his Respublika party has a sizable chunk of seats in the government and will likely to compete in the next parliamentary elections. With the SDPK fractured over the feud between Atambayev and Jeenbekov, the election could spark another season of turbulence for the incumbent President. Despite pressure from Atambayev, Babanov’s gathered significant support during the 2017 Presidential election. His detention or political persecution is likely to trigger further tensions and unrest in the country. 

The feud between Atambayev and Jeenbekov has shown that Kyrgyzstan is far from becoming a “democratic island” in Central Asia.  Ultimately, how the government will decide to deal with Babanov, this will be a democratic test for the country.

Categories: Politics, Under The Radar

About Author

Federica Reccia

Federica graduated with a first-class honours in Eastern European Studies from the University of Naples l’Orientale and holds an MA in International Relations from King's College London. Federica specialises in Russia and the independent states of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. Her previous experience includes Intelligence, Security and Counter-terrorism. Formerly a researcher for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, Federica is currently a security assessment officer at PwC.