The October 2017 presidential election in Kyrgyzstan ushered in simultaneous transitions of administration and model of government. Under the 2010 Constitution, Kyrgyzstan, like Mexico, restricts its president to a single six-year term, which ended last month with Almazbek Atambaev handing the reins of power to his hand-picked successor, and fellow Social Democrat, Sooronbai Zheenbekov. Not only is there a new occupant in the Kyrgyzstani White House in Bishkek, but the office of the presidency itself is being reshaped by constitutional amendments adopted by referendum in December 2016, amendments that took effect in December 2017. It is, therefore, a period of considerable uncertainty, as observers search for clues that could offer insights into the effects of the double transition on Kyrgyzstani politics.
With regard to the transition in administration, Sooronbai Zheenbekov is no Vladimir Putin, who came into the Kremlin in May 2000 with a packet of far-reaching administrative reforms. As expected, President Zheenbekov, whose close personal and political relations with Atambaev go back to 1995, has not signaled any significant departures from the policies of his predecessor. However, last month the new president was able to quickly patch up deteriorating relations with neighboring Kazakhstan, which had brought trade with Kyrgyzstan to a virtual halt after President Atambaev harshly criticized Kazakh President Nazarbaev for supporting Zheenbekov’s major opponent, Omurbek Babanov, in the presidential election campaign.
One way of measuring the extent of continuity in presidential transitions is to examine personnel turnover in the presidential apparatus. Here the record is mixed. Just as in the Yeltsin-Putin transition, Jeenbekov has retained the services of his predecessor’s chief of staff, in this case Farid Niazov.[i] As numerous Kyrgyzstani commentators have remarked, Niazov is now in a position to act as the eyes of Atambaev in the new administration, and given that in post-communist regimes with strong presidencies the chief-of-staff is often the second most influential person in the country, Niazov’s appointment seems to be clear evidence of continuity. However, retaining Niazov may also represent a transition within the transition, and as Zheenbekov acquires greater confidence in his new role, he may bring on his own person in this critical position.
The first weeks of the Zheenbekov presidency have already witnessed substantial turnover in second-tier positions in the presidential apparatus, with many of the new appointees having served under Zheenbekov in his previous roles as prime minister and governor of the Osh region in the South. With a tradition that reaches back more than a half-century of alternating northern and southern leaders of the Soviet Kirgiz Republic and now the independent country of Kyrgyzstan, the election of the southerner, Zheenbekov, has brought a predictable influx of appointees to the presidential bureaucracy who hail from the South. However, given his ties to the Social Democratic Party, which has been sensitive to regional balance in personnel matters, it seems unlikely that Zheenbekov will repeat the mistakes of two earlier presidents, Askar Akaev (1991-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010), who were ousted in popular uprisings, in part because of the perception of regional favoritism.
The other form of favoritism that plagued the Akaev and Bakiev presidencies was the appointment of family members to key political and economic roles. Unlike President Atambaev, whose family members were not prominent public figures, Zheenbekov has several brothers who have had leading positions in government institutions, including a younger brother who is now in parliament and had served earlier as parliamentary speaker. In one of last appointments, President Atambaev selected Zheenbekov’s older brother, an ambassador in the Middle East since the Bakiev days, to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, a post that had been vacant for over two years, apparently in deference to Russia’s break with that country. Even if recent political history has not inoculated Kyrgyzstan against a repetition of family rule or one-region hegemony, it would be unlikely for a cautious politician like Zheenbekov to succumb to the favoritistic politics that helped to bring down earlier Kyrgyzstani presidents.
Less than two months into the Zheenbekov presidency, evidence remains sparse on the realignment of power between prime minister and president, though Zheenbekov’s negotiations with Nazarbaev indicate that the foreign policy portfolio remains firmly in presidential hands. Under the new rules, the prime minister has full authority to appoint and dismiss members of the Council of Ministers as well as regional and local chief executives. The young and relatively inexperienced prime minister, Sapar Isakov, has already replaced a number of cabinet-level officials in the areas of social and economic policy, but what is as yet unclear is the level of informal influence exercised over such appointment decisions by the president and his staff, and whether President Zheenbekov will encourage the selective prosecution of political appointees, which roiled the political establishment in the last year and a half of the Atambaev era.
Between the election and the inauguration, the campaign against the political opposition launched by Atambaev culminated in the threatened prosecution of Omurbek Babanov, who, as noted above, was the loser in the presidential race. With his personal freedom, business interests, and political party under threat, Babanov sought refuge overseas after the presidential contest. Then in a dramatic announcement communicated on his Facebook page on 30 December, Babanov issued in effect a political surrender and plea for mercy. In a statement reminiscent of the Melis Eshimkanov’s magnanimous concession to President Akaev after the 2000 presidential election, Babanov thanked Atambaev for his “worthy contribution to the preservation and strengthening of the country.” He then announced his resignation from his parliamentary seat and his departure from politics. By so doing, he appeared to salvage his own party’s future and to remove the shadow that the popular politician’s criminal conviction would have cast over the Zheenbekov presidency.[ii]
Looming over the double transition of administration and model of government is the figure of ex-President Atambaev. Seized in the waning months of his term by the vision of apres moi, le deluge, Atambaev had sought to “idiot-proof the constitution” by further diminishing the power of the presidency, which would, in his words, allow him to learn to play the piano in his retirement.[iii] However, speculation abounds that a new chapter will unfold in Atambaev’s political career at the late January congress of the Social Democratic Party, when observers expect him to be selected as party chairman. With Social Democrats holding the posts of president and prime minister, some contend that the party apparatus under Atambaev could begin to usurp constitutional authority accorded to the heads of state and government. In such a scenario, one observer noted, Kyrgyzstan would have its own Ayatollah.
[i] Niazov had stepped down temporarily from the chief-of-staff position last year to head Zheenbekov’s election campaign.
[ii] Whatever Zheenbekov’s attitude is to Atambaev’s targeting of his political enemies for prosecution, he apparently did not seek to intervene in the criminal trial against parliamentary deputy Kanat Isaev, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison on 4 January 2018.
[iii] Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog. http://presidential-power.com/?p=5770