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Won't Fade Away: Former, Current Kyrgyz Presidents On Collision Course

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov (left) at his inauguration with his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev. Relations between the two men seem to have soured in recent weeks.
Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov (left) at his inauguration with his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev. Relations between the two men seem to have soured in recent weeks.

During the final months of Almazbek Atambaev's term as Kyrgyz president last year, his candor rankled many inside and outside of Kyrgyzstan.

Atambaev had kept a relatively low profile since officially leaving office on November 24, but after his election as head of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) on March 31, Atambaev was back in front of a microphone and returned to making controversial comments-- though this time about the man he selected and helped elect as president: Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

After the closed-door meeting in which he was elected SDPK party chief, Atambaev was asked about his relationship with Jeenbekov.

Atambaev said his successor was an "old friend" that he had known for 23 years. But he added that "sometimes, as an older brother, I have to say something."

He then proceeded to say that Jeenbekov had done a poor job handling the crisis that erupted when the thermal power plant (TPP) in Bishkek broke down in subfreezing January weather just a few months after repairs and renovations that cost some $386 million.

"All the tenders, all the preparation was carried out by the team of Prime Minister Jeenbekov," Atambaev claimed.

He also recommended that Jeenbekov convince his brother, Asylbek, to resign as a member of parliament and so avoid any hints of the clan politics that characterized and eventually helped lead to the downfall of Askar Akaev, the first Kyrgyz president, and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Atambaev said he had discussed the matter with the president, urging him to convince his brother to quit parliament.

Asylbek Jeenbekov -- who was democratically elected as an SDPK lawmaker -- was not invited to the March 31 SDPK congress at which Atambaev was elected. Several other SDPK deputies were also not invited.

'Emotional Comments'

Presidential spokeswoman Tolgonai Stamalieva replied to Atambaev's critical statements by saying that President Jeenbekov had no plans to hold a press conference as it would be "inappropriate" to respond to Atambaev's "emotional comments."

Stamalieva said Jeenbekov had spoken with Atambaev about these issues before the SDPK congress and "Almazbek Sharshenovich [Atambaev] already knows the position of the president on all these matters that were raised."

But Stamalieva defended the president against Atambaev's charges about the breakdown of Bishkek's TPP.

"The president of the country has no connection to the scandal around the tender for the modernization of the Bishkek TPP," she said. "The agreement for the tender was signed in 2013 when Sooronbai Jeenbekov was the governor of Osh Province."

"Society will find out the whole truth [about the breakdown] after an investigation into the reasons for the January accident is finished," she said.

Stamalieva continued, saying "the launching of the repaired [TPP] took place on August 30, 2017, without the participation of Sooronbai Jeenbekov. He had stepped down as prime minister on August 21 to participate in the presidential race."

Stamalieva also noted that Jeenbekov had not taken part in the planning for the 2017-2018 winter but reminded reporters that "when he was prime minister during 2016-2017, the long winter passed without serious incident, except for a small issue at a kindergarten in Tokmak" during which the heating failed.

Serious Rift

A serious rift between Atambaev and Jeenbekov was bound to break out as the former president had made it clear he expected Jeenbekov to continue his policies and to keep his advisers and other aides in place throughout the presidential administration.

The resignation from the presidential administration in late February of Farid Niyazov, a well-known journalist and long-time close ally and adviser of Atambaev, was the first sign that Jeenbekov was not going to continue to surround himself with his predecessor's people. It became clear that Niyazov was pressured to leave his post.

Atambaev's greatest achievement as president, arguably, was his ability to keep the country stable and together after a popular uprising had ousted President Bakiev in April 2010, followed by bloody interethnic violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan a few months later.

In his last several months of his presidency, Atambaev launched almost daily attacks against anyone in the opposition or the press who dared to counter him, with several individuals and press outlets being saddled with lawsuits and criminal charges seen by many observers as politically motivated.

During the presidential election campaign, Atambaev attacked Jeenbekov's primary rival -- Omurbek Babanov of the Respublika party and harshly criticized his supporters in the western Talas Province, telling them to move to Kazakhstan if they disagreed with policies in Kyrgyzstan.

Atambaev also wrought incredible harm to Kyrgyz-Kazakh relations by repeatedly criticizing and insulting the leadership and policies in Kazakhstan after Babanov was welcomed in Almaty by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in September, in a meeting seen as an endorsement of the opposition candidate just weeks before the Kyrgyz presidential election.

For Jeenbekov to move Kyrgyzstan forward he was clearly going to have to make some changes from the previous administration. The resignation of Niyazov was seen as the first personnel move toward that change.

The Kyrgyz news site Kloop noted that Jeenbekov might have even started this feud with Atambaev back in February when he addressed a meeting of the Security Council and ordered them to rein in rampant corruption in government.

Atambaev had credited himself with doing just that and, Kloop wrote, "Atambaev probably took this as criticism directed at him."

Whoever started this current row between the two leaders, it appears to be reaching a critical point.

Jeenbekov said when he was campaigning and immediately after he was elected that he would continue Atambaev's policies.

If Jeenbekov allows Atambaev to criticize him without pushing back and to offer warnings couched as advice, then many will view Jeenbekov as nothing more than Atambaev's stooge and conclude that Atambaev continues to run things in Kyrgyzstan.

To avoid such a scenario, Jeenbekov may have to find a way to distance or even totally remove Atambaev from Kyrgyzstan's political scene, something which will now be more difficult to do since Atambaev heads the SDPK, the party to which Jeenbekov himself belongs.

And Atambaev added at his fiery March 31 press conference that he intends to prepare the SDPK for the 2020 parliamentary elections, indicating that the former ex-president has no intention of leaving Kyrgyz politics anytime soon.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service (Radio Azattyk)
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.