Sooronbay Jeenbekov has been sworn in as president of Kyrgyzstan today. For the first time since its independence, the country sees a constitutional transition of power, exclusive of the short period of Roza Otumbayeva’s temporary government. In an interview with EADaily, Alexander Knyazev, expert in Central Asia and Middle East, speaks of the tasks the new president is facing and possible scenarios of developments in that uneasy country.
Can one turn the page of Almaz Atambayev’s “epoch” in political history of Kyrgyzstan? What were the results of his presidency?
Completion of this not so healthy electoral process and Jeenbekov’s election as president of Kyrgyzstan will not ensure further stability and political development for the country. Jeenbekov will not be an easily manageable figure as, firstly, he is a representative of a big clan having its own interests and ambitions. Sooronbay Jeenbekov is not considered a strong politician. There are no independent actions in his biography, as he used to keep low profile and act behind the scenes. During the recent period, he was overshadowed by Atambayev. I do not mean, however, that this dependence will last long. The Jeenbekovs clan has no plans associated with Atambayev. They need his support for a while. The arrangements that were probably made by Atambayev and the Jeenbekovs brothers will hardly be observed for long. In fact, the current situation certainly resembles the year 2005, when Kurmanbek Bakiyev was elected president after overthrow of Askar Akayev.
One of the active “revolutionaries” of that period once complained to me saying they elected him, but he moved them aside…I think Jeenbekov’s government does not yield to Bakiyev’s one in its aspiration for usurpation. This means that Kyrgyzstan will yet see another experiment to revive the khanate on the basis of Kokand traditions of the 19th century (the elite of southern Kyrgyz tribes, conditionally ancestors of Jeenbekov, Bakiyev etc. were coopted into the khanate).
What about Atambayev, who does not conceal his desire to be a Kyrgyz “Deng Xiaoping”?
The next task for Atambayev is to call snap elections to the parliament and the latest criticism of parliamentarians was for a reason, though Atambayev seems to be against dissolving the parliament. It is of secondary importance whether he seeks to take the post of the parliament speaker, leader of the faction having majority of the seats, or prime minister, which is less probable. What he cares about is to arrange “his men” so that to retain his influence on political processes and control over financial flows by him and a small group of people. This is in theory. In practice, the Kyrgyz political life has proved that the idea of “loyal men” is conditional and short-term. Besides, the new president and his minions will not tolerate the role Atambayev assigns to himself. I think the first things Jeenbekov will do as president is to replace the prime minister, make government staff reshuffles (at least, replace the key ministers), replace the leaderships of the State Committee of National Security, Interior Ministry, as well as prosecutor general and others, including mayor of Bishkek and the president’s authorized representatives (governors) in the regions. And further down the power hierarchy. Another – parallel – task of the president is to prevent Atambayev’s efforts to launch snap elections. Unlike Atambayev, the Jeenbekovs may afford waiting until the next parliamentary elections. Reformatting the executive power and the power-wielding agencies is much more urgent task and will probably bring more effect.
What will be done to settle the problem of the country’s “split” into the north and south?
The election results have exacerbated one of the major problems behind permanent instability of Kyrgyzstan. The society is extremely fragmented, diversified, and the split among the Kyrgyz ethnic majority is on the “north-south” axis. This split has many historical reasons and it has become even more acute after collapse of the Soviet Union. Basically, all election campaigns in Kyrgyzstan are developed on the basis of dividing political elite into the southern and northern parts. This division gradually becomes morecomplicated influenced by business interests, foreign policy, but the regional principle is still the major one.
Normally, new conflicts affect stability in the country and weaken functions of the government agencies. It is important that a new political conflict will emerge amid usual lack of development programs in the social and economic field where the situation deteriorates with the growing crisis in the relations with Kazakhstan.
Atambayev has left rather a complicated heritage to his successor. On the one hand, there is a strain in the relations with Kazakhstan, on the other hand, there is lack of certainty in the relations with Russia. Will the new president manage to settle the conflicts?
In Kyrgyzstan, they are disposed to blame Atambayev for everything, for his insulting statements against Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan as a whole that prompted the ongoing crisis. However, the current bilateral relations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are not about “how Almazbek Atambayev and Nursultan Nazarbayev had a big argument.” This is not a conflict, this is a crisis. An interpersonal conflict caused by public insults against Kazakhstan and the Kazakh president, ill-judged allegations against the EAEU, CIS, WTO, is an acute phase of the years-long system crisis that was just provoked by the leaving president of Kyrgyzstan. The system crisis in the relations of the two states is connected with the incomplete institutional functioning of Kyrgyzstan as a state. The state coup of March 24, 2005, can be conditionally deemed the starting point of this crisis. Whatever local historians right, there were no traditions of statehood in this territory before the collapse of the USSR, except the abovementioned episode of the Kokand khanate.
Another stage destroying elements of the incomplete statehood was the coup of April 7, 2010, which was fueled by the growth of ethnic nationalism and inter-ethnic conflict in the south of Kyrgyzstan, arbitrary interpretation of constitutional standards “by revolutionaries” and Atambayev’s election as president in 2011.
By the way, the entire political process that followed it was legitimate just conditionally. Foreign partners had nothing to do but recognize Bakiyev in 2005, the “temporary government” in 2010… They had to work with someone, after all. That entire period is known, first of all, with its incompetent and irresponsible government, which resulted in permanent stagnation of social and economic situation, fragmentation of the society and domestic political conflicts, extremely poor state of security and no lack of threats and risks for all the neighbors and partners of Kyrgyzstan.
Actually, Jeenbekov will have to take some actions to mitigate the crisis in the relations with Kazakhstan certainly stabilize the social and economic situation. He will have to establish cooperation with Russia’s leadership to keep receiving subsidies to the budget of Kyrgyzstan and other economic assistance. In this sense, he has no choice. The tales Atambayev and acting prime minister Isakov tell about reorientation of foreign economic ties at China and Uzbekistan are for local patriots. Kazakhstan is actually the only channel of foreign communication and interaction for development of Kyrgyzstan. This is a geographic and historic reality. A comprehensive protection by China would be an alternative, but whether China needs it? Beijing is quite happy with the situation in Kyrgyzstan. As for the current issues, such as construction of a railway along the south of Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, they will settle them routinely either with Jeenbekov or anyone else… The Jeenbekovs family has close ties with Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia. However, Arab monarchies are financially active only when it comes to expansion of their religious and political influence. They have always and will always give money for construction of mosques, and they have never given and will never give money for development of economy.
In Kyrgyzstan, they speak of the need to exit the EAEU more frequently now. Are these just calls from grassroots or it is weighed by the government?
There are few “calls from grassroots,” except for the group of activists of anti-Russian NGOs that are quite active in mass media and social media. In fact, Kyrgyzstan’s attitude towards EAEU fundamentally differs from the attitude of Kazakhstan towards it. Kazakh elite and the greatest part of the population perceive the Eurasian Union as a format of economic integration only. That is why they are not happy with the attempts to politicize the EAEU, for instance, by admitting Kyrgyzstan or Armenia into the Union. The Kyrgyz public and the ruling elite have different views concerning the EAEU. Most of the people advocate for a wider integration than just economic one. This reflects an element of post-Soviet nostalgia. Whereas, for the ruling elite in Kyrgyzstan, participation in the EAEU is exploitation of the political interests of Russia to live on the Russian budget and bear no responsibility for it.
The doubts Atambayev or Prime Minister Isakov cast on the expediency of the EAEU membership are part of it. What Atambayev says is an elementary bluff – no one will ever let him go beyond words… This is an attempt to blackmail Russia that supports Bishkek in the conflict with Kazakhstan. It is widely rumored that Atambayev acts at the request of some anti-Russian centers of U.S. and the West. There are no proofs of it, but Atambayev’s mostly pro-Western team is quite able to influence his actions. However, Bishkek cannot go beyond the reality. Under Atambayev, the state debt increased for 32% accounting for 62% of GDP.
This is a reason to worry about the risks to the statehood of Kyrgyzstan. Within the nine months of the current year, labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan transferred $1 billion 840 million to their home country. Over 98% of this amount was transferred by the migrants working in Russia, the remaining part – by the ones working in Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan’s budget revenues for the given period were by 25.94 billion rubles less than the money transfers by labor migrants. There is only one way out of the situation i.e. to keep demonstrating exclusive loyalty to Moscow and Astana in return for new financial preferences. Hypothetical exit from the EAEU implies a change in the status of labor migrants and, maybe, even the weakest Kyrgyz politicians realize what will happen if the migrants have to return home… I am speaking about nearly one million people, many of whom have rather an active life stance…
Why does Russia stand aback from both the presidential election in Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz-Kazakh crisis?
The Russian factor is an important component of the crisis inside Kyrgyzstan and creation of unhealthy atmosphere in its stance in the region, participation in the versatile integration formats as well as in the bilateral relations with Kazakhstan. Today’s calls for Russia’s mediation in the settlement of the Kazakh-Kyrgyz crisis look unrealistic, their implementation is possible only if Russia’s leadership admits two basic mistakes in its policy towards Kyrgyzstan and in the region at large. One of the mistakes was support to Atambayev at the presidential election in 2011 and by present. The second one is the hasty and politicized admission of Kyrgyzstan into the EAEU. Both the mistakes are done.
This is a very important moment, especially that Kazakhstan’s opinion was neglected, though it is a direct neighbor of Kyrgyzstan and immediately feels the consequences of those mistakes. I think Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s promise to follow Atambayev’s line in both domestic and foreign policy is perceived by Astana and Moscow as an inherited heavy crisis in their relations with Kyrgyzstan in the foreseeable future. It would be a gross mistake of Astana and Moscow not to learn lessons from the Kyrgyz history of the recent years and not to stand against short-term circumstances.
EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau