A showdown is brewing in Kyrgyzstan, one of Central Asia’s most politically unpredictable states. With almost indecent haste in June, parliament authorized a series of investigations into the affairs of former president Almazbek Atambayev. He is implicated in an array of crimes, with his arrest looming. The outspoken ex-leader, who was until earlier this year chairman of the ruling party, is refusing to obey a summons to appear for questioning. How long he can hold out at his luxury family compound, not far from the capital city Bishkek, is unclear. Hundreds of his supporters have been gathered outside for weeks – some are reportedly armed, while others carry placards denouncing Kyrgyzstan as lawless.
Atambayev says that he is the victim of a witch hunt, and that current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov is spearheading a campaign to have political opponents imprisoned, knowing that accusations of corruption have a habit of resulting in lengthy jail terms. If this is the case, Jeenbekov learned this strategy from Atambayev, who instigated his own ‘war on corruption’ while he was in office between 2011 and 2017. Within this, he targeted his foes, which included Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the opposition Ata Meken party, who was jailed for eight years just before Atambayev left office.
Jeenbekov, from Osh, the largest city in the south of the country, was Atambayev’s handpicked successor when he came to power in late 2017, enjoying a strong personal endorsement and a resounding win at the polls. But soon, tensions between the two Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) colleagues began to surface. These finally exploded when Atambayev launched a blistering attack on parliament on June 8. Deputies quickly convened a plenary session, and set in motion a mechanism to remove Atambayev’s immunity from prosecution. A commission was formed to compile a shopping list of alleged crimes ranging from harassment, abuse of power, and corruption. Rumours about Atambayev’s wife’s finances are also swirling. This type of wider attack, that nets family members of the accused, is typical of Central Asia.
Kyrgyz politics can be brutal. The first and second presidents of the state live in exile. Both have been accused of corruption on a grand scale, as well as other serious crimes including murder. Askar Akayev fled the country during the Tulip Revolution of 2005; his successor Kurmanbek Bakiev and his family were violently ousted from office in 2010 after they stripped the country of valuable assets. Only Kyrgyzstan’s interim president who served 2010-2011, Roza Otunbaeva, retains the privilege of immunity now that Atambayev faces a criminal investigation.
Despite a succession of wars on corruption, Kyrgyzstan has not become any cleaner, and nor is it likely to, as anti-corruption efforts are instrumentalised by successive regimes, while serious political and economic corruption go unchecked in any meaningful way. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Index, Kyrgyzstan languishes 132nd place in its table of 180 countries. Though not quite as bad as some of its neighbors, this is hardly a beacon for the rule of law either. For some of Kyrgyzstan’s partners, including Russia and China, this level of graft is not a barrier to trade and relations. Indeed, it may even lubricate how multi-million dollar deals are cut.
Kyrgyzstan has been the recipient of over one billion dollars in grants in the past decade. But donors, including the European Union and its member states, have for too long played down the insidious impact of corruption on the political fabric of the country and its ability to stabilize itself. Corruption is so ingrained and normalized at every level of society that some observers defend small-scale corruption as a harmless tradition, a cash-in-hand perk for underpaid teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses. Donors tend to side step the impact of corruption, and repeated attempts to overhaul political processes, ministries, the police and judiciary systems have been unsuccessful. There can be no rule of law while corruption flourishes. Nor can there be political stability when both corruption and the fight against corruption are the hand tools of those who seek to gain, wield or consolidate power.
The stakes in Kyrgyzstan are high. Memories of two revolutions in 2005 and 2010 followed by deadly inter-ethnic violence in 2010 are still fresh. The risks are exacerbated by the continuous failure of governments to tackle pressing economic and political issues, including corruption. Poverty and inequality are compounded by the poor delivery of social services, and the economy depends on remittances from labour migrants working in Russia and elsewhere.
The political elite are a product of corruption, and despite the bluster around Atambayev, no one is able – or willing it seems – to dismantle a system that both enriches and empowers a lucky few. Under Atambayev, the spoils of corruption were simply redistributed, while the accusation of corruption became an indispensable weapon in the political arena. He should not be surprised that his legacy has come back to bite him in this manner.