By RFE RL
By Bruce Pannier*
(RFE/RL) — On June 23, the Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek found former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev guilty of corruption for aiding in the illegal prison release of a crime boss while Atambaev was serving as president and sentenced the former head of state to 11 years and two months in prison.
Worse is probably on the way for Atambaev. The 63-year-old head of state faces a raft of charges — including over the alleged murder of a security-force commander — stemming from his armed standoff with security forces at Atambaev’s compound in early August 2019.
But his conviction and sentencing raise questions about the future for presidents of Kyrgyzstan.
Atambaev is not the first president of Kyrgyzstan, and all of Kyrgyzstan’s previously elected presidents have faced legal problems.
Askar Akaev, ousted in the 2005 revolution, was investigated for corruption and separate charges for his alleged involvement in a police crackdown on protesters in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Aksy district in 2002 that resulted in the deaths of six demonstrators. Members of Akaev’s family have been charged with crimes; Akaev has not, although Kyrgyzstan’s security service still wants to question him.
Akaev remains in Russia, where he fled after he was chased from power.
Kurmanbek Bakiev, who fled into exile during the 2010 revolution, was convicted in absentia in 2014 of abuse of power and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Bakiev fled to Belarus and remains there.
Atambaev is therefore the only former Kyrgyz president to stand trial in Kyrgyzstan.
How Atambaev Differs From His Predecessors
But there are some other differences between Atambaev and those two previous Kyrgyz presidents.
Akaev and Bakiev were investigated after they had fled Kyrgyzstan for crimes they committed while in office.
Atambaev was convicted of helping cut short criminal kingpin Aziz Batukaev’s prison stay, but that investigation started while Atambaev was still in office.
Batukaev was convicted of several crimes in 2006, including the murders of a Kyrgyz lawmaker and two associates along with an Interior Ministry official, but was ordered released in 2013 on the basis of medical documents declaring that he had leukemia.
The documents testifying to Batukaev’s illness were exposed as fakes soon after Batukaev fled Kyrgyzstan to Russia.
Though Atambaev’s name came up during the extensive investigation, there was no public indication when Atambaev left office in late 2017 that he would be charged with any crime, although it was clear investigators wanted to question him as a witness.
Atambaev’s legal problems effectively started once he appeared to be clinging to power.
Atambaev stepped down as president in November 2017, the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another in Central Asia.
Many felt Atambaev had always intended to continue to rule through his anointed successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. But after Atambaev started publicly offering advice to Jeenbekov, it quickly became apparent that the new head of state had no intention of being a front man for Atambaev.
Atambaev criticized Jeenbekov, questioned his policies and appointees — the latter often coming at the expense officials Atambaev had left in office — accused Jeenbekov of imposing family rule on Kyrgyzstan like that of Akaev and Bakiev, and said Jeenbekov had deceived him when Atambaev selected and promoted him as his successor.
The public rants brought increasing negative attention to Atambaev, who had already made enemies inside Kyrgyzstan by locking up some of his most vocal political opponents during his last years in power.
Atambaev refused to obey subpoenas from the Interior Ministry, where officials wanted to question him about Batukaev’s release. He said he would not recognize parliament’s decision in June 2019 to strip him of his constitutionally guaranteed immunity from prosecution. Then in July 2019, just two weeks before the raid on his compound, Atambaev flew to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in what was clearly an attempt to frighten opponents back in Kyrgyzstan.
Putin was seemingly too shrewd to be lured into an internal Kyrgyz political feud and chose to speak alone at a press conference in Moscow after meeting with Atambaev; he called for stability in Kyrgyzstan and support for President Jeenbekov.
The raid on Atambaev’s complex on the outskirts of Bishkek came on August 7, with Jeenbekov and others in the Kyrgyz government having seemingly lost patience with Atambaev.
On the face of it, Atambaev’s imprisonment is a bad sign for the current and future Kyrgyz presidents.
Only Roza Otunbaeva, who was an unelected interim president, has ever left office without subsequently facing charges.
There are those who question whether Atambaev received a fair trial or will receive a fair trial once he faces charges related to the raid.
And it is essential that Kyrgyz authorities ensure that justice is served.
But Atambaev’s case might also be an exception, fueled by his lack of self-restraint and insistence on trying to run the country after his term was over.
So the real lesson here might be about overconfidence in handpicked successors and a refusal to let go of power once a six-year, constitutionally limited, single term expires.
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, contributed to this report
- Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.