A year ago, in November 2017, Sooronbai Jeenbekov was sworn in as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president. The event made headlines as the first instance of a peaceful transition of power from one elected president to another in Central Asia. Almazbek Atambaev’s decision to step down, while constitutionally prescribed, was an unusual act in a region where presidents tend to serve until they are either driven out or dead.
However, the political succession in 2017 had a darker side as well. The newly elected president, Jeenbekov, was known as Atambaev’s friend and ally, and thus, a hand-picked successor. The new president was expected to be little more than a “puppet” of his retired patron. Now, one year after, time is ripe to ask whether the above expectations proved right and what can we say about the trajectory of political change in the country.
To start with positives, Jeenbekov’s first year in power demonstrated his desire to assert himself as a leader independent of Atambaev. Less than six months after his elections, Jeenbekov managed to replace some of the key allies of his predecessor, namely the Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, the Prosecutor General Indira Dzholdubaeva, and the head of the National Security Service Abdil Segizbaev, among others. Moreover, Isakov was accused of “corruption” and arrested, together with several other high-level Atambaev’s confidants. In December 2018, the country’s parliament voted to strip the immunity of the former presidents, a move clearly intended at lowering Atambaev’s power. Reflecting such political tensions, Atambaev publicly announced that his support for Jeenbekov had been the “biggest mistake” during his presidency. Thus, expectations for Atambaev’s continued dominance after the elections proved wrong.
The public fall-out between Atambaev and Jeenbekov brought some other positives as well. Independent media, in particular, benefit from it. In his last year in power, Atambaev launched an unprecedented attack against critical media outlets and journalists through a series of defamation lawsuits. Courts, known in Kyrgyzstan for respecting the “rule of a phone call” rather than the rule of law, handed fines amounting to 600,000 USD to some of the president’s sharpest critics. Jeenbekov reversed the trend, renouncing to a 140,000 USD monetary compensation that he had won against a news agency and a journalist during his time as a candidate. Soon after, Atambaev felt compelled to follow suit and drop his claims as well. The broader political environment also benefited from Jeenbekov’s reserved and moderate political rhetoric, which was in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, who would often use emotional, aggressive and divisive language.
Whether the above changes represent a bigger shift in politics is far from clear. Newly elected presidents tend to act nice and soft in their first years in power. The fact that Jeenbekov established his politics as independent from this of his predecessor was a positive outcome, but with time is also became clear that the new president is ready to use similar tactics as his predecessor to cement his position in power. Giving up on the monetary compensations won against news agencies was positive news, but nothing has been done yet to prevent prosecutors and courts from initiating similar attacks on freedom of expression in the future. More importantly, President Jeenbekov does not appear keen to encourage a strong parliament, vocal opposition and genuine political contestation. Building a “parliamentary democracy” has been the biggest slogan of Kyrgyz ruling elites since 2010. Today, however, the parliament remains as weak as it was in the heydays of Akaev and Bakiev.
The power to choose the Prime Minister and approve the cabinet is key to the legislative branch to grow strong and independent vis-à-vis the president. The 2010 Kyrgyz constitution contains clauses necessary to promote this. Moreover, there is no “ruling party” dominating the legislature, as it was the case before 2010. Instead, six parties sit in the Kyrgyz parliament today, and none is close to having a majority of seats. The distribution of seats among different parties had prevented the formation of a strong and independent parliament. With two exceptions in 2010/2011, all Prime Ministers approved by the parliament were de facto “appointees” of President Atambaev.
President Jeenbekov has not reversed this trend. In April 2018, when the rift between Jeenbekov and Atambaev became public, the parliament voted 102 against 4 to dismiss Prime Minister Sapar Isakov. This move represented a perfect U-turn. Isakov and his cabinet had been endorsed by the same parliament with 97 against 7 votes just eight months earlier. The new Prime Minister, Mukhamedkalyi Abylgaziev, is Jeenbekov’s ally, and he won the parliamentary vote thanks to the President’s undisguised support rather than because he enjoyed a true parliamentary majority.
The weakness of the parliament reflects another problem – the lack of opposition. This may sound as an anomaly in a land of “revolutions”, but one would have hard times today in identifying an opposition in the country’s multi-party parliament. President Jeenbekov did not even need much effort to ensure that the parliament elected “his” Prime Minister and discarded Atambaev’s. The current parliament, dominated by pragmatic businessmen figures, knows too well of the benefits that rallying around the “chief patron” bring, as well as the costs of not doing so.
In this context, the Jeenbekov-Atambaev rift might lead to one more positive side-effect for the country: it may provide resemblance of the existence of political contestation and pluralism. As the space for political opposition is blatantly empty, Atambaev appears as the first candidate filling it. He is wealthy and well-networked and he is also an already well-known anti-Jeenbekov figure. Few in Kyrgyzstan might prefer to see Atambaev back at the centre stage of politics. But unless Jeenbekov acts decisively to encourage real political pluralism, he might have to deal with his predecessor as his potential successor.
Constituting a truly independent parliament will require free and fair elections, the genuine independence of courts, strict limitations to be imposed on the President’s powers, particularly related to the use of law enforcement and security agencies for political purposes. These changes are not likely to be implemented any soon.
Thus far, President Jeenbekov has won sympathies mainly due to his moderate rhetoric and after he cut ties with Atambaev. His modest language, however, will not be sufficient to bring about long-term benefit for the country, if his political and economic reforms will remain similarly modest. Although Jeenbekov stated to be in support of a true independent parliament, competitive elections alone are not enough to lead to its emergence. It will also require the independence of courts, and the President’s willingness to accept the risks related to being an elected leader of a democratic society. These also include embracing political pluralism, sharp criticism, and the determination to observe the rule of law, no matter what. The next five years will show if such risks were accepted.
* The post first appeared at “Around the Caspian: a Doctoral Training for Future Experts in Development and Cooperation with Focus on the Caspian Region”, at http://caspianet.eu/about/.
 In 2010 Atambaev, and in 2011 Omurbek Babanov, were elected prime ministers, owing to their parties represented in the parliament.