Building Republic

Kyrgyz Systems of Accountability

by Erika Undeland

published November 15, 2019

On March 24, 2005, my mother and father cheered as demonstrators took over the White House of the Kyrgyz Republic. They listened to the impassioned address of the leader of the opposition, and watched as the protestors hurled furniture out of the windows, symbolically cleansing the building. No violence ensued, and my parents hosted a celebratory dinner that night. They popped champagne and invited all their friends and family, saluting the ousting of President Askar Akayev and marking the end of what has since been referred to as the Tulip Revolution. Akayev fled to Russia, and the Kyrgyz Republic was supposed to have entered a new phase in its adolescence, surpassing the growing pains of a new democracy.

Kyrgyzstan transitioned from a Soviet socialist republic to a democratic one in 1991, and has since faced instability typical of many new states. The West often refers to Kyrgyzstan as the liberal democratic oasis of Central Asia, due to the fact that its neighbouring post-Soviet states remain entrenched in autocracy. However, democratic statehood is still new to the people, and there are still procedures that need strengthening for the security of the country.

In Kyrgyzstan, coup d’états have been ad hoc mechanisms for political justice, mostly because the government has lacked the checks and balances to remove the president from office. The changes have had to happen through civil unrest. The Tulip Revolution was the first case of this phenomenon; the second was the violent ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. Where the 2005 revolution had been filled with immense hope for the future, the second revolution came with a kind of cynicism. For some, it trapped Kyrgyzstan in a paradoxical state of stagnation and flux: a country stuck in a cycle of wrenching change. Semi-regular national upheaval and crisis had become a part of life.

After the coups, both Bakiyev and Akayev fled to other former Soviet countries. Though they both no longer hold positions of power in Kyrgyzstan, Akayev and Bakiev effectively avoided any real penance. However, recent events are about to introduce presidential accountability to the rule of law. The Kyrgyz government, currently spearheaded by president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, is attempting to convict previous president Almazbek Atambayev of corruption. Atambayev’s potential conviction would be the first time a president faced punishment, and is thus a step towards strengthening the legal mechanisms of Kyrgyzstan. Presidential accountability is an important benchmark for Kyrgyzstan’s growth, yet the conviction does not necessarily indicate perpetual justice for the Kyrgyz people. This is in part because this new precedent does not have stable footing, since Jeenbekov still has the potential to create safeguards to protect himself from the same fate.




Atambayev’s Arrest

Jeenbekov, a member of Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party, had initially agreed to stay allies with Atambayev, implicitly establishing a rotational system of president/prime minister analogous to the arrangement between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. During his presidency, from 2011 to 2017, Atambayev had strengthened the power of the prime minister in anticipation of his future role. However, Jeenbekov has done his best to prevent Atambayev from reascending to power.

Over the course of June and July of this year, the former protegé passed a law stripping former presidents of immunity from prosecution, and charged Atambayev with corruption. This charge is grounded in the 2013 release of Aziz Batukaev, a Chechen crime boss. Batukaev’s wife falsified a leukemia diagnosis for him, and Atambayev’s administration granted him medical amnesty. Several top officials, including a deputy prime minister, resigned following the scandal.

Atambayev disobeyed the court summons three times. On August 7, 2019, the Kyrgyz Special Forces descended on Atambayev’s house in a suburb of Bishkek to arrest him. This proved to be disastrous; not only did Atambayev escape, but his guards murdered one officer and took six hostages during the incident. Atambayev claimed that he himself was shooting from his rifle. The Special Forces successfully detained him the next day, and the national security services alleged that Atambayev was conspiring to overthrow Jeenbekov, plotting a third revolution. Immediately afterwards, about 1000 protestors violently clashed with police in the center of Bishkek, and the rumble of unrest grew louder.




Legal Fallout

After the protests following the most recent arrest, the Kyrgyz people waited with bated breath for the next series of coup attempts. I flew into Bishkek on August 12, and the conversations I had with my family alternated between my academic concentration and the potential for another revolution. Our cousins in Italy were planning on visiting later in autumn; some relatives recommended that they delay their travel plans in case of another violent change in regime. The default system of accountability for presidential misconduct had become, to many, popular uprisings.

No such revolution came, mostly due to the weakness of Atambayev. At the moment, the charges against him have been mounted to murder, attempted murder, inciting mass riots, taking hostage, and threatening the authority of the Kyrgyz government. Atambayev is refusing to sign documents, but he cannot escape à la Akayev or Bakiyev. Jeenbekov’s administration is currently in the process of getting him to court.

The set of legal arrangements enacted by Jeenbekov, including the stripping of immunity of former presidents, as well as the detainment, are setting a precedent for a punitive system for corruption. However, the actual arrest and potential conviction of Atambayev is only a small provision of justice. The Kyrgyz court initially charged Atambayev with corruption, for the release of Batukaev. Yet Atambayev released him due to false documentation claiming a terminal illness. Much of the unlawful behavior was conducted by Batukaev’s wife, and Atambayev categorically denies awareness of the forgeries. Though the legality of the release is questionable, it is not to the scale of corruption committed by former president Bakiyev, whose son embezzled $35 million, nor that of Akayev, whose family received around $100 million through government contracts. Atambayev’s misbehavior was relatively less significant in terms of its damage to the country, and therefore his arrest bears greater importance for its political implications, instead of justice.

Ultimately, this is a ploy by Jeenbekov to retain his own power. Both Jeenbekov and Atambayev were members of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, but this means little in Kyrgyzstan. Parties are largely nominal and experience frequent turnaround. This mostly has to do with a lack of ideological conviction amongst politicians, which means that political campaigns have flimsy platforms. Instead, Kyrgyz citizens often factionalize themselves according to regional divides: the Russo-educated North and the conservative South. Though these factions result in prejudice, they do not necessarily translate into differences in vote share or allegiance. Individuals in power often transcend political boundaries, whether parties or regions, just to maintain a stronghold. This has created a campaign culture centered on the personal qualities of candidates. During the 2017 electionst, Atambayev, a northerner, endorsed southerner Jeenbekov because he was most likely to help Atambayev retain power. He disparaged Jeenbekov’s opponent and fellow northerner Babanov, who was Atambayev’s first Prime Minister. Party or regional cohesion in Kyrgyz politics is rare, and differences in policy or ideology along party lines even moreso.

Jeenbekov continues this tradition of personalistic politics as he tries to eliminate Atambayev’s allies. He purged his cabinet of Atambayev’s loyalists and arrested several. Even if Atambayev were to attempt a coup, his allies are just as, if not more, powerless. As Jeenbekov paves the way for the first sentencing of a Kyrgyz president, he is strengthening his own power. This places a shadow over his motives, and raises the question as to whether the new legal framework would apply him, should Jeenbekov exploit his power. It is fully within his right as the President to reverse the legal system he’s created to convict Atambayev, and given the evidence of his aggressive consolidation of power, he may do so before the next election.




A New Stability

At the moment, Kyrgyzstan is in a period of stability as it awaits Atambayev’s compliance. Though he is not cooperating, he does not have the means to incite another upset. The Kyrgyz court has extended his detainment to December 26, keeping him firmly in the hands of the government. Putin has allied himself with Jeenbekov, implying that Russia will not intervene on his behalf. This is of critical importance given the fact that Kyrgyz policy is largely deferential to the Kremlin, a relationship that dates back to the Soviet Union.

The establishment of accountability systems is a key milestone for a new country.  Though the perpetuity of these systems is in question, that does not negate the fact that the Kyrgyz government is indeed strengthening its institutional capacity, a necessary framework for the future provision of justice and accountability. An improvement in the rule of law results in greater presidential oversight, which would improve the stability of the country. Civil unrest as a mechanism for change may become passé to the Kyrgyz population as they begin more heavily relying on the government. A conviction would mean only a life sentence for Atambayev, but it has revolutionary implications for the stability of the country.


ERIKA UNDELAND B'21 would like for you to google Kyrgyzstan.