Members of parliament in Kyrgyzstan have embarked on an initiative to strip former president Almazbek Atambayev of immunity.
The initiator of the proposal put before parliament on May 17, Iskhak Masaliyev, says the intention is to require Atambayev to face investigation over a contentious and costly project to overhaul a thermal power plant in Bishkek.
The immunity-scrapping idea represents a remarkable turn of events that takes place against the backdrop of a behind-the-scenes tussle between Atambayev and incumbent President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Atambayev has not publicly responded to the news of the proposal.
The circumstances surrounding the renovation of Bishkek's power plant, widely known as TETs, is currently at the heart of an all-consuming political furor. A parliamentary inquiry has after three months of research held a series of hearings and reached conclusions that make for uncomfortable hearing for many former high-level officials.
Work at the plant was done by a Chinese company called TBEA and was completed in late 2017. MPs are now reaching a growing consensus that the office of former President Atambayev, who left office in November after completing his one permitted term, actively interfered to ensure the Chinese company got the contract without having to go through the process of a tender. The work was funded through a $386-million loan issued by China.
Masaliyev has led the charge of deputies disgruntled by the fact that investigators are unable to hold Atambayev to account because of his immunity status.
“Because of his immunity, the security services cannot even just simply question him,” Masaliyev said.
The immunity-stripping proposal was supported by 87 MPs, while 14 opposed. All parliamentarians who opposed the idea are members of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, or SDPK, which is led by Atambayev. But in what will have come as a sharp shock to the ex-president, many members of SDPK, which holds the largest bloc in parliament, actually backed the proposal.
“Now that there has been a change at the top, deputies have acquired a sense of freedom. If zealotry is not enforced by overeager apparatchiks, then this will continue. And then a lot of good can be done by this body, which has put back in the hands of the citizens,” Masaliyev said.
The MP said he will submit a bill on the stripping all ex-presidents of immunity in parliament by the end of next week. With the legislature nearing recess time though, it is not clear that this initiative will actually be formalized any time soon without efforts to expedite the process.
Masaliyev may have somewhat overstated the renewed sense of independence evinced by parliament. If anything, the sudden decision to turn on the former president suggests MPs have in a measure of self-preservation swiftly decided to fall in line with the incumbent president, Jeenbekov. In fact, Jeenbekov was prime minister over a large chunk of the time during which the power plant was being renovated. There has been no talk of hauling him before parliament, although several other PMs have faced often-aggressive lines of questioning before lawmakers.
The fast-unfolding clash between the Jeenbekov and Atambayev camps has been pure soap opera.
The original plan originally apparently conceived by Atambayev was that he would hand over the baton to Jeenbekov, his old-time ally, but that he would continue to play some kind of decision-making role in the background. Jeenbekov quickly disabused him of that notion and has systematically rooted out Atambayev’s old cronies from positions of power. Jeenbekov has not publicly associated himself with any moves against Atambayev and his circle, but it is impossible to imagine he has not given them his blessing.
By having his proxies dangle the vague possibility of criminal action against the former president, Jeenbekov is upping the stakes in a dramatic fashion.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.