The chief of staff in the administration of Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has been parachuted into the prime minister’s seat ahead of a looming presidential election, sparking concerns he could try to influence the outcome of the vote.
Baby-faced loyalist Sapar Isakov, 40, and an overhauled Cabinet received overwhelming approval from parliament on August 25.
Atambayev’s former security council chief, Temir Jumakadyrov, bagged one of the deputy prime minister positions. Tolkun Abdygulov, the former head of the National Bank who made headlines earlier this year by suggesting that legalizing cannabis might be a good way to boost tourism revenues, got another deputy PM slot.
Since Atambayev’s approval is but a formality, Isakov will become the seventh prime minister to take office in as many years.
In the build-up to Isakov’s appearance in parliament, media dwelled on potential opposition from the Respublika/Ata-Jurt faction led by wealthy businessman Omurbek Babanov.
Babanov, like outgoing Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov, is viewed as a front-runner in the October 15 presidential vote. Atambayev is constitutionally limited to only one term in office.
Several MPs from the Respublika/Ata-Jurt faction grilled Isakov on whether he would be able to guarantee the integrity of the elections, given Atambayev’s stated preference for Jeenbekov. Isakov said several times that he would do his best.
In the end, Babanov and Respublika/Ata-Jurt offered cautious support for Isakov’s new government, but the party leader still felt compelled to issue a warning.
“The extent of your work, we will know in a month’s time. Your fate will be decided by the MPs, not by the new president. Many words can be said about you. But you are young and making your first steps, and you should remember about your responsibilities before the state,” he warned.
As far as those "many words" go, Isakov divides opinion. To some, he has been a bright spot in an executive branch that has otherwise achieved little reform while drenching the political scene in scandal and intrigue. To others, he is part of the rot at its core.
That his presence at the apex of Kyrgyz power is polarizing was well illustrated by the release of a video titled “Who is This Sapar Isakov?” that found its way onto YouTube on August 21 — the same day Jeenbekov resigned his post.
The smear attack-style video concluded that Isakov is bad news. An ominous voiceover artist read out a rap sheet that included Isakov presiding over the collapse of relations with key international partners as Atambayev’s foreign policy lead, his ties with the hated regime of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in 2010, and his purported pro-American tendencies. And there is the matter of the peculiar saga involving a shady Czech company winning a contract to build an economically vital hydropower plant, which reports suggest only happened thanks to Isakov’s meddling.
It is not known who created the video.
Isakov felt sufficiently moved by the attack to give an interview to sympathetic media in which he attributed the hit-job to “one of the candidates running for president who thinks that money decides everything and will not hesitate to stooping to such lows.”
Commentators reading between the lines have seen those remarks as an unsubtle allusion to Babanov.
In recent days, a television channel widely believed to be owned by Babanov, NTS, has been showing footage of Isakov in close proximity to Maksim Bakiyev, the hated son of the former president. Isakov performed a relatively low-ranking position at the Central Agency for Development and Investment, which was headed by Maksim Bakiyev at the time of the 2010 revolution.
Beyond a reported personal animosity between the pair, it seems logical that Babanov would be irritated by Isakov taking on the reins of government on the eve of the election. That notwithstanding, Babanov’s faction in parliament voted to approve the new government, perhaps preferring to defer scrapping to another date.
Use of so-called “administrative resources” has long been a feature of Kyrgyz elections, and with loyalists running the central government, Jeenbekov is likely to enjoy a boost of some sort.
Whether this will be enough to get him over the line is anyone’s guess. The vote will be toughly contested and many analysts are predicting a second round. Jeenbekov is a thoroughly underwhelming candidate short on both charisma and energy.
The outcome of the election might, however, be moot, if there is any truth to speculation that the elite is plotting to rejig the system to ensure that it is the prime minister, and not the president, who will really wield the greatest power in the future. If that were true, Isakov’s ascendancy to the prime minister’s seat would assume even greater significance.