As Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev enters his last year in office, mystery lingers over who will succeed him, and how much power that person will end up wielding.
Atambayev, who is limited by the constitution to just one term in office, dropped a significant but nebulous hint during his marathon year-end news conference in December, noting that he would like to see the next president coming from what he termed the “systemic opposition.”
The presidential election is scheduled for October. Whoever Atambayev’s successor turns out to be, political observers suspect the status quo will be maintained. Notions of a transition to a new generation of progressive, influential and charismatic politicians are likely premature, said analyst Mars Sariyev.
Even so, some recent tinkering to the constitution, engineered by Atambayev and his allies, appears aimed in part at thinning out the ranks among the country’s veteran political class — notably those with a reputation for making political and economic mischief.
“Atambayev’s reforms are aimed at cleansing the Kyrgyz political area of the partisan, corrupted nomenklatura that emerged during the times of [former presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev]. One of the changes revoked the statute of limitations on financial crimes,” Sariyev said, alluding to a legal provision that some observers believe could be utilized to intimidate Atambayev’s foes.
Some leading members of the old-school opposition do not seem fearful, and show no intentions of leaving the political stage quietly.
In the starkest challenge to Atambayev, southern rabble-rouser Kamchybek Tashiyev in late November formally announced that he was rejoining forces with like-minded nationalists, Ahmatbek Keldibekov, a former emergency situations minister, and Adahan Madumarov, a former speaker of parliament.
The “southern conglomerate,” as local media have dubbed the trio, is casting itself as the potential savior of democracy in Kyrgyzstan. The triumvirate quickly announced its opposition to the constitutional changes passed in the December 11 referendum. Madumarov slammed the referendum as “illegal.”
Tashiyev has indicated that the southern conglomerate wants to explore a partnership with another embattled veteran opposition figure, Omurbek Tekebayev, who heads the Ata-Meken party. While Tekebayev has never had much to do with the leaders of the southern conglomerate, a broad alliance of interests is conceivable.
Former ombudsman Tursunbek Akun voiced concern in December about what he viewed as a nascent confrontational trend in politics. “If there is a revolution or other state-level unrest in the country, it will be the authorities themselves that are to blame,” Akun said.
But political analyst Igor Shestakov downplayed the possibility of unrest, noting that many Kyrgyz people have wearied of the kind of street protests that fueled uprisings in 2005 and 2010. “In the past three-four years, the number of mass meetings has reduced markedly. Kyrgyz people have already given up believing that that they can somehow change the situation for the better through [protests],” he said.
Shestakov offered a caustic appraisal of the southern conglomerate. “New political groupings like that of Madumarov, Keldibekov and Tashiyev are really more reminiscent of a public relations project so that the electorate might remember that they are still around,” he said.
An important factor for future stability, at least over the near- and medium-term, is Russia. Atambayev enjoys the tacit support of Moscow, and any attempt by the southern political actors to derail him or his allies will likely be viewed negatively by the Kremlin. “They [the southern conglomerate] have no external sponsors — the geopolitical situation has changed cardinally,” Sariyev said.
When it comes to the next president, the country’s economic and political elites will exert the most influence over determining the winner, Sariyev asserted. “The most important decisions in Kyrgyzstan, including on the leading cadre policy, is adopted by regional clans with major business interests,” Sariyev told EurasiaNet.org. “Many issues are settled through consensus among clan elites.”
There are four politicians seen as viable contenders to succeed Atambayev.
Kairat Osmonaliev, a legal expert and political observers, pointed to former parliament speaker Asylbek Zheenbekov as one possibility. Zheenbekov has the advantage of enjoying strong support among his native southern electorate, and is also the brother of current Prime Minister Sooronbai Zheenbekov.
Shestakov, however, does not see Zheenbekov as a strong candidate because of a lack of a popular touch.
Osmonaliev said another realistic candidate is Temir Sariyev — an experienced and politically neutral figure who has managed to avoid getting into disputes with the president or members of parliament.
Among the so-called systemic opposition, there is Omurbek Babanov, a tycoon who leads the Respublika party. Babanov of late has played a canny game by keeping his distance from the government while supporting some of its initiative, such as the constitutional reforms.
“Babanov would be able to make deals with local political elites as well as the electorate, which are key factors to winning a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan. Besides, Babanov owns a media holding that would enable him to run an effective campaign,” Shestakov said.
A seemingly longer-shot from the “systemic opposition” is the leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, Bakyt Torobayev.
But as Shestakov noted, Torobayev is still a relative political novice, and his party only graduated from the regional to the national stage — with some help from experienced political consultants — during the 2015 parliamentary elections. “His political image is regularly spoiled by his representatives in parliament, who constantly make ridiculous pronouncements that are then actively discussed in the press and on social media. Besides, Torobayev is not popular in the north. So his best chances are of becoming a deputy prime minister,” Shestakov said.
Still, it is not without significance that it was Atambayev himself that last month let slip — inadvertently or otherwise — that he would indeed not be surprised to see either Torobayev or Babanov become the next president.
Aktan Rysaliev is a pseudonym for a journalist based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.