Kyrgyzstan’s not so behind-the-scenes power struggle is fast descending into farce.
Six months have elapsed since a toughly contested, scandal-ridden presidential election brought Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a close ally and purported friend of ex-leader Almazbek Atambayev, to power.
If any firm conclusion can be drawn from that period, it is that friendships and politics are poor bedfellows in Kyrgyzstan, as the latter looks to suffocate the former using as many pillows as possible.
This month has seen Jeenbekov initiate a cull of top-level Atambayev-era appointments, after the blustering former president launched a stinging attack on his successor in a long-anticipated public re-emergence on March 31.
But one of them – a former bodyguard of Atambayev no less – has returned to high office via the backdoor.
Bolot Suyumbayev, who served as a deputy head of the State Committee for National Security, the successor agency to the KGB, was sacked along with his boss, Adil Segizbayev, another Atambayev loyalist, on April 7.
Remarkably, Suyumbayev, who seemed vastly under-qualified for his previous role, has now been ushered into a new position for which he appears similarly ill-suited. On April 16, the Prime Minister’s office appointed him head of the state anticorruption service.
He may not have too long to get stuck into any investigations, however.
Suyumbayev’s appointment was made by Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, who along with Interior Minister Ulan Israilov represents a final remnant of Atambayev’s leverage inside the halls of power. But predictions of the collapse of Isakov’s government have been growing louder since private tensions between Jeenbekov and Atambayev went public at the end of last month.
It would be easy enough for Jeenbekov to initiate such a move, perhaps by nudging one or more of the three factions in the ruling coalition into abandoning the alliance.
Moreover, any new coalition would likely bear his imprint, given the overwhelming loyalty parliament showed him when he fired General Prosecutor Indira Joldubayeva — another Atambayev darling.
Atambayev can still be a nuisance though, even as his real influence wanes.
Pro-Atambayev media, for instance, has been slinging rocks at Jeenbekov and his younger brother, Asylbek, who is still a member of parliament in the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan led by Atambayev.
The general editorial line of such outlets is that Kyrgyzstan was lucky to have a leader like Atambayev and that the Jeenbekovs risk degenerating into a “family-clan regime” similar to the Bakiyev clan Atambayev helped overthrow in April 2010. Atambayev’s claim to the mantle of leader of that uprising is yet another important source of political capital as the sniping intensifies.
Farid Niyazov, who served as chief of staff for both presidents before being edged out of office by Jeenbekov’s camp in March, was recently appointed head of Atambayev's politically loaded April foundation, which lobbies on behalf of the families of the hundred-plus citizens that died in the public revolt.
Overall, Atambayev’s options seem limited, especially once Jeenbekov’s appointments in the prosecution and security services are installed.
In a signal of his relative powerlessness, Atambayev presided over a lackluster closed-doors meeting of SDPK on April 16. According to media, only half of the party’s parliamentary representatives attended, with the younger Jeenbekov a no-show, as expected. During the meeting, Atambayev was forced to hear “bitter truths” about the behavior of some of his most trusted lieutenants, according to one of the attendees, Ryskeldi Mombekov.
“I told him: ‘If you take in the truth with patience, it will prove sweet. But if you take it in with intolerance, it will be bitter,’” Mombekov told opposition media outlet Govori.tv.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.