Kyrgyzstan: Surprise ex-presidents meeting in Dubai keeps public guessing
The president’s decision to convene a meeting with all his predecessors has divided Kyrgyz public opinion. He calls it a unifying gesture. Critics see disrespectful populism.
It was either a stroke of genius or an act of folly.
The jury is still out in Kyrgyzstan on President Sadyr Japarov’s startling decision to convene a secret meeting last week in Dubai of all the country’s ex-presidents, several of whom were ousted from power in unruly uprisings.
Japarov is selling this as a bold gesture designed to cultivate unity. Critics have decried it as a populist move and a sign of disrespect to the victims of those former leaders.
Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan’s first post-independence president, who was deposed in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, was among the attendees. So was the man who took over from him: Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose forces killed dozens of demonstrators before he fled the capital, Bishkek, in April 2010.
After that, Roza Otunbayeva, the only female head of state Central Asia has ever hand, briefly occupied the presidential seat in an interim capacity.
Bakiyev’s mercurial nemesis, Almazbek Atambayev, distinguished himself by complying with a constitutional norm requiring him to step aside at the end of his single term in 2017. His handpicked successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, with whom Atambayev later quarreled in such a dramatic fashion that he got himself thrown in prison, was forced amid a wave of rowdy demonstrations to leave office in October 2020. That is when Japarov took over.
Also present at the Dubai get-together, along with Japarov and the ex-presidents, was the head of the security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev – a man who served as a minister under Bakiyev and was in prison for a while when Atambayev was in office following an outlandish attempt to seize power. It is a widely held opinion that Tashiyev is in effect running Kyrgyzstan in tandem with Japarov, an old friend and ally.
Many details around the Dubai gathering are mired in mystery. Officials have divulged only that it lasted four hours. It is presumed it must have happened last week since Atambayev was only released from prison on February 14.
It even appears to have come as a surprise to the attendees. Japarov has said he reached out to all his predecessors individually and told them he wanted to have a private tête-à-tête. The intention of this subterfuge, he has said, was to promote the “unification of the nation.”
“My only thought was for the supporters of each president, for the inhabitants of the seven regions [of Kyrgyzstan] to concentrate [their energies] in one direction, to leave politics to one side, to think about the development of the nation, of the economy,” he was quoted as saying by his press secretary.
As described by Japarov, the whole event played out as a therapeutic and cathartic exercise. All the presidents forgave one another of their mutual grievances, he said.
“If we want to strengthen our sovereignty, independence and develop Kyrgyzstan, let's put aside the past, our grievances and our complaints,” Japarov later commented.
Not everybody is in such a hurry to forget. The presence in Dubai of Bakiyev, whose ever-increasingly brutal and corrupt authoritarian rule came to an end with an orgy of bloodletting in downtown Bishkek, is provoking some upset. Rather than attending secret meetings in Dubai, Bakiyev should be serving out a 24-year prison sentence handed down in 2013, many believe.
Japarov has cause to be more positively disposed toward him, though. It was in Bakiyev’s time that his political career first took flight. For a while he served as an advisor to the president and, later, he headed up an anti-corruption agency. This last detail is viewed with wry cynicism by those who recall how graft proliferated under Bakiyev’s watch.
Atambayev, freshly released from prison, cast some doubt on the idea of the Dubai conclave having led to an outbreak of amity. He was caustic in his post-meeting comments about the widely shared speculation that Bakiyev and the rest of his family, many of whom also occupied top government jobs, could be allowed to return to Kyrgyzstan.
“Establishing peace and unity in our country and the return of the Bakiyevs to Kyrgyzstan are two entirely different things. Trying to confuse these things will bring about a whole different outcome,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “It remains for the relatives of those killed to offer forgiveness.”
Political analyst Medet Tiulegenov allowed for the possibility that Japarov’s intention for the Dubai meeting was to draw a historic line in the sand.
“Presidents need to mark their time with momentous events, to show that they have done something interesting,” he said. “There is something symbolic in the prospect of reconciliation and closing the book on a 20-year period before starting something new.”
Aida Alymbayeva, a political scientist, suggested that with inflation and other factors causing hardship among the general population, Japarov needed a big gesture that would shore up his popularity by presenting himself as man of generous spirit.
“In the two years that Japarov has been in charge, people have seen no social and economic improvements. Corruption is at the same level, organized crime has not been eradicated,” Alymbayeva said. “In order to somehow mitigate public discontent, he is being displayed as doing something novel and extraordinary for the people.”
Political disaffection is running deep in Kyrgyzstan. Opposition activism has plummeted to historic lows amid a spate of repressive measures from the authorities. Late last year, dozens of activists and politicians opposed to a contentious border agreement with Uzbekistan were detained on spurious claims that they were plotting to overthrow the government. If these arrests might have been greeted by large protests in the past, this time the reaction was muted.
But allowing Bakiyev to return to Kyrgyzstan could quickly rouse the public from its slumber, suggested Tiulegenov.
“It may appear from some floors of the White House [government and parliament building] that the people are prepared to swallow anything, and that they would even accept the devil himself dressed in angel’s clothes,” he said.
Even if any putative attempt to rehabilitate Bakiyev or any other similarly controversial measure were to spark widespread anger, though, it is uncertain that Japarov would necessarily have too much to worry about.
Alymbayeva argues that the authorities have been efficient in systemically clearing the field of potential leaders of any opposition movement.
“There is nobody left to mobilize them. There is no opposition as such. They even want to shut down the few remaining independent media outlets,” she said. “They have many tools with which to suppress protest moods. They don’t have to listen to the people.”
Japarov denies he was scheming anything to do with Bakiyev.
“There is a court ruling on Bakiyev,” he said in an interview on February 21. “If he comes, he will be taken into custody. We must abide by the decision of the court.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.