Kyrgyzstan: President Takes No Hostages in Rambling Presser
In his latest marathon press conference, Kyrgyzstan’s president spoke in favor of proposed constitutional reforms, lashed out at criticism from Turkey and had yet another pop at the United States.
Almazbek Atambayev has taken a leaf out of his Russian counterpart’s books by holding regular hours-long meetings with the press in which he rarely fails to jar some sensibilities.
The focus this year was on wide-ranging constitutional reforms that would if approved bolster the role of the executive — the prime minister’s office, in other words. The plan is to eventually submit the changes to a national referendum. Suggestions that the constitution is to be modified are particularly contentious as previous changes made in 2010 included provisions for the document to remain untouched at least until 2020.
Speculation is that Atambayev may seek to extend his rule by slotting in the prime minister’s seat, but he offered less than emphatic reassurances on that front.
“If I wanted to stay in power, I would have done it without parliament. I would have had no trouble doing it through a referendum by popular initiative,” he said.
On the contrary, he suggested, the intent behind modifying the constitution was to prevent his successor for grabbing too much power.
“With the current constitution the next president could easily become a dragon,” Atambayev said, speaking about a constitution he himself ushered into being. “In order for there to be no dragon with 120 heads [the number of members of parliament], we need to change the constitution.”
Much discussion has been aroused by the suggestion to have the constitution recognize the supreme value of “love for the motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “honor and dignity” — juridically vague if not meaningless terms that might stand to trump the current constitutional supremacy of individual human rights.
Outspoken columnist Daniyar Aitman wrote a fiery article condemning these and other proposals, drawing an intemperate reaction from Atambayev, who likened the experience of reading the piece to “stepping on a piece of poop.”
Kyrgyzstan has reacted angrily to recent demands from Turkey that Bishkek close all schools on its territory operated by US-based Turkish theologian and Ankara’s bête noire, Fethullah Gülen. Belying his record as Turkophile, Atambayev doubled down on his government’s defiant stance and rubbished suggestions that Gülen adepts might plot against his government.
“This is absurd. If they’re so smart, why did they miss the coup in their own country? Of course we will listen to advice and check information. But there is no grounds for trying to frighten or give us lessons,” he said.
The president left some ammo for the United States too. Atambayev sees Washington as the main instigator of an international campaign to secure the release of jailed rights activist Azimjan Askarov.
“As soon as we told their air base to ‘go home,’ they [the US State Department] gave a medal to Askarov. In American, the police kill two people every day, mainly blacks. If a policeman here killed a civilian, he would be demoted,” he said.
Covering all his bases, he even lashed out at Russia, or to be more exact the Russian companies that failed to build two promised hydroelectric dams.
“It is insulting when a country signs an agreement, ratifies it and then refuses to follow it through,” he said, adding hastily that he bore no grudges against Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
Atambayev insists that he is on the way out, and the carefree fashion in which he sees fit to grumble about all and sundry like a bad-tempered elderly neighbor appears to give that some credence.
Somewhat bizarrely, he does seem intent to focus more on his musical career. A number of his doleful performances have been trickled out onto the internet. He explained to journalists how all this has come to pass.
“I was supposed to go on a trip, it was either to Istanbul or Tashkent. Well, at the last minute, they told me that I couldn’t fly in the presidential plane, that I had to fly on a Tashkent plane. Well, I’m not young, I’m not afraid of dying,” he recounted, seemingly implying that flying on Uzbek-made planes was tantamount to certain death. “When I came back, I thought to myself that when I die, nothing will be left of me. So I found the time to write five songs in Russian. It took 47 minutes in all.”
And then there is his other current hobby-horse: the rising tide of pious Islamic values in Kyrgyzstan. He showed his colors on that front recently by registering his approval for billboards condemning the apparent increasing adoption of Islamic headdress by the country’s women.
“Wear boots on your head for all I care, but just don’t blow anybody up,” he said, adopting a patter not wholly dissimilar to that of a certain US presidential candidate. “If you don’t like secular clothes, then don’t feel obliged, go live in another country. We’ll pay your way to Syria or Bangladesh.”