It has been a year in coming, but it appears there is finally an official split in the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), the largest party in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and the party of the current president and his immediate predecessor.
The problem appears to be the result of a very public rift between current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and former President Almazbek Atambaev that could pack serious ramifications for the entire country.
In the latest sign that the personal feud is spreading, the SDPK announced on March 18 that it was joining the opposition.
The SDPK has 38 seats in the 120-member parliament. It had been partnering with the Kyrgyzstan Party and its 18 legislative seats; the Onuguu-Progress party with 13 seats; and the Bir Bol (Be United) party with a further 12 seats.
Founded in 1993, the SDPK is one of Kyrgyzstan's oldest political parties. Atambaev has led it since 1999, outside of 2011-17 when he was president and resigned his chairmanship in accordance with the constitution.
Atambaev was reelected SDPK chairman at the end of March 2018 and emerged from the party congress telling the media he wanted to offer some “brotherly” advice to Jeenbekov. That counsel turned out to be mostly criticism of Jeenbekov’s roughly four months as president. Atambaev warned Jeenbekov of the perils of family rule, recalling that, as one of the reasons, former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev was chased from power in 2010.
Atambaev had supported Jeenbekov’s candidacy for president, even suggesting several times during the presidential campaign that Jeenbekov would continue his policies if elected. Such talk led to speculation that Atambaev planned to continue governing the country through his successor.
But after Jeenbekov took the oath of office in November 2017, he gradually dismissed most of the key holdovers from Atambaev’s government. The head of the presidential apparatus, Farid Niyazov, was among the last to go and his dismissal in March 2018 came barely three weeks before the SDPK congress.
By that time, several investigations were under way into alleged corruption during Atambaev’s tenure. The investigations were said to have been prompted by the disastrous accident at the Bishkek Thermal Power Plant (TPP) in January 2018. The Bishkek TPP had been repaired and upgraded using Chinese loans of some $386 million but went offline during some of the coldest temperatures Kyrgyzstan’s capital had seen in many years. Prosecutor-General Otkurbek Jamshitov said his office determined that some $111 million of the Chinese money had been stolen.
Increasing numbers of Atambaev-era officials, including several former prime ministers, were called in for questioning, and some were taken into custody. There was speculation that the investigation might be leading toward Atambaev.
In April 2018, Jeenbekov dismissed the last high-level official from Atambaev’s government, Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, and Isakov was arrested less than two months later to face ongoing corruption charges.
May 2018 brought the first call for stripping Atambaev of his immunity as a former president, an appeal that was repeated in the months that followed.
It looked like the escalating battle between the two men would only get uglier. And it has.
On March 17, Kyrgyzstan marked the 17th anniversary of the Aksy tragedy, an event widely regarded as the first time blood was shed in independent Kyrgyzstan in the name of politics, resulting in six deaths when police fired on protesters demanding the release from custody of a local politician.
Atambaev addressed a crowd marking the anniversary in Bishkek and asked attendees to forgive him for his role in bringing Jeenbekov to power.
"Sooronbai Jeenbekov...you are dividing the people," Atambaev said. "I brought you from Osh Province, Kara-Kuldja, so that the people would not be divided into north and south and would be united."
It was not the first time Atambaev claimed credit for Jeenbekov's rise to the presidency, nor the first time he mentioned Kyrgyzstan’s north-south issue. He repeated those points in an interview on the Aprel TV station, which Atambaev partially owns, in December.
They are powerful statements, since many Kyrgyz were surprised when Jeenbekov received enough votes (54 percent) to win outright in the first round of the presidential election in October 2017. Polls ahead of the election had suggested a second round would be necessary. The campaign was plagued by accusations that administrative resources were being diverted to support Jeenbekov, and state television reports appeared to have damaged Jeenbekov’s main rival, Omurbek Babanov, who still received 33 percent.
Though he has not fully clarified how he managed to "bring" Jeenbekov to office, Atambaev’s continued assertions have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the election.
In his speech in Bishkek on March 17, Atambaev again suggested that Jeenbekov was practicing "family rule."
Jeenbekov’s brother Asylbek is an SDPK deputy in parliament and a former speaker of parliament (from December 2011 until his brother was named prime minister in April 2016).
Atambaev said Asylbek seemed to “rule over the deputies in parliament.” Some deputies, he said, were “like a small child with a runny nose.... Asylbek says, ‘Suck in the snot,' and they suck in their own snot. If he says, 'Blow your nose,' they do that."
President Jeenbekov was in Bospiek on March 17, the village that was the scene of the Aksy violence, where he told the crowd that the events of March 2002 had galvanized the people of Kyrgyzstan, “opening the road to changes in the country.” Jeenbekov said Aksy became a model for “popular struggle against injustice and lawlessness,” alluding to the revolution of 2005 that ousted first President Askar Akaev and the 2010 unrest that ousted Bakiev.
Jeenbekov was accompanied to Bospiek by Bektur Asanov, a political opponent of Atambaev's who had been imprisoned for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government when Atambaev was president. Asanov, who always denied the charges against him, was released on parole in February.
Also in Bospiek with Jeenbekov was Azimbek Beknazarov, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most fiery politicians and the local politician whose freedom protesters in Bospiek were demanding in March 2002.
Symbolism is prevalent in the Jeenbekov-Atambaev dispute, and the ghosts they are raising are likely to haunt next year’s parliamentary elections.
The SDPK now appears in disarray.
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, reported that some deputies from the SDPK faction in parliament support Jeenbekov and others support neither Atambaev nor Jeenbekov.
There is an SDPK faction that supports an "SDPK without Atambaev." But according to SDPK Deputy Chairwoman Irina Karamushkina, Atambaev will head the party’s list of candidates in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Atambaev announced that the SDPK would hold its next congress on April 6, the eve of the anniversary of the 2010 revolution that chased Bakiev, a southerner, from power.
SDPK parliamentary faction leader Isa Omurkulov, meanwhile, announced his SDPK grouping would hold a party congress on April 3.
Parliament is also splintering as the Jeenbekov-Atambaev continues.
On March 21, parliamentary speaker Dastanbek Jumabekov of the Kyrgyzstan Party responded to Atambaev’s March 17 comments by saying the credits and grants that Kyrgyzstan received from abroad were not arranged by parliament and parliament was not responsible for any eventual cases of “abusing power, fabricating criminal cases, [or] persecuting...opponents."
The head of the Onuguu-Progress faction in parliament, Bakyt Torobaev, called for an official response from parliament to Atambaev’s remarks.
The fact that Atambaev, who is from northern Kyrgyzstan, chose to speak in Bishkek on the Aksy anniversary, and Jeenbekov, who is from southern Kyrgyzstan, was in southern Kyrgyzstan on that day will not be lost on some. It is possible that the two men were simply in the places they believed they needed to be for the occasion; but the divide between northern and southern Kyrgyzstan is a sensitive issue.
The feud between Jeenbekov and Atambaev also threatens to cast doubt on the credibility of other politicians. The persistent allegations of corruption, nepotism, and cronyism bring into question deals with foreign business partners and investors, as well as the results of the 2017 presidential election. Public trust in public officials has never been high in Kyrgyzstan, but such faith as has survived is surely taking a beating.
Perhaps more importantly, these allegations risk creating a toxic political atmosphere ahead of parliamentary elections next year in a country that has already seen political volatility.