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Almazbek Atambaev: A Political Survivor In Kyrgyz Fashion

Former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev casts his ballot during the presidential election on October 30, which he looked set to win.
Almazbek Atambaev, leader of Kyrgyzstan's Social Democratic Party, looks set to become the country's fourth president after cruising to a comfortable first-round victory on October 30.

Now the real test comes -- guiding a people weighed down by a dismal economy and deep social divisions into an uncertain future. And gauging the direction the 55-year-old will take during his six-year term is no easy task. A look at the former prime minister's track record reveals a man adept at changing tack depending on which way the political winds are blowing.

Atambaev helped found the Social Democratic Party in 1993, but really became a prominent politician in Kyrgyzstan some 10 years later. After the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan's first president, Askar Akaev, in March 2005 Atambaev was a leading critic of Akaev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev.

But Atambaev went on to become the acting minister of industry, trade, and tourism under Bakiev. The position did not last long; he soon departed the government and became a co-leader of the opposition For Reforms In Kyrgyzstan movement in 2006.

Soon enough, Atambaev the Bakiev critic was back, lashing out at the president's passiveness ahead of a mass political rally that same year and rejecting the notion of entering into negotiations with Bakiev, whom he described as "a political corpse."

Poisoning Incident

By the spring of 2007, he was again in Bakiev's government, this time as prime minster. Atambaev vowed to be the "voice of the opposition in the Kyrgyz government," but that pledge was never fulfilled.

This was in part because he was absent from his post for weeks after claiming he had been poisoned. Kyrgyz and Turkish doctors confirmed he was poisoned but could never say what had poisoned him, and by late autumn he was ousted.

Atambaev's political star rose again in 2010 when popular protests helped oust former President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Atambaev's political star rose again in 2010 when popular protests helped oust former President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Atambaev's premiership is not associated with any great accomplishments. Nonetheless, during his time in office a major development took place in that Bakiev managed to create the pro-presidential Ak-Jol party.

Ak-Jol went on to take the majority of seats in snap parliamentary elections, a campaign in which Atambaev again presented himself as a leading opposition figure. He connected his ouster, just a month before the December 2007 poll, to his stance as an oppositionist. At the time, he called for the authorities to "hold fair elections" because "we know how the dirty 2005 elections ended."

In 2009, Atambaev took the opportunity to again take on Bakiev, running against him in a presidential election that July. But he disappointed supporters on election day by announcing he was withdrawing from the race. The reason he gave for his withdrawal was that the elections were "being conducted in a dirty fashion."

A Prophetic Message

"The authorities, sensing defeat, are playing games [with the vote]," he said. "The authorities will lose without a doubt. The question is: Will people's voice be heard." His message proved prophetic when less than a year later angry crowds in Bishkek forced Bakiev from power.

But in the run-up to the most recent presidential election on October 30, it was Atambaev's opponents who were slinging mud, claiming he had misused administrative resources during his campaign.

Atambaev was part of the interim government that took over after Bakiev was ousted. He helped draft the country's new constitution for a parliamentary system of government, approved in a national referendum in late June 2010. But he was unable to form a coalition government after parliamentary elections last year, showing he did not enjoy total support within parliament.

Since being named prime minister, Atambaev has publicly shown a preference for relations with Russia, but cautiously balanced his statements with kind words about China and the United States.

He has vowed not to renew the lease for the U.S. military to use the Manas air base when it expires in 2014 and he worked for Kyrgyzstan's entry into the Customs Union for the Commonwealth of Independent States, which was approved earlier this month.