Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has issued a public apology for helping to bring his successor to power and vowed "to try to rectify my mistake," likening his onetime ally to an autocrat.
Atambaev's March 17 statement in Bishkek threatened to take his bitter feud with President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the former prime minister he steered into office in 2016, to a new level.
Speaking at a public gathering marking the 17th anniversary of deadly violence against protesters in the southern town of Aksy, Atambaev accused Jeenbekov of creating an autocratic governing style based on family ties in the Central Asian country.
"I apologize that while all my life fighting against autocratic regimes, I failed to see the true inner self of that person -- and seeing only his mask, I brought him and his family to power," Atambaev said of Jeenbekov.
He also issued what appeared to be a veiled warning to Jeenbekov, saying that "if one day the people wake up, nobody can stop them."
There was no immediate direct response from Jeenbekov, who visited the Aksy district to commemorate the victims of the violence there and said he will "never allow the creation of autocratic clans in Kyrgyzstan."
On March 17, 2002, violence erupted at a demonstration in support of a jailed politician and police killed at least five protesters.
The incident sparked widespread protests. It was the first deadly dispersal of demonstrators since Kyrgyzstan won independence in the Soviet collapse of 1991 and contributed to the anger that led to the ouster of President Askar Akaev in 2005.
Atambaev, who was limited to a single six-year presidential term by the constitution, vocally backed Jeenbekov in an October 2017 presidential election.
But the two have exchanged public accusations of incompetence and lack of professionalism in recent months.
Several of Atambaev's close allies were arrested on corruption charges just months after Jeenbekov's inauguration.
Atambaev heads the now-fractious ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), and Jeenbekov is a member.
Some Kyrgyz politicians have said that Atambaev, who enjoys immunity as an ex-president, must also face justice for alleged corruption while in office.
In October, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court ruled that the immunity enjoyed by the country's former presidents is unconstitutional.
In December, parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill that would eliminate immunity for ex-presidents, potentially opening the path for Atambaev's prosecution.
Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Says He Is Sorry For Bringing His Successor To Power