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At Final Press Conference, Kyrgyz President Plots His Political Future

Outgoing Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev speaks during his last press conference in Bishkek on November 20.

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has vowed to remain in politics after he leaves office later this week, saying that he plans to lead the ruling Social Democratic Party in parliamentary elections in 2020.

Atambaev was speaking on November 20 at his final press conference in a six-year term that he called a "long and difficult" period of his life.

"There were sleepless nights. But thank the Lord, I managed to carry it out worthily. It is with great relief that I am handing over the post," Atambaev said, adding that he was longing for "sleep and rest."

"After leaving office, I do not want to become parliament speaker or a lawmaker right away," he said. "But I plan to lead the list of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan in the next parliamentary elections."

President-elect Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who was Atambaev's prime minister from April 2016 to August 2017, is due to be inaugurated on November 24.

He won the October 15 election after a campaign in which critics said Atambaev -- constitutionally barred from seeking a second term -- used the courts, law enforcement, and other levers of power to put his favored successor in place in the country of 6 million.

Opposition politician Omurbek Tekebaev was convicted in August on bribery charges his supporters say were aimed to keep him off the ballot, and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Before meddling into our affairs, our neighbors will think twice from now on. And we will be stronger, while in Kazakhstan anything can happen. I trust in God. There is no bigger sin than to block a road."
-- Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev

Omurbek Babanov, who came in second in the October vote, fled the country days after the election, following a move by the Prosecutor-General's Office to launch an investigation on suspicion of inciting ethnic hatred during the campaign.

Constitutional amendments proposed by Atambaev and approved in a December 2016 referendum bolstered the powers of the prime minister -- a change opponents said were part of an effort by the president to maintain influence.

Turning to regional issues, Atambaev expressed confidence that tension between Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Kazakhstan will ease.

Atambaev -- who has called 77-year-old Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev "aged" and suggested he has been in power too long -- said that the situation "will be normalized, as it is in Kazakhstan's interest as well."

But he reiterated accusations that Kazakhstan has established a "blockade" on their shared border and suggested that Nazarbaev's government was trying to isolate Kyrgyzstan, saying that "what does not kill us makes us stronger."

Kyrgyzstan has blamed Kazakhstan for long lines and the slow movement of travelers, cars, and truck across the border -- delays that began when Kazakh authorities stepped up checks at the frontier on October 10.

Three days earlier, Atambaev accused the Kazakh authorities of throwing their support behind Babanov, Jeenbekov's chief rival in the presidential election. The accusations came after Nazarbaev met with Babanov in September.

At the press conference, Atambaev said he had no regrets about his remarks.

"Before meddling into our affairs, our neighbors will think twice from now on. And we will be stronger, while in Kazakhstan anything can happen. I trust in God," he said. "There is no bigger sin than to block a road."

Kazakh officials have denied any political motive for procedures at the border.

Atambaev stressed that despite the tension with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan will not quit the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) -- a trade bloc that also includes Russia, Armenia, and Belarus.

"Kyrgyzstan, in fact, has been cut off from the EEU," he said, apparently referring to the fact that Kazakhstan lies between Kyrgyzstan and other members, including Russia.

"But despite that, we have to preserve our brotherly ties with Russia. I hope that those who try to cut us off will reconsider.... This blockade damages not just Kyrgyzstan but mainly the image of the EEU," Atambaev said.

At the end of his two-hour press conference, Atambaev apologized to reporters for "being too emotional and harsh when talking to journalists sometimes."

"That is how I am. What is bred in the bone will not go out of the flesh," he said. "I am sorry for such cases, even for the cases in which I was right."