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Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Longtime Atambaev Ally With A Southern Touch, Poised For Kyrgyz Presidency

Social Democratic Party presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov addresses a campaign rally in the village of Nyrmambet on October 8.
Social Democratic Party presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov addresses a campaign rally in the village of Nyrmambet on October 8.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a protege of the outgoing president who was tabbed by officials as the winner of Kyrgyzstan's weekend presidential election, once humbly bragged: "I have climbed through all the ranks. If I become president, I've enough experience to serve the nation."

The 58-year-old former schoolteacher stepped down as prime minister in August to make way for his bid for the presidency -- hoping to cap an impressive political career that has taken him from a village in his native Osh Province to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

In a country where regional associations can play an oversize role in politics, observers suggest Jeenbekov's career has been shaped in no small part by a close association with outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev, a northerner.

The two men, who first met as parliament members in an early stage of independence in the mid-1990s, "have a lot in common," says Bakyt Beshimov, a former lawmaker and Social Democratic Party ally.

"Both successfully adapted to previous regimes and exploited the weaknesses of the regimes to their own benefit," Beshimov told RFE/RL, describing a knack for political opportunism. "Their alliance is based on this attitude toward politics."

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Prior to becoming prime minister in March 2016, Jeenbekov served as agriculture minister, governor of the southern Osh Province following a 2010 political convulsion, and deputy head of the presidential administration under Atambaev.

He has seemingly remained loyal to Atambaev and the ruling party, which in May nominated Jeenbekov for the presidency.

In the summer, Atambaev made a point of publicly praising Jeenbekov for standing by him through thick and thin, during the "toughest times...even when his own close relatives" were against him.

Atambaev has described Jeenbekov as a "friend" and called Jeenbekov's government "the best" cabinet of his six-year presidency. He has also been accused of dedicating government resources to ensure a Jeenbekov victory, with accounts emerging of local officials trying to strong-arm voter support.

Diplomatic Opening

For his part, Jeenbekov has pledged to continue Atambaev's policies as president.

In his victory speech, he praised Kyrgyzstan's "great achievements" of the past six years and said his "task is to preserve what has been achieved, to strengthen what has been started."

But Jeenbekov's tone differed from that of the outgoing president's when he was asked about relations with neighboring Kazakhstan, which Atambaev has accused of interfering in the Kyrgyz election.

Jeenbekov said he treated Kazakhstan -- arguably post-Soviet Central Asia's richest and most influential country -- and its long-entrenched president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, with respect.

"We have to treat everyone with respect," Jeenbekov said, "then all issues will resolve themselves."

"Jeenbekov will try to correct Atambaev's mistakes and repair relations with Kazakhstan, using the language of diplomacy," says Erika Marat, a professor at the College of International Security Affairs National Defense University in Washington.

The president has relatively limited powers under Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary system, but still oversees the so-called power structures that include the national security apparatus and appoints the country's prosecutor-general.

The authority to appoint the foreign minister rests with the prime minister.

Throughout the campaign, Jeenbekov remained vague on Kyrgyz foreign policy and in many other areas, saying at one point, "Unlike others, I don't like papers, I have my program in my mind and my heart."

Jeenbekov comes from a large and relatively well-to-do rural family from the village of Biy-Myrza and has a former parliament speaker, an ambassador, and a university professor among his nine siblings.

His father headed a Soviet-era collective farm and his mother was a housewife, taking care of the couple's six sons and four daughters.

Jeenbekov is married and has three children, who have largely kept a low profile.

Tokon Mamytov, a political scientist and the head of the People's Assembly of Kyrgyzstan, a politically active alliance of ethnic minorities, described Jeenbekov as a "decisive" person who was "never involved in any corruption scandal."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Gulaiym Ashakeeva contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.