Last week the date of the presidential election was announced. It will be held on November 19 2017. Despite the constitutional reform that will strengthen the powers of the prime minister and the parliament, a presidential seat still remains the most prestigious one in Kyrgyzstan, especially since a decrease in powers means a decrease in responsibilities, and the presidential term is long enough to fully enjoy being on the top.
On the eve of the announcement of the election date, a few politicians have already announced their intentions to run, among them leaders of following parties: “Republic” party leader Omurbek Babanov, Ak Shumkar party leader Temir Sariev and leader of Onuugu-Progress party Bakyt Torobaev. Leader of the Butun Kyrgyzstan party Adyhan Madumarov and ex-chairwoman of the national audit chamber Elmira Ibraimova, also expressed an interest in running. This means that this time presidential campaign has started much sooner than its official start date. For whom of the announced candidates will this be a false start?
During the previous presidential race of 2011, 16 candidates were left fighting for the presidential seat, while the initial number of politicians who turned in their applications for participating in the race to the central election committee total 80-plus people.
Based on our analysis, this time the presidential race will be no easier than the last time, but the number of people fighting for the seat will be smaller. There won’t be a demand for outsiders, and a technical nomination will not reap any fame or money this time around. However, it is hard to estimate the exact number of contestants right now, but the number does not matter. What is much more important is to understand the difference between the situation before the election in 2011, and the one we have now.
In 25 years since its independence, Kyrgyzstan has survived two violent transfers of power (2005-2010), massive inter-ethnic struggles and a whole slew of other sudden shocks. Today, it remains one of the most politically volatile governments in the post-Soviet space. Still, the country is theoretically a self-sufficient state that not only can provide all the essentials for its population, but also be an exporter of organic products and clean water. It also holds a potential for tourism and has a certain industrial potential among other things.
Kyrgyzstan has all the ingredients not only to become a successful agrarian and industrial nation but also to become an attractive financial, tourist and transit center. Of course, not everything depends on Kyrgyzstan, it is hard for small countries to lead an autonomous existence in today’s globalized and regionalized world. But to push all the blame on the outside factors is useless.
There are also subjective and objective domestic factors at play. On one hand, with its climatic characteristics and economic specialisation, Kyrgyzstan’s region is quiet diverse. Due to this, differences in economic development of the regions had led to a rise in inequality in a socio-economic area between them. On the other hand, due to government’s transformation into the means of achieving tribal and clan interests, Kyrgyzstan is experiencing serious difficulties, related in part to exhaustion of human and natural resources.
Nonetheless, compared to 2011, the country is in a much more stable state today.
At the upcoming elections, constituents will vote, as always, based on the geographical and tribal allegiance. However, it is important to note, that in the last few years, there has been a rise in the number of northerners, who will accept a southerner as a president. The same is true for the southerners. Thus, even though the north-south dilemma still exists, it is not as severe as it used to be. That is probably the biggest difference between 2011 and today. If this trend prevails, we can say that there won’t be another violent transfer of power in Kyrgyzstan this time around.
However, considering the fact that there will be essentially three sides participating in the redistribution of power, namely, the current administration, north and south, it is important for them to reach a compromise regarding the distribution of authoritative powers, before the elections. In other words, it is not only the decision of who will occupy the presidential seat that is at stake, but also no less important decisions regarding who will become the new prime-minister, speaker of the parliament as well as who will occupy a slew of other key positions in the executive branch of the government. None of the listed arbitrary centers of power will be able to achieve success on their own, and there are many possible options and outcomes. In my opinion, it is the difficulty of this process that justified such an early start of the campaign.
The list of candidates from the ruling power may be very long in theory but is very limited in reality. It looks like the best options for the president would be either current mayor of Bishkek Albek Ibraimov or the first deputy head of the presidential cabinet Sapar Isakov, who was appointed to this position on January 31 2017. Other Atambaev-friendly candidates include Abdil Segizbaev – current head of the national security committee and the head of the Russian-Kyrgyz development fund Kubanychbek Kulmatov. But all of the listed candidates don’t have a chance to win on their own at the upcoming elections. Current prime minister has slightly better odds of winning. However, local experts claim that his chances are limited.
Being an experienced officeholder, prime minister Jeenbekov is, nonetheless, not a politician. And even though he is a decent manager, he doesn’t lacks leadership qualities and isn’t very charismatic. Also, having a certain weight in the south, he largely relies on familial clan ties and is largely unknown outside of Kyrgyzstan, thus having a weak domestic and foreign support.
It is also important to remember that after the local elections that were held last December, cities of Aidarken, Kadamjay, Kant, Kara-Balta, Tash-Kumyr and Cholpon-Ata still don’t have elected mayors. Parliaments in those cities might be disbanded, after which new elections must take place, for which there is no funds available.
This means that the ruling SDPK will have trouble on a local level. Thus, evidently the opportunities for using administrative resource at the upcoming elections will be limited. At the same time, an attempt at falsifying election results might prove suicidal.
On February 15, Bishkek held an international forum titled “Integrational Processes within the Framework of EAEU”. Among the invited were such politicians as Temir Sariev, Omurbek Babnov, Omurbek Tekebaev, Bakyt Torobaev, Kanatbek Isaev, Kanybek Imanaliev, Ahmatbek Keldibekov, Kamchibek Tashiev, Ibraimova and others.
It was hard for me to understand the goal of this forum. One things that was noticeable, was the fact that the ruling powers were represented by the deputy prime minister Oleg Pankratov, and the first session was facilitated by Azamat Dikambev who is the director of the institute for strategic research. In other words, representatives of the power were present, however in small numbers. There was a noticeable absence of diplomats at the forum, which seemed strange given the subject matter of the forum.
Local journalists have unofficially called the event “viewing of the bride”: the assumption being that the goal was to demonstrate that oppositional parties both parliamentary and non-parliamentary representing both north and south, were united in their support of the country’s membership in the EAEU, which one of the presenters called a historically correct political step.
It is hard to tell if the events had reached its goal, but I will note that Babanov, Tekebaev and several others invited, were missing. So, stating, as many in the media sphere did, that at the very least a union was created between Sarev, Babanov and Tekebeav and that Keldibekov, Madumarov and Tashiev agreed on advancing the same candidate, is a little too early. Even if certain agreements were reached, it is too early to talk about their sustainability.
As for strong and weak sides of potential candidates, according to local experts, I was able to talk to, the following is evident:
Omurbek Babanov is thought to be acceptable for Atambaev under certain conditions, is good at making agreements, has a decent political experience, is smart and charismatic, has always been close to people with real power, possesses significant financial resources, his team is professional and creative, his political platform is detailed, his has political connections in Russian and Kazakhstan, but he lacks foreign political support, views the country as a business venture and can easily betray government interests for the right price.
Temir Sariev is said to be likeable, has had a relatively good standing as a prime minister, however lacks the constituents in the south. His rating in the north is also not good enough. He doesn’t have a strong party or financial power, and is bad at making agreements; however he is good at keeping his word and can win the presidential race if other candidates will prove weak.
As for Bakyt Torobaev, he is said to not have enough political experience, doesn’t have an experience in public speaking and isn’t widely recognized in the country. He is completely unknown outside the country, but his party has support in the south as well as in the north, even though it doesn’t have a support countrywide; however it is popular among the rural population. He is also charismatic and financially well off. He is a mild nativist, even though there are more nativist people in his entourage, as well as George Soros’s associates. He is an outspoken critic of the ruling party and of the executive branch, which will mean that he will be a primary target of administrative counter-attacks.
Adahan Madumarov is said to possess necessary political experience, is a great orator and is acquainted with multiple politicians from the CIS region, including a possible Kazakhstani support (his wife is rumored to be a Kazakh citizen). He has a large constituency in the south, however at the moment he lacks the finances to run his own election campaign. His efforts to unite his base of migrant laborers from the south behind him, is viewed as a utopian idea that will require considerable funds to achieve. It is unlikely that this time Salynbekov – a prominent Kyrgyz businessperson, will support Maduarov. He is more likely to support another candidate, possibly Torobaev.
All of the listed candidates, with all of the variety of their political experience and importance, as well as financial and electoral capabilities, are united in their lack of outside support. Despite, Kyrgyzstan being an independent state, an objective weakness of its governmental institutions pushes potential candidates to search for an outside political support.
At the same, it is evident that since the last election cycle it is not only the balance of outside influence on Kyrgyzstan that has changed, but also the overall balance of powers in the region – there was a decrease in political influence of the US and a rise in the economic influence of China. However, China will not interfere directly into the presidential election process; pragmatic leaders there had long ago learned to act through financial instruments.
EU is experiencing internal struggles, and Kyrgyzstan is the last of its worries right now. However, EU is invested in preserving stability in this country and not letting another scenario of violent overtaking of power take place. Thus, Brussels will keep lending financial support to the government of Kyrgyzstan for the purposes of preserving the law, and will possibly allocate funds to conduct another round of local election in seven abovementioned cities, where since last december they weren’t able to elect new mayors.
Speaking of EU, it is important to note that Germany has its own, very concrete interests not only in Kyrgyzstan, but in all of central Asian countries, however this subject is a matter of separate research, and cannot be included in the discussion of private experiences of the recent trip to Kyrgyzstan.
As for Russia, central Eurasia has a concentration of strategic interests of the Russian state. However, we live in the times when Russian foreign policy with regards to the governments of the region more closely reflects current interests of the Russian business community. Such an approach lets us estimate that whoever the new president might be, the situation in his or her economy and in the area of security form outside threats, will allow Moscow to reach an agreement with whomever the winner is. There may be differing attitude to such an approach, but right now, that is the prevailing opinion in Moscow.
Also, it is important to remember that around 80% of Kyrgyz population, according to the existing sociological research, consider Russia as the main political ally. Due to this, a welfare-mentality is highly popular among Kyrgyz elites today, for some reason, and there is no surprise that the aforementioned forum was labeled “bride-watching”.
Another popular opinion is that a president will be whoever is confirmed by Moscow: “Putin will come, hand out funds to the leaders of clans and will announce the name of the new president”. Some even talk of the sum of 2 billion dollars that often appears in various rumors.
It seems that someone consciously exaggerates unfounded expectations from the upcoming visit of president Putin, as well as supposed direct involvement of Russia in presidential elections. At the same time, very few people mention that such an active involvement is against Russia’s interests, since it does not want additional pressure of handling Kyrgyzstan’s internal politics.
Also, there are rumors of “dark horses” going around, i.e. candidates that will appear out of the blue and will steal the victory. I won’t name any last names as to not offend anyone.
The insanity of the situation reaches the levels when even during commercial talks with staffers of potential candidates of the race some said “we will be the ones chosen by Putin and Moscow will pay for your services”. However the paradox of the situation is in the fact that the person that will have the best chance to win, will be the one that will be able to secure the support of both Russian and current Kyrgyz presidents. Thus, this time there won’t be a need for twenty or hundred registered candidates. The answer to the question of how he or she will achieve the victory is a great opportunity to make some money for various political con artists.
About the author
Andrey Medvedev is a Russian political expert and an executive director of ANO CPT PolitKontakt. The article was written based on the conclusions from his recent trip to Kyrgyzstan.