Every day, interest grows in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, which will take place on October 15. However people feel about incumbent Almazbek Atambayev, the country’s fourth president, he has stood by the country’s 2010 constitution, and agreed to leave the post after one six-year term. 

Even more impressively for Central Asia, nobody knows who Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president will be. Atambayev supports Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov, but that does not mean the outcome is certain. On the contrary, there’s a fierce fight ahead, with over 20 candidates already having registered their bids.

Major intrigue was added to the campaign by an unexpected visit to Bishkek from the speaker of Russia’s State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, at the end of June—just a week after Atambayev visited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Considering Volodin’s political influence as a former Kremlin strategist, his appearance in the Kyrgyz capital was perceived there as an attempt by Big Brother to familiarize himself with the situation ahead of the elections.

During the Moscow meeting between Putin and Atambayev, Putin decided (as Volodin put it) to forgive $240 million of Kyrgyz debt to “strengthen the strategic partnership,” according to the Duma’s speaker.

The two leaders also discussed the possibility of strengthening the Russian military base in Kant, a city 12 miles east of Bishkek. But Kyrgyzstan’s main military threats come from the south, which Kyrgyz security forces say has been penetrated by Islamic State terrorists and where Taliban insurgents could enter from Afghanistan via Tajikistan. So, instead, Atambayev suggested that Russia help strengthen the Kyrgyz border with Tajikistan and the southern Batken region.

Vyacheslav Volodin and Chynybaĭ Tursunbekov. Source: Anna Isakova/TASSPublicly, neither leader admitted discussing the upcoming presidential elections. Before traveling to Moscow, the outgoing president had already green-lighted his protégé, Jeenbekov. But the final decision of Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) has to be made at its convention, and right after Atambayev’s meeting with Putin on June 21, the party’s political council moved the convention to July 15 and fired Chynybaĭ Tursunbekov, the deputy leader of the SDPK and the speaker of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Council. Had Atambayev found out that his preferred candidate did not have conclusive support in Moscow?

In most other post-Soviet countries, the party leader’s decision would have determined the outcome of the convention, but not in Kyrgyzstan. The country is divided by a mountain range into two sections, north and south, each with its corresponding clans and elites. Jeenbekov and his family represent the south. It’s unlikely that the northerners will line up behind this presidential candidate, so rumors began swirling that Tursunbekov, a native northerner, was ready to put his name on the ballot, but as an independent. It is known that his candidacy also suits Atambayev.

The next president will have a decisive impact on Atambayev’s future. The outgoing president has long promised to remain in politics as the SDPK leader, and since his return from Moscow he has started saying that the most important future political event is the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections of 2020.

Is he implying that with his departure, the post of president will start to lose its importance in the parliamentary republic? And if his party wins an overwhelming majority of seats in three years, will the head of state become a ceremonial position, like in Germany? If so, it’s not in Atambayev’s interests to have a strong politician occupying the role through 2020.

A possible fracturing of the ruling party at its upcoming convention threatens Atambayev by challenging his authority. On the other hand, it’s possible he will offer the party a third, consolidated candidate: the head of his administration, Sapar Isakov. Isakov was for a long time chief foreign policy adviser for the president and has Atambayev’s full trust. Until recently he was considered his successor, though Isakov has said he does not intend to take part in the elections.

Sapar Isakov. Source: wikipedia.orgDuring Putin’s visit to Bishkek at the end of February, Isakov was one of the only bureaucrats presented to the Russian president, and Putin patted him on the shoulder as he walked by. This was enough for the public to label Isakov as a Kremlin sympathizer, though it did not increase his popularity in the country much: a pro-Russian stance has long been unable to guarantee success in Kyrgyz politics. And as a public politician, Isakov is unknown and too young, according to Kyrgyz opinion: he is about to turn forty.

For now, the two most serious contenders for the presidency are the two former prime ministers: the leader of the Ak-Shumkar party Temir Sariyev, and the leader of the Respublika party Omurbek Babanov. Both are extraordinarily wealthy and would prefer not to ruin relations with the current rulers to prevent the authorities from starting to ask unpleasant questions about their immense riches.

Among the other contenders are some familiar faces: the director of the International University of Central Asia Camilla Sharshekeeva; the human rights advocate Rita Karasartova; and politician Arstanbek Abdyldayev, who famously once promised his compatriots there would be no winter. Omurbek Tekebayev, the ex-speaker of parliament and leader of the nation’s oldest party, Ata-Meken (Homeland), submitted his bid from inside a detention facility, having been arrested on suspicion of fraud and corruption. He is considered the father of Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution.

Another promising candidate is the independent Talatbek Masadykov, a fifty-five-year-old graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the London School of Economics. Having never participated in domestic politics—for the last ten years he’s worked as the political director of a special UN mission in Afghanistan—he has nothing on his record to tarnish him. Judging by his experience and international connections, he has a remarkable capacity for solving conflicts. In Kyrgyzstan’s current confrontational climate, Masadykov’s election could bring reconciliation to a country tired of empty promises. 

There is one more factor that could influence the election campaign in Kyrgyzstan, and that is a Russian suggestion for Kyrgyzstan to send troops to Syria to observe and control the creation of four de-escalation zones there. This was announced by the head of the defense committee of the Russian Duma, General Vladimir Shamanov.

Kyrgyz officials immediately said that this was not being discussed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that the topic was not raised during Atambayev’s visit to Moscow. But Russia’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Gennady Gatilov, said of the issue on June 30 that “Russia isn’t forcing anyone,” indirectly confirming that what Shamanov had said was true. 

Given that the $240 million of canceled debt was described as a guarantee of the “strategic partnership” between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, it seems likely that Russia will “convince” Bishkek to take certain actions. Moscow’s arguments are probably along the lines of: “We’re assuring your security in the south, where you asked, in the area closest to Afghanistan, and in return you give us geopolitical support in Syria.” 

The fact that discussing this topic, not to mention making any decisions about it, is not what’s needed for a successful election campaign is another matter. The issue of Syria will therefore probably be left to the outgoing president, and Moscow will be open to conversation with whoever wins the election.

  • Arkady Dubnov