The last week of June was not a good one for two former presidents of post-Soviet countries. Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, once again found himself in pretrial detention following a month of freedom, while Kyrgyzstan’s fourth president, Almazbek Atambayev, has been stripped of his status as ex-president and immunity from prosecution by the Kyrgyz parliament, signaling imminent charges and possibly a prison term. 

The two investigations have several undeniable similarities. Both former presidents believe, not without reason, that the cause of their problems is the hostile attitude toward them of their countries’ current leaders: Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan and Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. In addition, both men are prepared to try to prove their innocence without fleeing the country. In fact, a year ago, Kocharyan voluntarily returned to Armenia from Greece when it emerged that he was under investigation on suspicion of attempting to overthrow constitutional order.

Both former presidents are typical clan leaders with notable numbers of supporters. Kocharyan is one of the prominent leaders of the “Karabakh clan”: a hero of the Nagorno-Karabakh War and the disputed territory’s former president. Atambayev is one of the founders of Kyrgyzstan’s Social Democratic Party, whose armed supporters played an important role in overthrowing and driving out the country’s second president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, in April 2010.

One final thing that the former leaders have in common is that their fates illustrate clearly how complex and risky the process of handing over power remains in the post-Soviet arena.

Atambayev was elected in 2011, in the wake of the April 2010 revolution. The post-revolutionary verve of those years was focused on creating a permanent barrier to the usurpatory ambitions of the politicians coming to power. Having overthrown two consecutive presidents who had attempted to establish a hereditary power dynasty, Kyrgyz society was convinced that the solution was to impose constitutional limitations on the number of presidential terms that could be served. Presidents were subsequently limited to one six-year term.

For the first few years of his presidency, Atambayev diligently demonstrated his readiness to abide by the constitutional rules, even launching a public countdown of the time he had left in office. But after a while, it turned out that the president had acquired a taste for power, and was now dismayed by the impending loss of power that would inevitably follow the end of his term in office.

And so, despite having promised not to change the constitution before 2020, Atambayev and his team began preparations for a referendum on doing so once again: this time to transfer some presidential powers to parliament, meaning the prime minister would essentially have what was previously presidential authority.

Many in Kyrgyzstan suspected that Atambayev himself was preparing to move to the post of prime minister. Once again, it appeared the country was facing the threat of power being usurped: the very danger against which people had risen up en masse back in 2010. Protests broke out across the country, and Atambayev was forced to promise that he would not seek the office of prime minister.

He then decided to explore another method of retaining his influence after stepping down as president. He selected his last prime minister, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, as his successor, and helped him to win the presidential election. For some reason, Atambayev had apparently decided that Jeenbekov would be a malleable toy in his hands, while Atambayev himself would take up the role of “father of the nation.”

Things turned out quite differently. The new president did not take kindly to Atambayev’s first public preachings, and soon the fourth and fifth presidents were at war. Jeenbekov gave the order to start prosecuting his predecessor’s closest allies over a corrupt scheme in which funds meant for the modernization of the Bishkek power station were siphoned off, resulting in an accident at the plant that left Bishkek homes without heating in freezing temperatures in January 2018.

Kyrgyz deputies subsequently launched a campaign to strip Atambayev of his status as ex-president, and with it his immunity from prosecution. Atambayev was accused by a commission of deputies of involvement in the power station corruption scheme, and of accepting a bribe in exchange for the illegal early release of a jailed organized crime boss, Aziz Batukayev, in 2013. Atambayev denies all the crimes of which he stands accused. On June 27, the parliament voted to remove the former head of state’s immunity from prosecution.

In Armenia, a similar plan to swap the post of president for that of prime minister at first appeared to have gone far more smoothly for Serzh Sargsyan in 2018, when he was elected as prime minister immediately after his presidential term ended. But there, too, it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the former president: his election prompted large-scale protests that resulted in Sargsyan’s resignation. One of the consequences of that peaceful revolution was the prosecution of former president Kocharyan, a close associate within the Karabakh clan of his successor as president, Sargsyan.

This is the shared backdrop for the double portrait of two former presidents now facing criminal charges who once headed two close countries—and allies of Russia—in the post-Soviet space.

It’s interesting to compare the relationships of the two former presidents with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kocharyan enjoys demonstratively friendly support from the Russian president, who sent Kocharyan a message while he was in pretrial detention and ordered the Russian ambassador to Armenia, Sergei Kopyrkin, to follow the judicial process closely. The ambassador met with the former president in mid-June in the brief period when Kocharyan was at liberty. Kopyrkin was subsequently summoned to Armenia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry where he was informed of the “inadmissibility of interfering in Armenia’s internal affairs.” This did not stop the diplomat from meeting with Armenia’s prosecutor general on the day that the ex-president was once again placed under arrest.

Nothing similar can be observed in the case of Atambayev. Despite his public attempts to remind Putin of their relationship, no rays of support from Moscow have been forthcoming. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov merely commented that the Kremlin did not intend to interfere in this “internal matter for Kyrgyzstan.” Atambayev is apparently paying for his previous forwardness: he had complained to Putin about Russian ministers.

And so we have two tales of how what seemed to be a complete and even successful transition of power in the post-Soviet world can end up. The handover in Kyrgyzstan was the first time in Central Asia that an elected president had served their constitutional term and relinquished power to the next elected president. Only then did problems emerge that could now torpedo what had appeared to be a democratic transition of power, since all those involved in the conflict are pointedly ignoring legal solutions to the crisis. 

The situation in Armenia looks a little more optimistic, since legal methods are so far leading attempts to resolve the crisis, even though this is a crisis that ultimately occurred as a result of a power transition that was formally legitimate, but essentially illegal, having been brought about by revolution, albeit a peaceful one.

Both transitions are encumbered by the burden of the past, which is particularly important in view of the fact that they are unfolding next door to Russia, which one way or another will have to experience a similar burden in the near future.

  • Arkady Dubnov