Business of politics, politics of business: fat cats in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential race
- Written by Douglas Green
LONDON (TCA) — Has Kyrgyzstan managed to accomplish what failed to happen in Russia and Kazakhstan (though both of them came close) – namely the position of a plutocracy under the guise of democracy, with the country’s rich having become powerful as well? For a country where up to one-third of the population still lives just on or way under the poverty line, this is bound to raise eyebrows. The worst thing is that those wielding the sceptre in a my-turn, your-turn sequence of top state functions, are not industrial barons who could lift the country’s economy up to better levels, but self-made tycoons feeding on largely speculative business.
The leading candidates in the presidential election scheduled for October 15 are former Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov, his predecessor Temir Sariyev and “opposition” tycoon Omurbek Babanov. The latter, for all it matters, is no newcomer in politics either. Born in 1970 in Kyrgyzstan’s northwestern Talas region and an agronomist by profession, he started his business in south Kazakhstan and then settled in Kyrgyzstan in 1993. He made a fortune on trade in cotton and petroleum products of which there was (and still is) a chronic shortage on the Kazakh side of the border.
Babanov entered the political arena shortly after the overthrow of the Bakiyev clan in spring 2010, and became Deputy Prime Minister in the Government of Almazbek Atambayev before the latter’s election as President. He was Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan from 1 December 2011 to 1 September 2012.
Sariyev also made his way up under Bakiyev’s rule. He put himself forward as a presidential candidate for the 2009 elections, receiving 6.74% of the votes. Born in the area west of Bishkek in 1963, he only graduated as an economist in 1989. He spent the first decade under Akayev as an industrial expert and manager.
Jeenbekov’s political career goes back to the days of Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan’s first President driven out by Bakiyev during the Tulip Revolution of 2005. Born in the southern Osh province and a zoologist and agro-expert by education who started as a collective farm director in Soviet times, Jeenbekov was elected to Parliament in 1995. In 2007, he joined the cabinet as Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources and Processing Industry.
In 2010, following Bakiyev’s downfall, he was nevertheless appointed provincial governor of Osh, and in 2015, he was appointed as Director of the State Personnel Service. In March 2016, he was appointed as First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, before his appointment as Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan – a post he left in August this year to prepare for the presidential race.
Windfall and lucky strikes
The most worrying aspect of Kyrgyzstan’s political elites’ wealth is that virtually none of it is connected with core assets needed for the country’s overall economic improvement. The bulk of the personal fortunes have been made on large-scale trade in consumer goods and real estate. Both are ruled by the windfall and lucky strikes. The number of glossy plaza towers harbouring luxury apartments, plush office space and uppity shopping space in Bishkek is astounding, as is the number of sumptuous luxury villas and estates on the capital’s outskirts. Here the first- and second-tier oligarchs of Kyrgyzstan live, feeding on income most of which is by and large of speculative character.
As for the outgoing head of state Almazbek Atambayev, he made the first steps in his political career in 2005, when he became Minister of Industry and Commerce under Bakiyev. The next year, the cabinet broke up, but in 2007 Atambayev reappeared as Prime Minister. He resigned soon afterwards, having fallen out with Bakiyev. During the uprisings in 2010, he was arrested with a group of other leading figures (including Sariyev) days before the ousting of the Bakiyev clique. Shortly after it was all over, Atambayev popped up once more as the head of the cabinet until he won the December 2011 presidential elections.
Babanov has his own political party called Respublika. His main rival — Jeenbekov, as well as Atambayev, belongs to the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan which has dominated Kyrgyzstan’s political Olympus since the transition to a parliamentary system in the fall of 2010. The most striking feature which all the players in the race for the presidency share is that none of them seem to be poor, even to global standards let alone in a cash-strapped country with a gross domestic product (2016) worth 458 billion som, or the equivalent of around 6.5 billion US dollar, and an industrial output valued at 205.3 billion som or just below $3 billion.
According to data compiled by the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights Atambayev has been recorded by Forbes as worth in the order of $600 million, while Sariyev got a price tag in the range between $120 and $150 million. Jeenbekov does not appear on the list, but Babanov is supposed to be Kyrgyzstan’s richest man (possibly excluding a number of criminal syndicates’ bosses outside the official ranks) with a fortune of around $1.5 billion.
‘Provocative and false’
As it appears, the tycoon-dominated high echelons of Kyrgyzstan’s political life are keen on displaying their “patriotic” zeal – not in the least towards neighbouring states where hierarchic rule centered around the head of state prevails. In a speech made late last week, Atambayev showed little consideration for Kazakhstan’s political state of affairs, and accused Astana of trying to undermine Kyrgyzstan’s state authority, the Bishkek-based news agency AKIpress reported.
"The Bakiyevs still hold their parties in Kazakhstan. I still hear from some Kazakh officials that the Bakiyevs were right to shoot people, because we are showing a bad example for Kazakh people," Atambayev stated bitterly.
In a reaction, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan sent a 'strong protest' in connection with Atambayev's observations into the public domain, qualifying the statement as “provocative and false”, in the words of the state news agency Kazinform. Earlier, Atambayev had scowled Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev for holding highly publicised talks with Babanov. Hapless PR or a Shakespearian scenario taking on regional proportions? Time will tell…