Kyrgyzstan is on the brink of a full-blown political crisis following police attempts to arrest ex-President Almazbek Atambayev that left one policeman dead and more than 50 people injured. Atambayev detained yesterday in a second police attempt following violent clashes with his supporters.
The Central Asian country, which has seen two revolutions in less than two decades, has witnessed a standoff between ex-leader Atambayev and his protégé-turned-foe President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. The two men were once friends, and Atambayev backed Jeenbekov's candidacy in the 2017 vote. But they fell out just months after Jeenbekov's inauguration as Atambayev publicly criticized his successor.
Atambayev, who was in office from 2011 to 2017, accused President Jeenbekov of fabricating false criminal charges against him to stifle criticism. Atambayev was stripped of his immunity from prosecution in June. The 62-year-old has rejected the allegations and in turn accused the current authorities of an abuse of office. He urged his supporters to rally yesterday in the capital, Bishkek, to demand Jeenbekov's resignation.
Shopping malls and other businesses began shutting down Thursday ahead of the planned rallies, reflecting fears of widespread looting that accompanied earlier violence. Atambayev's supporters, however, changed course and headed back to his countryside residence instead of rallying in the capital, apparently fearing another attempt by the authorities to arrest him.
On Wednesday, the confrontation escalated when the security service announced an operation to seize Atambayev from his compound outside Bishkek, the capital of the Muslim-majority nation of six million people. Atambayev's supporters took six policemen as hostages, but released them yesterday. Jeenbekov condemned his predecessor yesterday after a law enforcement officer was killed. "Atambayev and his supporters put up armed resistance with the use of a firearm. They have gone far beyond the law," President Jeenbekov said, addressing an emergency session of parliament called to discuss the crisis. Atambayev said he fired several shots when police came to arrest him Wednesday, adding that he "tried not to hit people." Jeenbekov said Atambayev should face charges for firing at police.
The violence has raised the threat of a new round of turmoil in the ex-Soviet nation, which borders China and hosts a Russian military air base. Kyrgyzstan's first two presidents after independence were both driven from office by riots. The standoff has drawn in Russia, the country's Soviet-era ruler and traditional political patron, where hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz people work as migrant laborers. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with both Jeenbekov and Atambayev in Moscow in a bid to defuse the confrontation.