Kyrgyzstan in crisis as former president arrested after taking special forces hostage in botched raid

James Kilner
Atambayev, who was initially wanted for questioning as a witness in an investigation, initially repelled an attack on his compound - REUTERS

After a 24-hour siege, Kyrgyz special forces on Thursday captured former president Almazbek Atambayev in his fortified compound, an arrest that will test the stability of Central Asia’s most fragile state.

At least one special forces soldier was killed and 52 people were injured in a botched operation on Wednesday evening when government forces fought with armed supporters of Mr Atambayev, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s mentor-turned-nemesis.

Six soldiers were held hostage overnight before being released. Speaking at an emergency session of Parliament before his capture, Mr Jeenbekov called Mr Atambayev a criminal.

"By putting up fierce armed resistance to the investigative measures undertaken within the framework of the law, Almazbek Atambayev heavily trampled upon the constitution and laws of Kyrgyzstan," he said.

The eventual capture of Mr Atambayev, Kyrgyz president from 2011 until 2017, ends a six week stand-off which started when Parliament voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution on corruption charges. But for Mr Jeenbekov it also comes with major risks.

Injured supporters of former Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev guard his house Credit:  VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/ AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin had flown Mr Atambayev to Moscow in July for talks after which he publicly told the two men to make up.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has been kingmaker in Kyrgyzstan, which lies at the heart of Central Asia, a region it sees as vulnerable to radical Islam.

For Kyrgyzstan, Russia is a vital source of income, generating nearly half its GDP through remittances.

Erica Marat, Associate Professor at the National Defense University in Washington DC, said that the violent end to the stand-off had weakened Kyrgyzstan. "My biggest worry is Kyrgyzstan has entered a phase of political instability with Atambayev’s followers protesting against his trial,” she said.

Riven through with corruption, short of valuable minerals and landlocked, Kyrgyzstan is already considered the least stable country in Central Asia.

Supporters of the former President surround a member of state security forces, who was injured during an operation to detain Atambayev Credit:  VLADIMIR PIROGOV/REUTERS

It has suffered two violent revolutions since 2005 and ethnic violence in 2010 around Osh in the south of the country killed several hundred people. 

Kyrgyzstan’s politics are also fractious, based on personal relationships rather than policies. Broadly, Mr Atambayev draws his support from the north of the country and Mr Jeenbekov from the south. 

The two men had been friends and Mr Atambayev had handpicked Mr Jeenbekov as his successor as president in 2017 but it wasn’t long until they clashed. 

Supporters of the former president celebrate in his private residence after fending off the raid Credit: IGOR KOVALENKO/EPA

“Atambayev thought Jeenbekov would be a loyal successor and saw himself as a central political figure beyond presidency," Dr Marat said. "Jeenbekov is also an ambitious politician who prefers to be the centre of power in the country."

In Kyrgyzstan’s macho culture, TV images of Mr Atambayev’s supporters fighting off government forces on Wednesday evening will also damage Mr Jeenbekov’s reputation. 

Supporters of former Atambayev blockade a street in the village of Koi-Tash - the site of the former president's residence Credit:  VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP

One Western source based in Bishkek said that the botched security operation was “utterly embarrassing” for the Kyrgyz security forces.

Supporters of Atambayev guard his house Credit: VLADIMIR PIROGOV/REUTERS

The second attack, before dusk on Thursday, though, appeared to take Mr Atambayev and his supporters by surprise. Mobile phone footage showed a relaxed-looking Mr Atambayev shaking hands with supporters in his sprawling compound, on the outskirts of the capital Bishkek, when shouting punctured the relative calm.

Shots followed and Mr Atambayev’s bodyguards whisked him away. A couple of minutes later the government’s forces appeared to force their way into Mr Atambayev’s compound. He surrendered a short time later.