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Anniversary of Jeenbekov's Reign: The Main Dilemmas of the President

«Sooronbay Jeenbekov had time to take a close look at the ups and downs of more than one ruler. Having come to power, he cannot but be aware that power is both honor and burden. To adequately stay in it, it is necessary to go through more than one cay of dilemmas. The first year of the presidency has already presented several challenges. Some have been passed, the most are still to come» – expert Elmira Nogoibaeva noted in her article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Summary of the article:

  • Sooronbay Jeenbekov managed to avoid the expected patronage of the former boss;
  • Jeenbekov’s foreign policy can now be called the format of a crisis manager;
  • The style of the Jeenbekov family and some of his statements demonstrate high religiosity;
  • President Jeenbekov does not have a well-coordinated, dedicated and initiative team yet.
The fortune brought Jeenbekov to the political olympus. Photo: president.kg

The story does not reveal, whether a shy young man from a remote from the center Karakuldzha village, located between Fergana and Alay mountain ranges, ever dreamed of becoming a president. However, it is known for sure that he became on November 15, 2017 at the national elections of the Kyrgyz Republic, having gained 54.76% of votes.

It is quite difficult to say that Sooronbay Jeenbekov long and inquisitively walked towards this highest political hypostasis. Yes, his path was not easy, but how much the presidency itself was the goal? The goals of various politicians of the independence period, aspiring to the olympus, vary widely. For some, it is finance, for others – blood, sweat and life.  For example, the path to the presidency of two Jeenbekov’s contemporaries – two Omurbeks.  One – a young and ambitious Omurbek Babanov, not for the first time went all-in to an old dream – the presidency, but his dream each time collapsed in one step, more precisely in a few percent from success.  The other countryman Omurbek Tekebaev is a consistent proponent. A convincing competitor to any politician in Kyrgyzstan, with almost 30 years of experience in the struggle in power, who went through all the tables of politics. Perhaps for this reason he is in prison at the time of the election campaign, not without the involvement of the ex-President Atambaev.

So, the fortune brought Jeenbekov to the political Olympus. It is not easy to be the president of Kyrgyzstan, which survived two either coups or revolutions, with an unbridled civil society and in spite of everything a freedom-loving temper. Each president here, coming to power, was convinced that the country was governable, like all institutions and the society. And each time made the same mistakes. Sooronbay Jeenbekov had time to take a close look at the ups and downs of more than one ruler. Having come to power, he cannot but be aware that power is both honor and burden. To adequately stay in it, it is necessary to go through more than one cay of dilemmas. The first year of the presidency has already presented several challenges. Some have been passed, the most are still to come.

Dilemma I.  A solo player?

Here the story moves away from a possible predetermination. Having become the fifth president of the independent state of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov managed to avoid the expected patronage of the former boss. Initially and rather delicately he has quite successfully passed the first dilemma that he faced at his presidency. Later Almazbek Atambaev, returning to reality, will clearly see and understand that his adult and independent, recently loyal employee does not want to be just a puppet. Then a new round of revanchist wars will begin, and more precisely, political cycles which are already peculiar to Kyrgyzstan. Each successive president rejects the previous one and pursues his henchmen. By the way, Almazbek Atambaev honed this principle both in practice and in constant rhetoric, laying the political tradition to abuse and blame previous presidents. The boomerang made a circle and returned.

The first year of Sooronbay Jeenbekov passed, one of six. It is just a beginning, but the initial style of Jeenbekov’s presidency is already emerging. This is a laconic and moderate leader, which sharply contrasts with the previous president. His tread is still cautious, perhaps even too much. In any case, the outline of the policy itself has not yet decided. The current president is rather introverted; he does not make hasty steps. In a southern manner, he is diplomatic and honorable to his colleagues – the leaders of the neighboring countries in the region and foreign policy partners. For this, they still kindly include him into their circle. Even if he is a head taller, he tries not to step forward. Courtesy and laconicism are more his advantages than shortcomings.

Outer radius

The presidency of Sooronbay Jeenbekov falls on the gradual and consistent formatting of the Central Asian region, which today is more oriented towards a centripetal movement. A long standoff between all of its leaders is gradually being replaced by rapprochement.

The new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who sets the tone, demonstrates goodwill to Kyrgyzstan and its leader. It is no coincidence that Jeenbekov’s presidency began with an unprecedentedly positive rapprochement with Uzbekistan over the past decade. A conservative and undisputed regional leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev, also quite favorably treated the new president of Kyrgyzstan. Fraternal ties of the Kyrgyz-Kazakh leaders that recently were at the dead end moved to the thaw stage.

The policy of Jeenbekov did not change its coordinates of the far vision. His loyalty to Russia was immediately determined. He even supported the initiative with the introduction of a common currency in the EEU. More optimistic than the other more experienced members of this organization[i]:

The EEU is our future; Russia was, is and will be our main strategic partner and ally. I really believe in the future of the EEU, we have a powerful potential. We will also come to a common currency.
Sooronbay Jeenbekov demonstrated that Russia is still the main focus in the policy of Kyrgyzstan. At the same time remains fairly moderate in relation to other vectors in foreign policy; China, Europe or other countries.

Russia is still the main focus in the policy of Kyrgyzstan Photo: president.kg

It is symbolic that President Jeenbekov made his first state visit to China, taking part in the meeting of the Summit of the Heads of the SCO States in Qingdao in June 2018. The interaction with a large neighbor is actively developing primarily at the bilateral level, especially in trade and economic relations. In the Year of Development of the Regions of Kyrgyzstan, it was managed to convince the Chinese side to allocate a grant of 600 million Yuan for the implementation of projects to create a scientific and innovative agricultural technological parks, to equip veterinary and phytosanitary laboratories, to develop the road network in Bishkek, and to provide drinking water to remote areas of Kyrgyzstan.

It was managed to reconcile with Turkey, returning the favor of the Turkish leader. After the four-year break, the IV meeting of the High Council for Strategic Cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Turkey was held.

A rather complacent vector, but with a slight eye to the north is being formed in relation to Europe and the USA.

Assuming that Kyrgyzstan and its new president have enough resources and maneuver for a uniform multi-vector policy would be naive. However, until this balance is broken. Jeenbekov’s policy in foreign policy can now be called the format of a crisis manager.

Islam is one the accents on which the president did emphasis. Time will show how this will affect the interaction with the Islamic world, especially in competing areas and the countries representing them. First year is a year of adaptation.

Some statements of Jeenbekov demonstrate high religiosity. Photo: president.kg

The style of Jeenbekov’s family and some of his statements demonstrate high religiosity in domestic policy. On one hand, this has already caused suspicion among supporters of the gentiles embodied in the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic. On the other hand, it strengthened the obvious paradox at the state level, which actively declares and fights against extremism and terrorism, but at the elite level it demonstrates full adherence to only one confession – Islam. 

Dilemma II. The style – between conservative and current

In general, if we talk about the overall style of Jeenbekov, in the most it returns to Soviet aesthetics. It is typical of all his formats of meetings, events, semi-congresses that are more and more similar to the mass cultural meetings of recent times either with the youth (recently sworn to the previous leader) or representatives of professional niches (from the same series). It is such a familiar format in which nostalgia has not yet developed, rather the opposite – absolute immunity from mass imitations.

Sooronbay Jeenbekov is at the opening of the Republican Youth Congress in November 2018. Photo: president.kg

The former Soviet party and nomenclature activist is well observed in this. This format strongly contrasts with the constantly updated style of current political communications in the world – meetings, venues, discussions.

Today, Jeenbekov’s style, if not from the Soviet Renaissance, but rather more likely from modern Eastern, neighboring despots. It is more a step back than forward. In addition, it is less effective and even provocative for Kyrgyzstan, with its active civil society and moods. The openness and naturalness of political manifestations of any level would be more appropriate, from official conferences in the residence to holding working meetings. From here is the immediate reaction in the society – known memes, on corresponding reactions, not phrases.

By the way, the president’s colleagues in the region set the tone in innovative directions. It demonstrates not even fashion, but evidence of the ability to “keep a finger on the pulse”. President of Turkmenistan at car and horse races; Uzbekistan’s mobile leader with current agreements from Sorbonne to Silicon Valley; even Nursultan Nazarbaev with a golf stick looks quite organic.

The dynamics of change around the world sets the pace not only for societies, but first and foremost for leaders. Especially where there is competition, technology and openness.

Dilemma III.  The team?

In the meantime, in all aspects cautious Jeenbekov, still looking around, chooses tested but old methods. This is well demonstrated by the current Cabinet of the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, its composition and agenda. Apparently, a good old peasant axiom – “the old horse will not spoil the furrow” is dominant for the current president.

Even for the implementation of a long-awaited and modernist by Kyrgyz standards “Digital Kyrgyzstan” program has been appointed the first vice-premier Kubatbek Boronov. On one hand, the appointment of an experienced and profound manager is justified, the implementation of the project is simply necessary for Kyrgyzstan. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine how you can control the situation without understanding the subject. The answer lies in two obvious motives of the president, which very well characterize the situation. The first one is a banal pervasive corruption, with which all of his predecessors unsuccessfully fought, calling this endless process the next reform. The second motive is the team. President Jeenbekov does not have a well-coordinated, dedicated and initiative team yet. 

All appointed are his former colleagues in the vertical and horizontal of power. The majority of them are those who recently were part of previous teams. They have proven themselves at best to be conservative.

Sooronbay Jeenbekov needs to understand that he is no longer an executor. He is an independent leader of an independent state who must lead his people forward. He inherited a weak, rotten, inefficient system. Recruiting similar cadres to his team, among which it is difficult to name outstanding, independent personalities, especially current professionals, he restores the old lifeless scheme again. Such a construction, like a decayed ship, may soon again give a leak. And there are still five years ahead, which will either push the country and society even further back or push for development.

Dilemma IV. Vision of the future?

The vision of the future was lost under Bakiev and finally collapsed under Atambaev. Neither of them could form it for themselves and even worse – for the society. It is not easy to answer the question “why did you come to power?” It requires pure reason and courage, first of all to oneself.

Different things depend on this vision. For example, the mood of the country, the people in front of whom was given the oath promising to exit from the crisis. The migrants from Osh region who need answers to the questions – in which country they will live tomorrow, what is prepared for their children for that hard money they earned in migration? What about the own future of the president after the presidency? It is not a secret it is more likely and often sad for all ex-presidents of Kyrgyzstan. Especially those who did not think about this future or quickly forgot.

Such a simple but important thing is trivially dependent on the vision of the future – will there be an independent or not so much the Kyrgyz state in the foreseeable future?

So far, this vision and even its immediate prospect, has not been determined. Rather, the president did not announce it. Let’s hope that he has it. You would agree that the lack of a development horizon is not the best strategy for a person, family and state for five or more years ahead.

Dilemma V. Mistakes of predecessors.

The political history of Kyrgyzstan through the prism of former presidents is quite rich and instructive, especially for what not to do.

Family is the first lesson. When the family replaces the team – this is the most difficult. Perhaps because of this people put the most disturbing analogies of Jeenbekov’s clan in parallel with Bakiev’s clan from the biography of the presidents themselves to a friendly fraternity, from the doubtful sides of the biographies of their individual representatives to the regional personnel preferences, from the conservative party-collective farm-nomenclature style to returning to the surrounding of cadres already familiar and approved by the previous clan.

Maybe this is just inertia, or coincidence – time will show. Keeping the family under control is difficult; it grows both horizontally and vertically. This is where not only a political will is needed.

See the window of opportunities. Concentrate not only on Kyrgyzstan, as on one big village, and its regions, but to see broader horizons and prospects, and have time to use them. This requires professionals, mobility and a strategic approach to the development of the state. This is far from what we have started to denote by “strategies” – similar to worthless dissertations that filled the long-standing Higher Attestation Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic. Strategy is not a multi-volume about all and nothing. This is a road map of development, just for those five years or more, depending on the ambitions and capabilities of the current leader of the state.

Sooronbay Jeenbekov being a president should nevertheless decide on the type of his leadership: he is either: a) a conservative “collective farm chairman”; b) an Asian “Eastern Pasha”; c) the modern leader of an independent state; or d) a crisis manager? The prefix “father of the nation” is better to avoid, it is a bad form indeed.

The style will set the dynamics and maybe a perspective too. Again, the key to this: the goal, the team and methods.

Law enforcement officers under cover. About the methods of “Trio”. The temptation to pull off the law enforcement unit is not a good idea. First, this is the basin, which can always tip over. Secondly, it is still better to understand the limits of own authority. The wider they are, the more responsibility. This is well remembered from predecessor Roza Otunbaeva, not trying to take on too much; only that authority which is prescribed by the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic. This significantly makes the system more mobile, setting the balance and eventually upgrading it.

Is it worth it to pull on oneself the blanket of the law enforcement trio: the Security Council of the Kyrgyz Republic, the prosecutor’s office, the National Security Committee? I remember that Atambaev pulled it much. Neither to citizens, nor to Almazbek Atambaev himself had it become safer within the state. It backfired later.

Yes, and the parliament. Parliamentarism is in fact, an aquarium system. There should be different parties, leaders, and competitive ideologies would be a good idea. Otherwise, the environment becomes stale. In addition, you cannot get used to have party favorite fish. This is fraught with consequences; they grow into sharks and swallow other competitors. The remaining are smalls or clingfish. A pet parliament is a dead body. Maybe an obedient, but the society, starting with the basis – the laws, is gradually rotting. The next stage is swamp.

For all imitations it is needed to take and bear responsibility. Does it need it??

«And» or «or». Do you remember Akayev’s dilemma, then Bakiev’s? Atambaev did not escape from it either. Foreign policy vector is important! It was difficult to understand when in 1993 Turkmenistan declared a “direction to neutrality”. After a quarter of a century, turning around, we see that it was an attempt not only to conserve, but gradually to develop its own policy, without fanatical devotion to one external player. Maybe this exotic by that time move was quite rational, given the modern pragmatic foreign policy of this country in terms of disposing of its national resources?

Today it is obvious that the policy of absolute loyalty by one is quite risky. Since nothing is forever, everything changes. Where the leader of the position was yesterday, tomorrow may be isolation. Sovereignty as an action is difficult to implement, but there is no sense in it without its implementation.

Dilemma VI.  Sovereign?

Can that dreamy young man eventually become a real leader? Will he be able to overcome the existing inertia, and not become only an executor within the system, and a puppet in the outside world?

The first year, the expectations of the ex-patron and of society as a whole say yes.

In this trap of overcoming, Sooronbay Jeenbekov has three circles of the dilemmas labyrinth:

The first is a family clan. Perhaps it is the most difficult one. It is difficult not to become its hostage, in the conditions of the “existing traditions”. Taking to account the pattern of patriarchal society – the more power you have, the bigger the family, respectively, more countrymen, relatives and friends, colleagues, and so on to infinity. Being a hostage of the family in politics does not mean to manage it, it means to obey it.

The second is professional, inertial. It is not easy to enter the role of a leader, especially a leader of a nation being an executor for years. However, the first step has been made: to overcome loyalty to such an expressive leader patron as Atambaev, you need to have a personal core; meaning that there is one. The second level in this is not to repeat the mistakes of predecessors. It is never too late to learn, especially to manage the state. The team and advisers should be real, not formal. Then they can easily drop the responsibility and go into loyalty to the next president, there is too much experience of imitations.

The third is the state, strategic. We often like to cite the example of Ataturk. The phenomenon above all is in full acceptance of responsibility for the future of the country. He understood this as a strategist and accepted as a warrior.

Karakuldzha is a harsh land. The region that holds its space between two giants – Fergana and Alai ranges. This is a permanent frontier. Here live people who are very familiar to dilemmas. The main thing is to understand and make a step forward.


This article was prepared as part of the “Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes” Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinion expressed in the article does not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.

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