Kyrgyzstan was on the brink of a full-blown political crisis Thursday after special forces failed to capture the former president during a raid on his compound which left one officer dead and a police chief in a critical condition.
The Central Asian state, which has seen two revolutions in less than two decades, has been roiled by a standoff between ex-leader Almazbek Atambayev and his protege-turned-foe President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Parliament in June stripped Atambayev of his immunity as a former president and the state prosecutor brought corruption charges against him — moves that supporters of the one-time leader say are politically motivated.
Atambayev has ignored police summonses for questioning and on Wednesday the confrontation escalated when the security service announced an operation to seize him from his compound outside Bishkek, capital of the Muslim-majority nation of six million people.
On Thursday Atambayev announced a rally for later in the day, in the same area of the capital where his supporters gathered at the start of a popular uprising in 2010.
Kyrgyzstan’s people “will never live on their knees, will not be collective farm sheep, will not be slaves of the ruling clan,” he said in a broadcast on the television channel he owns.
Atambayev also pledged to release police special forces officers held by his supporters following a night of clashes at his residence in the village of Koi-Tash.
An AFP correspondent saw police and hundreds of Atambayev supporters hurl stones at each other in Koi-Tash late Wednesday, where internet and mobile networks appeared to have been cut by authorities.
The correspondent saw some supporters forcibly disarm and beat special forces officers whom they then took hostage.
The health ministry said a special forces officer had died from a gunshot wound and the head of the Chui province police department was in a critical condition after being concussed during the clashes.
The ministry said 52 people had been injured in the clashes, around half of whom were law enforcement.
Early Thursday President Jeenbekov convened a meeting of the state security council, after talks between Atambayev’s representatives and the interior minister broke down.
Jeenbekov said during the meeting that Atambayev had “rudely flouted the Constitution and laws of the Kyrgyz Republic” by resisting detention.
Parliament also called an emergency session.
The standoff has drawn in Russia — the country’s Soviet-era master and traditional political patron — where hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz work as migrant labourers.
Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin met with both Jeenbekov and Atambayev in Moscow in a bid to defuse the confrontation.
Erica Marat, Associate Professor at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. said Atambayev’s outreach to Putin shows that “he clearly sees himself as a viable political figure in Kyrgyzstan”, emboldening his stance against the incumbent leader.
Marat said the pair’s confrontation is symptomatic of Kyrgyzstan’s failure to reform security institutions and courts.
“Jeenbekov must now decide whether to escalate violent confrontation with Atambayev’s supporters or negotiate,” Marat said.
Jeenbekov and Atambayev were once friends, and the former leader backed the incumbent in 2017 elections that marked an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power between heads of state.
But they fell out just months after Jeenbekov’s inauguration as Atambayev publicly criticised his successor and security services arrested several key Atambayev allies.
Political analyst and video blogger Azim Azimov raised fears that the standoff might devolve into a “civil conflict… if both sides decide to take it to the end.”
“This is the most scary potential outcome,” he said in a video published Thursday morning.