BISHKEK (Reuters) - Hours after claiming victory in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, Almazbek Atambayev described himself as “a peaceful man” intent on bridging the ethnic and social divisions that have periodically erupted in the former Soviet republic.
A supporter of two popular revolts to depose authoritarian leaders, the silver-haired prime minister pledges a more inclusive form of leadership to suit the “nomadic and democratic spirit” of the people in the mountainous Central Asian state.
He knows that, if he does not, he runs the risk of a third revolution. Supporters of his defeated challengers say they were muzzled by voting abuses and are threatening street protests in the restive south of the country.
“I’m a team player,” Atambayev said. “I don’t want to strengthen the authority of the president.”
A self-made businessman, 55-year-old Atambayev has front-line experience of a leader overstepping his mark. He stood side-by-side with Kurmanbek Bakiyev when the Tulip revolution of 2005 ousted Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet leader, Askar Akayev.
The two men later fell out. Atambayev claims he was poisoned by a glass of water served to him in his office during a brief spell as prime minister under Bakiyev, whom he accused of breaking pre-revolutionary promises to weed out corruption.
Under Akayev, Atambayev had grown frustrated when the state reappropriated factories he had purchased with the proceeds of his first business: a publishing house that made him a rich man in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
A sometime poet with a passion for classic novels, Atambayev himself translated books from his native Kyrgyz language into the Russian he polished during his student years in Moscow.
A close associate said he bought the KyrgyzAvtoMash plant for around half a million dollars, putting his education in engineering and economic management to use by transforming the run-down factory into a thriving producer of car radiators.
He managed to retain the plant and sold it after Akayev — to whom he lost a presidential election in 2000 — was eventually forced from power in Kyrgyzstan’s first revolution.
After falling out with Bakiyev, Atambayev once more found himself in opposition — losing his second presidential election in 2009 — until the April 2010 revolution that set in motion reforms to make parliament the main decision-making body.
He played guitar and listened to rock music in the 1970s, the close associate said. But he was never a radical in opposition. His pragmatism and anti-corruption stance found favor with investors keen on the country’s metals resources.
In December 2010, he became prime minister again.
“As prime minister, Atambayev has proven himself as someone who can work for the people,” said Turat Sheikinov, chairman of an agricultural workers’ collective in Bishkek.
He has also built ties with Moscow, visiting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin several times and helping Russian gas giant Gazprom carve a share of the contract to supply fuel to the U.S. military air base that serves the NATO-led war in Afghanistan.
In comments sure to please Moscow, he has stated his opposition to extending the U.S. lease on the base beyond its current expiry date in 2014.
Some ethnic Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan have called him “another Putin”; their best bet for protection from a repeat of the violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that killed nearly 500 people in June 2010.
His support base in the Russian-leaning north of Kyrgyzstan contrasts with the Kyrgyz nationalist followers of his main opponents in the presidential election, most of whom live in the poorer, more agrarian south.
Atambayev has called for prison sentences for anybody who incites ethnic or inter-regional hatred. But his first comments after winning the election hint at reconciliation, rather than triumphalism. It is time to work, not to celebrate, he says.
“If the people have trust, that makes a strong politician, a strong president,” he said. “If the people don’t have trust, then no guns, tanks or bombs will help.”
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Editing by Jon Hemming