The Hijacking of Kyrgyzstan’s Political Revolution
Kyrgyzstan has entered uncharted political waters. After weeks of protests, the nation’s political power is now concentrated in the hands of a new leader, who, until four weeks ago, was serving an 11-year prison sentence for kidnapping. Against a complex background of competing narratives and political interests, much about Kyrgyzstan’s new reality remains opaque. What is known, however, raises serious questions about the future of Central Asia’s only democracy.
Protests began in Bishkek on October 5 in response to the results of parliamentary elections held the previous day. Just four parties, three of them seen as loyal to then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, cleared the seven per cent threshold of total votes to win seats in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament.
Protesters alleged that serious irregularities, including the misuse of public funds and widespread vote buying, had compromised the results of Kyrgyzstan’s “dirtiest” ever elections. Through the night, they managed to occupy both the national parliament and the presidential offices, lighting fires and destroying government documents.
Within days, the election results had been annulled, the Prime Minister had resigned and the President was nowhere to be seen. Initially, opposition parties seemed united in their claims to power in the absence of any governing authorities. However, rather than a democratic reformation, the turmoil instead created a power vacuum, setting off an intense power struggle from which the country is only now emerging.
‘The Opposition’ in Kyrgyzstan is by no means a homogenous grouping. Kyrgyzstani politics is highly fractious and factionalised, organised more around individual personalities than strict ideological adherence. Amid the chaos in the days after October 5, competing groups of protesters freed imprisoned political figures seeking to capitalise on the instability.
One of those freed was ex-MP Sadyr Japarov, who had been serving an 11-year term for kidnapping. Japarov managed to quickly establish himself as a major player in the national power struggle, backed by well-organised and often violent crowds of supporters who demanded his appointment as prime minister.
In a sign of Kyrgyzstan’s volatile political atmosphere, a group of MPs staying at a Bishkek hotel declared Japarov prime minister on October 6, while a separate group of parliamentarians submitted a parallel nomination for a different candidate the next day. They cited Japarov’s lack of quorum and adherence to parliamentary procedure as reasons for their nomination.
It would take a further week of power plays and competition between rival camps before President Jeenbekov reluctantly confirmed Japarov as prime minister. Despite expressing a desire to continue in office until new elections could be held, public pressure from Japarov’s supporters in the street and a desire to avoid “bloodshed” led Jeenbekov to resign on October 15. The interim presidency then fell to Japarov, now exercising the powers of both the presidency and the prime ministership.
The speed and apparent ease of Japarov’s meteoric rise from prisoner to political linchpin has not gone unnoticed. Organised crime is believed to exert enormous influence on Kyrgyzstan’s politics and persistent questions over Japarov’s rumoured links to criminal groups have not yet yielded satisfying answers.
An OpenDemocracy investigation has uncovered a sophisticated online campaign promoting Japarov. Large, rapidly established, social media groups present a lionised image of Japarov as a nationalist hero, raising concerns that he is benefitting from a deliberate misinformation campaign organised by third-parties. These groups have been instrumental in enabling his supporters to effectively organise. Physical presence at rallies and on the streets is key to political legitimacy in Kyrgyzstan.
Some commentators have suggested Japarov received backing from Raimbek Matraimov, a notorious former corrupt customs official alleged to head a massive money laundering network. Matraimov was briefly detained on October 20 pending further investigation. Whether his arrest forms part of a genuine anti-corruption drive, or is simply a legitimacy-building exercise for Japarov, remains to be seen.
In a region dominated by Soviet-era autocrats, Kyrgyzstan has a relatively strong democratic history. Until the October elections, ballots in Kyrgyzstan had been regarded as generally competitive. The peaceful transition between presidents Atambayev and Jeenbekov in 2017 was lauded as a historic moment in Central Asia’s political development.
The lingering weaknesses of the country’s political institutions, however, have left it open to corruption and unable to respond effectively in times of crisis. The genuine grievances that sparked Kyrgyzstan’s protests have largely been forgotten as factions from across Kyrgyzstani society have sought to capitalise on the chaos.
Kyrgyzstan will now have to face new elections in the coming months. Japarov has already insinuated that he will seek constitutional amendments that permit him to run for a full presidential term. Most alarmingly, protests over the misuse of power and a lack of government transparency have seemingly produced a singularly powerful figure with shadowy backers, rather than genuine democratic reform. For Central Asia’s only democracy, this is a precarious moment.
Samuel Garrett is The Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.