- Samuel Ornstein
The Kyrgyz Revolt
Image by: Abylai Saralayev / TASS
Kyrgyzstan, the “Island of Democracy” in Central-Asia has found itself in an ever-deepening crisis since its October elections. These elections have sparked heavy contestation from supporters of the opposition parties, which was followed by protests and riots which increasingly lay bare the faults of its government. The following seeks to construct the storyline which has developed over the past weeks with the aim of providing insight into the anarchic and chaotic political situation in Kyrgyzstan.
A logical starting point would be the aforementioned October elections. President Sooranbay Jeenbekov, who, according to surveys among the Kyrgyz population, led the country in the wrong direction, announced elections as they normally occur in Kyrgyzstan. Sixteen parties participated, but only four parties met the threshold of 7% of votes to be allowed to participate in government. Out of these four parties, two, Mekenym Kyrgyzstan and Birimdik, amassed around half of all votes. Interestingly, these two parties heavily favoured the incumbent government, which contradicts the aforementioned popular notion of the country moving in the wrong direction. It may not come as a surprise that the election has since been proven to be heavily influenced by vote buying and intimidation. Outside the capital, polling stations were “guarded” by people wearing caps sporting the emblem of Birimdik. They controlled the flow of voters coming in and out. This has widely been regarded as illegal and fraudulent behaviour. Furthermore, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan’s party list includes a member of the Matraimov family, which has been accused of funneling over 700 million US$ out of the country and being the main sponsor of the widespread corruption in public institutions.
After the results of the election became known, opposition supporters, mainly of eight parties who did not meet the threshold, took to the streets. The night of 5 to 6 October was marked by these protesters taking hold of a number of government buildings, including the Kyrgyz White House and the Kyrgyz State Security Department where a number of prisoners, including some political actors, were held. Jeenbekov, in the meantime, had fled the scene, his whereabouts still unknown – although he has made some public appearances, as stated in the following.
The Rise of Sadyr Japarov
One of the political actors freed from the security department is Sadyr Japarov, who will turn out to be the lead character for the rest of this story. Hours after being freed, he was declared Prime Minister by a number of parliamentarians, reportedly less than is the official quorum. In effect, this decision has been disputed among the Kyrgyz people. Nevertheless, Japarov has since succeeded in obtaining an increasing amount of power, silencing oppositions by releasing violent mobs at protests, as well as dispatching police and military forces. Japarov has little political experience, but has most notably been the leading figure in an anti-corruption program. Furthermore, he has led efforts to nationalize Kyrgyzstan’s largest goldmine. This led to him sparking protests and riots in the region where this goldmine lies. Subsequently, Japarov’s associates kidnapped a state governor with the aim of using him as leverage against the government to make them nationalize the mine. This kidnapping was the reason for Japarov’s arrest and sentencing to eleven years in prison, of which he served three before being freed by protestors.
After meeting with Jeenbekov in an undisclosed location, Japarov managed to convince the president-in-hiding to step down. According to the Kyrgyz constitution, if this is to happen, the speaker of the house will succeed him as interim-president. At this time, the speaker was Kanatbek Isayev, who refused to take the position in fear of it becoming a target on his back. This led to Japarov taking the reins and becoming President besides remaining Prime Minister. The kidnapping-allegations against him have since been reviewed, with the aim of Japarov being able to run for president in the January 10 elections, a date set by the Jeenbekov administration.
Japarov’s main focus in the second half of October has been to combat corruption in the country. He has reinstated the anti-corruption unit he used to lead, which has largely been accused of being a fugazi and a presidential tool. The jury is still out, however, on the credibility of Japarov’s promise to actually purge the government of corruption, as the acting president and prime minister allegedly has ties to organised crime, which he himself denies.
On October 20th, Japarov undertook a large first step to make good on his promise by having Rayimbek Matraimov arrested on corruption charges. However, scepticism is still warranted as Matraimov was shortly released after his initial detention with the promise of not leaving his residence until further investigations have been conducted. Similarly, underground kingpin Kamchybek Kolbayev was arrested on extortion and corruption charges on October 22nd. His Hollywood-style apprehension raised a lot of eyebrows and, in light of the developments around Matraimov, increased doubts on the credibility of Japarov to actually combat organised crime in Kyrgyzstan. Opacity of the Kyrgyz police force makes the entire situation even more difficult to assess, but it is deemed likely that a large number of high-ranking government officials are closely connected to Kolbayev and Matraimov, some even having attended the former’s birthday party.
This dramatic sequence of events in the upper echelons of Kyrgyz politics should not shift the focus away from the effect the turmoil has had on the Kyrgyz people. A country that already suffered from the pandemic quite heavily in terms of health and economy is pushed to the brink further and further, all while finding itself increasingly polarized. Institutions within the electricity and mining sectors find themselves in chaos due to heavily politicized management changes, which have recently led to power outages in Bishkek, the nation’s capital.
What does the future hold for Kyrgyzstan? Spectators claim the upcoming January elections are likely to be secured by Japarov, even though a number of other contenders aim for the presidency. One of them is former speaker of the house Kanat Isayev, who previously distanced himself from the function of acting president. On this matter, Isayev stated that “considering the current socio-political situation and the most important tasks which the legislative body of state power is facing on stabilizing the situation in the country, I decided to concentrate my efforts directly on work in the Parliament. Due to the fact that the term of the sixth convocation of the Parliament is expiring, I consider it impossible for myself to exercise the powers of the President” (source: 24.kg). Japarov and Isayev are the two most important contenders. Both having stepped down from their current public positions, as is required by the Kyrgyz constitution in order to run for president, the now-acting president is Talant Mamytov, a long-time ally of Japarov.
In the meantime, Japarov seeks to alter the Kyrgyz constitution before the election by means of referendum. The changes to the constitution would most notably include a lowering of the aforementioned 7% parliamentary threshold to 3%, with the aim of averting a similar situation as occurred early October. It is expected that the referendum will increase Japarov’s chances of winning the elections, but if this is not the case, Japarov has already stated he will not contest the outcome. Whatever happens, Kyrgyzstan faces a pivotal election period and a long ways ahead until the country is back to normal.