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Amid warning signs, the future of Kyrgyzstan’s politics is wide open

After the post-election street contest has died down in Kyrgyzstan, the country looks to the near future - with a chance for open political competition or the suppression of democratic institutions.

Andrew Wachtel
29 October 2020
Sadyr Japarov
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Source: President of Kyrgyzstan

For those who have not been following Kyrgyzstan closely, the situation has moved on from the heady scenes that accompanied this month’s parliamentary elections.

The contest initially appeared to lock into power political parties allied with president Sooronbay Jeenbekov. But after the results were announced residents in the capital Bishkek immediately took to the streets in protest. Despite the presence of riot police, protestors managed to break into parliament and other government buildings.

Debate swirls over the identities of the protestors and what exactly they were protesting, but a core contingent was undoubtedly composed of young, well-educated urban residents tired of endemic corruption and the subversion of democratic practices in Kyrgyzstan.

Two of Jeenbekov’s predecessors had authorised the use of lethal force against protesters and were subsequently forced to flee the country. Mindful of this history, Jeenbekov announced that his forces would not shoot and that he was open to annulling the results of the elections. His chosen prime minister resigned, and he offered to give up his own position if necessary.

As this was happening, a number of prominent prisoners were sprung from jail, including former president Almazbek Atambayev, former prime minister Sapar Isakov and a relatively obscure former legislator named Sadyr Japarov. Atambaev, once Jeenbekov’s former patron, immediately allied himself with the youthful contingent of revolutionaries and their proposed interim leader, charismatic businessman Omurbek Babanov. Isakov, probably the most intelligent of the group, managed to slip out of the country and has apparently asked for political asylum in France. Japarov, who had either been on the run or in prison for seven years until his incarceration, managed with amazing speed to gather forces, and set himself up as an alternative candidate for prime minister.

After Japarov’s forces roughed up a public meeting of Babanov and Atambayev, Jeenbekov declared a state of emergency and effectively ceded control to Japarov. Over a whirlwind few days, Japarov succeeded seemingly beyond his wildest dreams. He was first appointed prime minister by the sitting parliament, then successfully compelled Jeenbekov and the speaker of parliament to resign, whereby he became acting president. Following his swift ascent to power, Japarov postponed the re-run of parliamentary elections (initially slated for December) and instead announced presidential elections for 10 January. This is to be followed by a potential referendum on constitutional changes, and then an election of a new parliament.

Where are we now?

So far, in addition to politicking, Japarov has made some key ministerial and mayoral appointments seen as fairly reasonable. More important from a public relations perspective, he has announced that he will finally solve the problems of corruption that have plagued the country for decades.

As a first step to that end, Japarov authorised the arrest of two symbols of impunity: former deputy customs chief Raimbek Matraimov, generally understood to have been the main financier of the previous president; and criminal kingpin Kamchybek Kolbayev, who was seen as having been protected by previous presidents. Simultaneously, Japarov announced a financial amnesty plan under which corrupt former officials can escape prosecution if they return what they have stolen to the state coffers.

So far so good, perhaps. Yet many crucial questions remain unanswered.

Corruption is unquestionably Kyrgyzstan’s biggest issue. It plagues society at every level, from the day-to-day indignity of having to bribe the ubiquitous traffic and tax police, to endless scandals surrounding the crony capitalism that exclusively benefits those close to the country’s ruling classes. Japarov is correct in assuming that if he is perceived to be serious about putting a stop to this, his chances of holding onto power for the long haul are excellent.

Nevertheless, there is a huge gap between anti-corruption rhetoric and reality, and people appear to be skeptical. After all, Japarov is hardly the first Kyrgyz leader to claim the mantle of corruption fighter-in-chief. Indeed, it was the rallying cry of both his immediate predecessors, Jeenbekov and Atambayev. In practice, Kyrgyz anti-corruption has entailed the selective prosecution of political enemies and their replacement by allies who continue to benefit from the exact same schemes while adding new ones.

Concerns also surround Japarov’s own bona fides, given that he served for three years as the head of the anti-corruption agency under president Kurmanbek Bakiyev (who ruled from 2005 until his ouster in 2010), but was not perceived to have done anything to prevent the Bakiyev’s own kleptocracy.

Additionally, although Japarov made a great show of putting Matraimov and Kolbayev into prison, both have since, and quite swiftly, been placed under lenient house arrest, the former after promising to return 25 million USD.

Finally, there is the question of Japarov’s own financial support. Generally, people who have been on the lam or in jail for the better part of a decade do not have the personal resources to pay for the support of a large group of thuggish mercenaries. Japarov has not so far discussed the sources of his own financing.

Will nationalism suffice?

In addition to claiming to fight corruption, Japarov’s other gambit for solidifying support has been to make symbolic appeals to Kyrgyz nationalism. As opposed to his predecessors, he almost always appears in public wearing distinctive Kyrgyz national headgear, and he speaks publicly only in Kyrgyz (previous leaders tended to use both Kyrgyz and Russian in public).

Playing the nationalist card would seem to make sense. Some 80% of the country’s population are ethnic Kyrgyz, and nationalist rhetoric in many countries, democracies or otherwise, has often proven to be a successful tactic in gaining votes. Still, there are dangers to this approach. Russian remains a preferred language of Kyrgyzstan’s educated elites, especially in the capital. And, given geopolitical realities, no Kyrgyz leader can get away with alienating the Russian Federation, which retains an air base not far from Bishkek.

Furthermore, Japarov’s power grab and apparent willingness to run roughshod over Kyrgyz democratic institutions have raised eyebrows. For although people might be willing to trade democracy for true anti-corruption results, they will not give it up to replace a weak and inept president with a power-hungry leader who is unable or unwilling to solve the nation’s biggest problem. Indeed, when the Kyrgyz look at the societies around them, they realise that while their democracy has thus far failed to create economic prosperity, it has given them a level of dignity and freedom which their neighbors (who for the most part are no more prosperous and who suffer from equal levels of corruption) lack almost completely under autocratic rule.

Japarov appears to think that if he can demonstrate his capacity to govern and solidify the support of local elites, he will be able to win the presidential elections. Assuming that he becomes the elected president before a new parliament can be chosen, he will likely then try to ram through constitutional changes that he has recently proposed. While there is debate concerning their exact nature, their overall thrust appears to be to weaken the parliament and cement the power of the executive. This, in turn, would effectively end Kyrgyzstan’s democratic experiment and enable Japarov to serve as undisputed leader. However, it is by no means certain the Japarov will be able to create the outcome he desires.

Various monkey wrenches

Almost as soon as he had taken power, it was noted that the Kyrgyz constitution forbids a sitting president or prime minister from participating in presidential elections. In his bulldozer fashion, Japarov initially proposed that the existing parliament (a collection of pushovers for the most part) could simply change the law. But parliament’s mandate ran out on 28 October, and there is no time to push through any such change. In response, Japarov changed tack and has promised to resign his positions a month before the elections, as required by current law. This gambit brings up a new series of problems, however.

Assuming that the presidential election does occur in January, Japarov will have to step down in early December, which gives him a mere seven weeks to convince voters that he can be an effective political leader. This would be a tall order under any circumstances, but against the background of an exploding Covid-19 caseload, a public health system incapable of handling another surge, and a terrible economic situation, it seems well-nigh impossible.

Yet another monkey wrench is of Japarov’s making. Having impetuously seized all the levers of power in mid-October, and now agreeing to step down as leader in December, Japarov has created a potential political nightmare during the month-long campaign period. In the absence of a parliament, there is no legal mechanism for choosing an interim president or forming a new government after he leaves his positions. He can try, perhaps, to appoint an ally to the post of interim president and one of his deputies as interim PM. But the legality of such moves would be questionable. If the country is plunged into political chaos by the end of the year, Japarov will take the blame.

Using allies is also, as the experience of Atambayev has proven, a dangerous strategy. Elections in Kyrgyzstan are generally won by those who can command so-called administrative resources. Given the small size of the electorate, it is crucial to coerce large blocks of voters dependent on the state (civil servants, teachers, students supported on state grants) to support the government’s preferred candidate. It was presumably with this in mind that Japarov wanted so badly to control both the presidency and the government. Yet, if Japarov steps down, it is not clear whether he will be able to mobilise these kinds of resources.

In their absence, Japarov will need significant financial support. But given that most local figures with a lot of money have acquired it in dubious fashion, cozying up to them would call into question his credentials as an anti-corruption fighter. Potential external sources of support include the exiled Bakiyev family (once again, the corruption factor), or foreign governments with an interest in influencing the outcome. For the Russian Federation, the amount of money needed to sway elections in Kyrgyzstan is trivial but, given Japarov’s nationalist background, it is unclear that he would be the Kremlin’s candidate of choice. China is the other country with an interest in how things play out in Kyrgyzstan, but they have generally refrained from getting involved in local politics and in any case are unlikely to go for a strident nationalist.

Of course, a lot will depend on who chooses to run for the presidency. Traditionally, Kyrgyz presidential elections attract a large number of candidates. Unless Japarov resorts to high levels of intimidation to convince potential strong adversaries to sit out, voters will have plenty of choices. To be sure, all of them have similar problems to Japarov: limited bases of support, few resources and, unfortunately, few ideas for how to create conditions in which Kyrgyzstan could become a stable and prosperous state. Nevertheless, if administrative resources are used only sparingly, these could turn out to be the most wide-open elections in Kyrgyz history. We can expect that the next few months could end with any outcome - from the complete suppression of Kyrgyz democracy to its renaissance.

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