In a dramatic turn of events after ten days of violence that followed Kyrgyzstan’s disputed and later annulled parliamentary elections, nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov has gone from prisoner to prime minister after the ousting of the sitting president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
The power grab was orchestrated by a network of nationalist politicians, many them loyal to the previous regime of Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was himself driven from power after a violent rebellion swept into the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in early April 2010. Japarov, who was serving an 11-year sentence for kidnapping, has also assumed the role of acting president after forcing Jeenbekov’s resignation on October 15.
Sitting on China’s western borders, Kyrgyzstan has developed one of the most open and pluralistic – if occasionally volatile – political systems in the post-Soviet region. This is a country rich in minerals, whose natural resource wealth has failed to translate into better standards of living for its 6.3 million people. In fact, Japarov’s rise to prominence goes back to his early-2010s campaigns for nationalising the Kumtor goldmine, the country’s main source of hard currency and vital contributor to its GDP.
On October 4 2020 Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections. Of the 16 contesting parties only four passed the 7% threshold to make it into the parliament. Three of them were Birimdik (meaning Unity, which included the then president Jeenbekov’s brother on its party list), Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (meaning My Homeland Kyrgyzstan, bankrolled by businessmen rumoured to have ties to organised crime) and the Kyrgyzstan Party, all parties which were reportedly close to Jeenbekov.
The fourth party gaining seats was Butun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) led by nationalist politician Adakhan Madumarov. The results stood in stark contrast to the mood of the country, where frustration is mounting over the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twice before popular protests have led to the ousting of sitting presidents, first in 2005 and again in 2010, though in both cases initial breakthroughs failed to introduce substantial change – and corruption, cronyism and links with crime remain rampant in politics and the economy.
Chaos, confusion, complexity
This time, as protests turned violent, power appeared to slip away from Jeenbekov, who signalled his intention to resign as soon as order could be restored. The government disintegrated: former prime minister Kubatbek Boronov resigned on October 6, followed by the speaker of the parliament Dastan Jumabekov. The speaker’s position is especially important as the post-holder takes over in cases of presidential resignation or impeachment.
Kyrgyzstan has experienced abrupt descents into violence before, followed by a swift return to stability. What made the October events especially dangerous was the fact that in this multi-cornered fight no single faction appeared strong enough to assert itself and control the situation – at least until very recently.
At one point during the drama there were three self-proclaimed coordination councils supposedly in charge of restoring order in the transitional phase, though it was unclear what the country was transitioning to.
By Sunday 10 October, Japarov’s position appeared to be more solid after a vote by enough members of parliament confirmed his appointment. Although Jeenbekov initially refused to sign off the appointment, questioning the legitimacy and the constitutionality of the parliamentary vote, on 14 October he gave in, paving the way to Japarov’s seizure of power.
But any talk of a fight between the Jeenbekov and Japarov camps is a gross simplification of a more complex reality on the ground. Groups loyal to former president Almazbek Atambayev (2011-2017) and former prime minister Omurbek Babanov – himself no ally of Atambayev – have opposed both Jeenbekov and Japarov.
A coalition of 13 opposition parties and social movements found itself uneasy with all other factions, and demanded “lustration” – essentially a purge of elites associated with previous regimes. As well as Bakiev loyalists, Japarov, himself from the eastern provinces, has the backing of a powerful group of southern nationalist politicians.
This power grab has unfolded against a backdrop of very real socioeconomic grievances and growing public frustration with an administration seemingly incapable of handling an extremely serious public health and economic crisis.
Regional and international response
The triggers for this year’s unrest are purely domestic – there is no grand geopolitical plan at work somewhere behind these events. Although one remarkable move, prompt in its timing and rare display of unity across the region, was the joint statement by the presidents of the other four Central Asian republics, expressing support for the people of Kyrgyzstan and a swift return to peace and stability – a move that appeared rather noncommittal on the future of Jeenbekov.
The local US embassy publicly expressed its support for the now-ousted president, before lamenting the rampant corruption and role of criminal groups. It is difficult to see what, if anything, the west can currently offer to help.
Beijing has considerable interests in the local minerals sector, and has invested heavily in local infrastructural projects. At £1.38 billion, almost half of Kyrgyzstan’s external debt is with China. Beijing has still to issue a statement on the situation.
The two main security organisations of which Kyrgyzstan is a member state – the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) have been muted, apart from a generic invitation by the SCO’s secretary general for a peaceful resolution of the situation.
Russia’s initial reaction consisted of the Kremlin’s spokesperson referring to the events as “resembling chaos”. Moscow has plenty on its plate, with months of protests in Belarus and, more dangerously, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. An emissary for Vladimir Putin visited Bishkek on October 13, where he met with Jeenbekov, emphasising the stabilising role of President Jeenbekov.
Clearly, the Kremlin backed the losing horse. Moscow has long regarded Kyrgyzstan’s competitive political system and its proneness to instability as a source of concern, and will hope that Japorov will be able to assert control swiftly.