Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of historic political upheaval, spurred on by nearly three decades of government misrule, a frustrated civil society and the rise of unsavory criminal groups to positions of power. With the resignation last week of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov amid mass protests, and his shocking replacement by a convicted felon freshly sprung from jail, the Central Asian nation looks set for more volatility—and the Kyrgyz people will pay the price.
The trouble began with parliamentary elections on Oct. 4, which were marred by blatant evidence of fraud and vote-buying on behalf of government-friendly candidates. Official results showed two pro-regime parties winning a majority of seats, implausibly suggesting an unpopular government had been returned resoundingly to power. While unfair elections are not new for Kyrgyzstan, this vote followed a decade of efforts to clean up the country’s electoral process and make it more transparent. Many Kyrgyz saw the sudden return to old practices as a slap in the face, pushing them into the streets to voice their dismay.
It appeared to be the start of the country’s third grassroots uprising since its independence in 1991. Yet, peaceful protests soon devolved into a power struggle between rival political factions when violent groups hijacked the demonstrations and began looting businesses. During a chaotic night of protests that began on Oct. 5 and lasted into the next day, an angry mob stormed the White House complex in the capital, Bishkek, where parliament and the president’s offices are located, with calls for Jeenbekov to resign. One demonstrator was killed and hundreds more injured as security forces used tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowds.
During the melee, protesters also broke into a government compound and freed Jeenbekov’s predecessor and political rival, Almazbek Atambayev, who had been jailed this summer on corruption charges. They also sprung Sadyr Japarov, a controversial Kyrgyz nationalist politician and former MP who had been in prison since 2017 for kidnapping a government official.
Jeenbekov, hiding out in an undisclosed location, tried and failed to placate the protesters by nullifying the elections and calling for new ones. The country’s prime minister and parliamentary speaker then resigned, and the government effectively collapsed. Japarov soon declared himself prime minister after being nominated by a group of lawmakers, as did Tilek Toktogaziev, a telegenic young businessman backed by the protesters.
For close to a week, the two self-declared prime ministers, along with their political factions, battled it out on the street, at times violently. Toktogaziev was struck in the head with a rock and had to be taken to the hospital, unconscious. Atambayev was also targeted; gunshots were fired at his car during a protest in what he called an assassination attempt. What started as people power had deteriorated into mob rule.
Japarov, who is believed to have ties to organized crime, eventually prevailed in the power struggle. MPs in the outgoing parliament, under heavy pressure from his supporters, officially approved his nomination as prime minister on Oct. 14. Jeenbekov resigned the following day, paving the way for Japarov to also assume the position of acting president.
This month’s political upheaval only adds to the Kyrgyz people’s woes and does nothing to alleviate the country’s long-term economic and social problems.
Playing to populist sentiment, Japarov has pledged to tackle corruption, calling for former officials to return ill-gotten gains back to state coffers in return for amnesty. He is also using corruption allegations to silence his rivals. He sent Atambayev back to prison and arrested many others who might challenge him, including Rayimbek Matraimov, the head of a rival criminal group who was also a rising political figure until this month.
Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian neighbors have been watching these events unfold with trepidation, using it as a case study to highlight to their populations the supposed dangers of democracy. Kyrgyzstan’s most important economic and security partners—China and Russia—both issued statements of concern about the instability, but have refrained from further involvement. Given their heavy economic and political footprints in Kyrgyzstan, both countries probably have enough clout to safeguard their interests despite the regime change. The United States, meanwhile, condemned the violence, urged a return to the constitutional order, and warned about the rise of criminal elements into the heights of power. Its pleas were ignored, underscoring Washington’s recent disengagement and loss of influence in the region.
Until this month, Kyrgyzstan was Central Asia’s only nominal democracy. It may no longer be. The country has robust investigative news outlets and more political freedoms than its neighbors, but competitive multiparty politics never brought stability, sustainable economic growth or accountable governance. Instead, political elites, regional leaders, commercial interests, and now criminal elements, have continually misused the country’s democratic system to jockey for power at the expense of the wider population.
Sadly, for the average Kyrgyz citizen, the country’s latest political crisis coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. Kyrgyzstan has been hit relatively hard by the coronavirus, and health workers have been forced to work long hours, often without extra pay or adequate supplies. Citizens are rightfully angry with how their previous government handled the pandemic, and widespread poverty, social inequality, dilapidated public health infrastructure and poor public awareness exacerbated the country’s difficulties in battling it. These deficiencies led to high infection rates and death tolls over the summer; so far, the country has recorded 54,000 total cases and more than 1,100 deaths. With winter approaching, along with a second wave of COVID-19, Japarov faces a public health crisis for which he seems to have no plan.
Kyrgyzstan’s economic prospects remain bleak, too. GDP is expected to contract by around 10 percent this year—a forecast that will likely worsen further as a result of the recent chaos and looting. COVID-19 forced closures of national borders and slowed the economy of nearby Russia, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most important trade and investment partners. Job opportunities in Russia dried up and remittances declined dramatically; unemployed young Kyrgyz men and women have returned home from abroad without any savings or job prospects. Many families that were struggling to survive before the latest downturn have been thrown into poverty. Furthermore, the recent bout of instability and Japarov’s past calls to nationalize a Canadian-operated gold mine—one of the country’s largest foreign investments—will worry investors at a time when Kyrgyzstan needs them to create jobs.
The country’s electoral commission initially announced fresh legislative elections for Dec. 20, but parliament rushed through a new law this week to postpone the vote until next spring, likely enabling Japarov to solidify his hold on power. A presidential vote will probably follow sometime thereafter. Under Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, caretaker presidents are barred from running for a full term, though Japarov has said parliament could amend the constitution to allow him to run. But as someone who just weeks ago was a convicted felon without any political prospects, he has no policy proposals, and the country is unlikely to have a political environment conducive to fair elections anytime soon.
This month’s political upheaval only adds to the Kyrgyz people’s woes and does nothing to alleviate the country’s long-term economic and social problems. Japarov’s seizure of power is also unlikely to satisfy the protesters who were calling for systemic change just a few weeks ago. It all spells trouble for Kyrgyzstan.
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.