By Ayjaz Wani
The transformation of Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet Republic, from an authoritarian state towards a parliamentary form of government has been short-lived, as President Sooronbai Jeenbekov became the third Kyrgyz president to be toppled after recent country-wide protests. The transformation of the governance system in the country was triggered in 2005 and 2010 in the aftermath of the “Tulip Revolution” and the “Second Revolution” respectively. Since 5 October 2020, Kyrgyzstan was torn by the wave of the third revolution leading to widespread protests following unfair elections and the ouster of Jeenbekov. The installation of Sadyr Japarov as Prime Minister following these recent protests seems like a coup in the only country of Central Asia which still has a modicum of democracy. Japarov, who sprung from prison, is a seasoned politician representing the old elites, and has used the protests for his own parochial ends. Just 10 days after his escape from the prison, his supporters forced president Jeenbekov to resign, paving way for Japarov to become Prime Minister and acting President.
Pandemic and rigged elections
Kyrgyzstan was heavily impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications, especially with regard to the poor. The substandard health infrastructure, health services and increased corruption during the pandemic made the people yearn for change. The national economy crumbled under rising international debt and a decrease in remittances from Russia. According to estimates, more than 500,000 people leave each year to seek seasonal work in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Russia, and there was more than 60 percent drop in remittances during the pandemic. The impact of the pandemic was largely felt by the people engaged in the secondary and tertiary sectors than the people working in primary sectors. The people of northern Kyrgyzstan are more developed and are dependent on secondary and tertiary sectors as against the population of the largely agrarian south. The people of the south also have a history of sedentary life from the time of Kokand Khanate, whereas the north of Kyrgyzstan mostly remained nomadic coming under little influence of Kokand Khanate. It was only after the formation of former Soviet Union that northern Kyrgyzstan became sedentary. This long-drawn battle between the politicians of the economically, ideologically and ethnically diverse North and South regions has for decades played a role in Kyrgyzstan politics. The impact of pandemic and its economic impact on the business centres, however, aggravated the north-south divide and paved way for the situation to boil over.
Kyrgyzstan went for the parliamentary vote on 4 October in which the allies and pro parties of Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov were declared winners amidst allegations of rigging, buying of the electorate and abuse of state resources. Of the 16 parties in the fray for elections to 120 seats of the parliament, only four got the 7 percent threshold to enter into parliament. The newly-formed Birimdik Party of Jeenbekov’s younger brother Asylbek Jeenbekov and another two parties viz. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan Party – close supporters of president – won maximum seat share bagging 24.5 percent, 23.8 percent and 8.7 percent votes respectively. The other party opposing Jeenbekov that got entry into the parliament was Butun Kyrgyzstan, a nationalist party which received 7.3 percent of votes. The remaining 12 political parties failed to cross the threshold. Japarov even faced opposition from some rival political factions like Respublika party and Ata-Meken party. Most of these registered political parties in Kyrgyzstan are formed by influential businessman, politicians or crime bosses represent a particular group, clan united by family ties or regional feelings.
Protests, prisoners and President:
The rigged elections gave the people and the opposition parties, especially from the developed north – a chance to protest against the government. Social media was used to highlight the rigged parliamentary vote. As protests erupted on 5 October, the law enforcement agencies used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets against the protestors. The ensuring violence resulted in one death and more than 600 were injured. The security agencies struggled to control the mobs as protests intensified. The protestors stormed government buildings and took control of the parliament building. Buckling under public outcry and violence, the electoral commission annulled the election results, creating a governance vacuum. The comprehensive win by parties from the south gave the clan-based parties in the north an edge to storm capital Bishkek.
After storming the parliament building, opposition parties and protestors released many high-profile political prisoners. Former parliamentarian Sadyr Japarov of the Nationalist Party who was sentenced to 11 years and 6 months in prison was set free. The others released during these protests were two former Prime Ministers who were also arrested under charges of corruption and a former president.
Amidst the chaos in Bishkek, Jeenbekov, president of Kyrgyzstan since 2017, was taken to an unknown location for safety. President Jeenbekov described these chaotic protests, the release of political prisoners and the attempt to seize power forcefully as a coup and declared a state of emergency. However, he had to ultimately relent and resigned on 15 October.
Riding on his strong support and the confrontationist actions of his faction, Japarov rose to become an unquestioned king of Kyrgyzstan. He even gave a free hand to his supporters to resort to violence to achieve their ends. They assaulted journalists, pelted stones at peaceful rallies and even attempted the murder of former President Atambayev. Atambayev was released by his supporters during the protests was rearrested and sent to jail by Japarov. The others arrested so far are Rayimbek Matraimov, a close confidante and ally of Atambayev. Matraimov, nicknamed “Rayim Million” for his wealth, has been involved in sweeping levels of corruption was considered a bogeyman and funder of political parties. Further arrests are expected in the coming days as Japarov, like his predecessors, tightens his grip over the administration of the country. The mayors and other officials have been forced to resign and Japarov’s supporters have taken charge.
Coup and economic crisis
Kyrgyzstan has a long history of coups but this time around it was a gang of criminals who along with their supporters helped Japarov to claim power. As the country sits on the lucrative smuggling routes, most of the politicians are known to have links with crime syndicates. For example, Kamchybek Kolbayev, described by the US government as “the leader of a notorious crime syndicate based in Central Asia”, stands firmly behind Japarov. Japarov himself is touted as to be enjoying support of crime syndicates. As acting President, on 22 October he issued a proclamation and signed amendments into law on elections delaying a new vote to 2021. The amendments have been challenged in the Kyrgyz Supreme Court by the Reforma (Reform) party.
As Kyrgyzstan remains to be the centre-stage of geopolitical rivalry between the US, Russia and China, the current mess seems to be completely internal. The pandemic has only widened the fault lines. The rising misery have driven people to attack foreign-owned gold mines. These gold mines owned by Canada, Russia and China are largest contributors to the country’s GDP. The current crisis is a coup staged by the violent ethnic clans of the north. Only time will tell the appointment of a low-ranking, convicted politician to the top-position as prime minister as well as president will serve whom – the criminal gangs, corrupt politicians or people. According to the current constitution, the presidential elections are due within three months if a president is outed or terminated.