By RFE RL
By Reid Standish*
(RFE/RL) — What began with the Kyrgyz government targeting activists opposed to a contentious border deal with neighboring Uzbekistan is morphing into a wider campaign that’s taking aim at political opponents and the country’s free press as the Central Asian nation risks entering another cycle of unrest.
But what is behind the latest crackdown in Kyrgyzstan that has seen 26 people arrested and left multiple media outlets — including RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service— in the crosshairs of Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s administration?
“It’s not a big secret that Kyrgyzstan is becoming more authoritarian,” Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL. “Nearly everything that Japarov has been doing with the country’s domestic and foreign policy is aimed at strengthening his hold on power as much as possible.”
Long considered Central Asia’s most democratic country, Kyrgyzstan has experienced various moments of upheaval since it gained independence after the Soviet Union’s collapse 30 years ago.
Some of the periodic government crackdowns were later relaxed, while in other instances political and societal tensions have escalated into violence and even revolution.
The current episode of discord comes as Japarov consolidates his hold on the country since his mercurial rise to power in 2020 by increasing pressure on civil society and the media that has led to a period of democratic backsliding.
The proposed border deal with Uzbekistan that was announced in early October — which would require Bishkek to cede control over the strategic Kempir-Abad reservoir to its neighbor — represents a unique political flashpoint for Japarov. The president spent three years in jail and came to power on a wave of popular nationalist support centered around land rights and opposing foreign ownership of the country’s resources.
The agreement could go a long way to smoothing relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, who have experienced deadly border problems, but the proposed deal also pushes Japarov face-to-face with some of the same nationalist attitudes that helped him rise to power.
“There’s a deep irony here that Japarov is the one that is ready to hand over land and his opponents are turning to nationalist ideas that he used to gain popularity,” Umarov said. “It makes for a tense situation. Kyrgyzstan is always politically volatile and unpredictable.”
The Nationalist Tightrope
The reservoir transfer was signed on September 26 as part of a deal that aims to finally define the border of the 15 percent of nondemarcated territory between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
On November 3, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov and his Kyrgyz counterpart Jeenbek Kulubaev, signed several border delimitation agreements, including one to jointly manage Kempir-Abad.
The reservoir is located near Osh in southwest Kyrgyzstan and those that first protested against the agreement — citing concerns of lost water access and a lack of transparency over its contents — included many well-known activists, human rights defenders, bloggers, and politicians. They are currently in pretrial detention and set to remain there for at least two months.
The detentions sparked protests in Bishkek and Osh on October 24 demanding their release and more information about the agreement, which includes Kyrgyzstan transferring territory and the dam itself.
The Kyrgyz government has defended the deal, maintaining that it benefits Kyrgyzstan — which would receive a net gain of some 15,000 square kilometers in the agreement — and that the countries will co-manage the reservoir and each have access to its water.
Stepped-up pressure on the media, activists, and opposition groups is not something new for Japarov and it fits into a wider authoritarian trend that has defined Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous politics in recent years. Former President Sooronbai Jeenbekov — who left office as Japarov’s supporters descended on Bishkek in 2020 amid the country’s last political crisis — also exerted strong influence over Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, a trend deepened by Japarov through constitutional changes approved in a referendum that flipped the country to a formal presidential system in 2021.
But the current tensions over Kempir-Abad are a particular challenge for Japarov and his ally Kamchibek Tashiev, a dominant force in Kyrgyzstan who oversees the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), the country’s main intelligence agency.
Land, water, and mineral wealth are valuable political currency in the country and this episode comes as Japarov also grapples with a tough economic situation worsened by global fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ties with Moscow have also been strained over a brief war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in mid-September that broke out over border issues and left at least 100 dead and hundreds of others injured.
Japarov has mostly been able to harness nationalist sentiment in the country in the wake of these crises, with the latest polls showing that 76 percent of voters back his leadership.
But Zachary Witlin, a senior analyst at the global consultancy Eurasia Group, says Japarov is clearly feeling the pressure from multiple problems piling up. In addition to the economy, the relationship with Russia, tensions with Tajikistan, scandals surrounding the management of the nationalized Kumtor gold mine, and efforts to pressure opposition figures in the past year have all added to the instability.
“The prospect of a land deal with Uzbekistan is a major proximate cause [of the current crackdown]. For a nationalist figure like Japarov to support it shows he is facing difficult decisions,” Witlin told RFE/RL. “So, it unfortunately should not come as a surprise that the government is pushing hard against critics amid a lightning rod issue.”
Press Freedom In The Crosshairs
Faced with a brewing cocktail for potential unrest, Japarov’s administration has also made moves to control and censor the mass media. Like with other factors for the current crackdown, this trend is not entirely new but has accelerated amid the tensions set off by the land deal.
In June, the Kyrgyz Culture and Information Ministry, which is responsible for enforcing a contentious and vaguely defined new law on disinformation, blocked the websites of the ResPublica newspaper for two months and attempted to block the website of the news outlet 24.kg in August over an anonymous complaint of false information being put online.
This follows attempts to intimidate and silence independent journalism in the country, especially when it has bristled up against Japarov and his allies.
In January, investigative journalist Bolot Temirov was arrested on drug charges shortly after his team published an investigation alleging that Tashiev’s family has benefited from government contracts since he assumed office. Temirov was eventually acquitted in September after a judge ruled that the case had been invented by the GKNB. The Prosecutor-General’s Office is appealing the court’s decision.
Amid the current tensions, the government ordered a two-month blockage of the Kyrgyz- and Russian-language websites of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service in late October and froze its bank accounts.
The authorities said the moves were because of a video covering the recent Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict that they claimed used hate speech and false information, with RFE/RL coverage “predominantly taking the position of the Tajik side.” It demanded the removal of the video, but RFE/RL refused to take it down.
These moves were preceded by protests outside the Kyrgyz Service’s bureau in Bishkek and an initiative by a lawmaker that called for the closure of RFE/RL and two other media outlets, Kloop and Kaktus.Media.
The government is also aiming to push through new amendments to its Mass Media Law. The draft law would increase registration requirements for foreign-based and funded media organizations and come with cumbersome registration requirements. Several media experts have pointed out that the text of the amendments are nearly identical to passages of Russia’s own Mass Media Law, which the Kremlin used to greatly shrink the space for independent reporting in Russia.
“The law is essentially copied from Russia,” Carnegie’s Umarov said. “This isn’t Moscow pushing [Japarov] to do this, but rather him watching how the Kremlin is able to control its own population and wanting similar tools available to him.”
This move has many journalists in Kyrgyzstan expecting the crackdown to continue and for more outlets that haven’t shied away from critical coverage of the government in the past to face newfound pressure.
“I am terrified that my country is collapsing from the inside because of two people who want to siphon the last resources out of it,” Kloop Editor in Chief Anna Kapushenko wrote on her Facebook page on October 27, in reference to Japarov and Tashiev.
- Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.