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Kyrgyzstan elects a potential strongman: Implications for international partners and the future of Kyrgyz democracy

Article by Dr. Aijan Sharshenova

March 1, 2021

Kyrgyzstan elects a potential strongman: Implications for international partners and the future of Kyrgyz democracy

As I queue to cast my vote at a local polling station in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, I am all eyes and ears. I hope to catch anything irregular on the presidential election and national referendum day, January 10th. Nothing unusual happens in this residential district of Bishkek though: there are no celebrity voters, no (explicit) electoral fraud, and nobody is willing to try and buy my vote. Tired voters quietly trickle to the polling station, queue to have their fingerprints checked and vote for the political future of Kyrgyzstan.

 

Revolution 3.0 and the future of Kyrgyz democracy

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” – John Dalberg-Acton, 1857

 

The future of Kyrgyz democracy might be bleak as populist strongman Sadyr Japarov wins a landslide victory at the presidential election and secures himself unrestrained presidential powers through the referendum. The Central Electoral Committee (CEC) sealed his victory on January 20th, having declared the election and the referendum results final and legitimate. Two CEC members refused to support this statement citing considerable irregularities during the entire electoral cycle in favour of Japarov.[1]

 

Their concerns are not unfounded. The legality and legitimacy of the election and the referendum are highly questionable as the process of launching both has been rushed.[2] The return to a strong presidential rule might be detrimental for the new Kyrgyz leadership. Three out of five Kyrgyz presidents to date have lost their seats in the course of public protests. More often than not, the protests would be sparked by the presidents’ attempt to increase their powers. Both the first Kyrgyz revolution of 2005 and the second Kyrgyz revolution of 2010 were largely caused by the ruling elites’ oppressive tactics and attempts to grab more power.[3] The third Kyrgyz revolution of 2020 was sparked by blatantly fraudulent parliamentary election that would have resulted in a very compliant parliament with only two factions: the pro-presidential political party Birimdik (‘Unity’) and the pro-presidential Mekenim Kırgızstan (‘Kyrgyzstan my homeland’).[4]

 

The third Kyrgyz revolution has been stolen from those who walked out at the Ala-Too Square to protest the unfair and unfree elections. The protesters on October 5th represented a very broad political spectrum, from the liberal progressive party Reforma to the conservative nationalist party Chon Kazat. 16 political parties ran for parliament, and 14 of them were not happy with the outcomes.[5] While leaders of numerous political groups negotiated fickle alliances and plans in the chaos of revolution, Sadyr Japarov’s supporters took over the protests and snatched the power from the hands of hesitant political groups. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned on October 15th, under pressure mounted by Japarov’s foot soldiers, who quite literally besieged the Presidential Residence and the locations used by the Parliament for their extraordinary sessions.[6]

 

The Parliament, which by the October events had completed its term, had been forced out from its hiding and ‘encouraged’ to vote a new speaker, a Japarov ally, and to appoint an acting prime minister and acting president. Both positions were offered to Japarov. Some members of the Parliament reported threats and peer pressure.[7] In a similar manner, the Parliament voted to run a presidential election and a referendum on the political system.

 

The post-revolution events unfolded with a mind-boggling speed and, before the country knew it, Kyrgyz citizens were at the polling stations choosing the sixth president and returning to the presidential system. The CEC registered some irregularities, including 60 complaints about the use of administrative resources and vote buying.[8] Compared to the widespread use of administrative resources and blatant vote buying at the parliamentary election in October 2020 (to the extent that the CEC had to cancel the election outcome altogether), this election seems to reflect the voters’ preferences in a reasonably fair way.[9] As to why Japarov has not used his resources as extensively as his predecessor, it is difficult to judge, but a combination of factors might be involved. First, Japarov might have felt no need to engage in mass scale vote buying as his work and his appointee’s work between the October revolution and the election day in January 2021 has already mobilised enough administrative resources to ensure his victory. Second, all available resources for vote buying have been spent back in October, and there was simply nothing left to invest in this election. Third, Japarov might be adding to his public image as a tireless anti-corruption advocate.

 

As flawed as these election and referendum were, the outcomes are here to stay as Japarov won almost 80 per cent of the votes and gathered 81 per cent in the presidential system.[10] Given the return of a strong presidential rule, it is now important to understand the new president and what his rule might mean for Kyrgyzstan and its international partners.

 

From prison to presidency: The curious case of Sadyr Japarov

“Why repeat those mistakes? I’m going to rule fairly” – Sadyr Japarov, January 2021[11]

 

Amidst the chaos of the October 5-6th protests, several people were freed from prisons and temporary detention centres by their supporters. The majority were ultimately brought back by the police. Two returned voluntarily, one managed to leave the country and request political asylum, and one became the sixth president of Kyrgyzstan.

 

While Western observers and local liberals are terrified of the advent of a populist leader fresh out of prison, Sadyr Japarov is a highly revered figure around Kyrgyzstan. Enthused with his populist nationalist rhetoric, Japarov’s supporters see him as a ‘fresh promise’ and last hope.[12] However, his political past is highly controversial.

 

Japarov first appeared on the Kyrgyz political scene in 2005 as a member of parliament from the pro-presidential Ak-Jol (‘Light path’) party. As President Bakiyev’s ally Sadyr Japarov led the notoriously useless National Corruption Prevention Agency.[13] After Bakiyev’s departure from the country, Japarov joined the nationalist Ata-Jurt (‘Homeland’) party. He got his first prison sentence when he attempted to climb over the White House fence with his supporters Kamchybek Tashiev (now the head of the National Security Committee) and Talant Mamytov (acting President during the last presidential campaign) at a protest action.[14] His second sentence was issued in 2013, when Japarov led a protest against Kumtor gold-mining company, and the Governor of Issyk-Kul region was taken hostage by protestors. Japarov fled Kyrgyzstan but was caught at the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border in 2017 and imprisoned.[15] He was one third of the way through serving his term, when a group of supporters freed him from the prison in October 2020 and launched his ascent to power.

 

While it is early to judge what Japarov’s rule would bring to Kyrgyzstan, his stunning victory might tell us about the state of affairs in Kyrgyzstan. First, the phenomenon of Japarov is not unique. His political persona seems to fit into the profile of populist nationalist strongmen around the globe, like Hungarian Victor Orbán or the US’s Donald Trump.[16] In this sense, Kyrgyzstan could be analysed within the context of this global trend.

 

Second, the cult of Japarov stems from the frustrations of disenfranchised groups of people. His current political party Mekenchil (‘Compatriot’) targets the rural population and labour migrants in Russia, i.e. large groups of population, who have been marginalised and abandoned by the state. Sadyr Japarov’s anti-elitist rhetoric, his life full of personal tragedies and a prison sentence for defending the interests of the common folk appeal to Kyrgyz everyman.[17] There is an increasing polarisation between the capital and the regions, between the urban, globalised middle class in Bishkek and the Kyrgyz-speaking rural population in the provinces. Unequal access to healthcare, education, information, job opportunities, as well as general disregard of regional development in the last 30 years have resulted in the emergence of two parallel worlds. This poses certain difficulties for international observers, who tend to approach the urban liberal world of local experts rather than the population in regions.

 

Third, there are legitimate concerns about Japarov’s ties to organised crime and exiled corrupt officials that should be taken into account by international partners.[18] Japarov is still seen as an ally of the ousted and exiled President Bakiyev. Japarov’s sister is accused of helping President Bakiyev’s younger son, Maxim Bakiyev, launder money in Europe. Maxim Bakiyev currently lives quite comfortably in Kent, UK.[19] These connections are difficult to trace, but, if true, they might potentially facilitate further expansion of corruption and organised crime in Kyrgyzstan.

 

Japarov is currently the choice of the Kyrgyz people. However, he has a lot to prove to his supporters. Japarov steps into this position at the hardest of times, when the country is severely cash-strapped, exhausted by the pandemic, and lacking basic services to the public. Kyrgyzstan’s international position is far from ideal too, after three revolutions, continuous instability and incompetent use of public resources.

 

Implications for international partners

It is possible to group the nations that are engaged in Kyrgyzstan into two camps: pro-democracy camp (such as the US and the EU) and regional authoritarian powers (China and Russia). The pro-democracy camp has been engaged in the promotion of democracy, rule of law and other similar values in Kyrgyzstan for decades. The election of a populist nationalist leader and the return to a strong presidential rule could potentially affect how they shape their future policies in the country.

 

The EU has been cautious in its reaction to the election. Dr. Chiara Pierobon, a European researcher, noted that the EU respects Kyrgyz sovereignty and the voters’ decision.[20] The EU would be more concerned with electoral processes and procedures that allows elections to be free and fair. For Dr. Pierobon, the reasons for the low voter turnout should be investigated in more detail and these findings should be taken into account in future EU democracy assistance initiatives addressed to civil society.

 

The EU Spokesperson’s statement indeed highlights the importance of adhering to free and fair electoral standard and calls the new leadership to fully respect democratic principles.[21] Professor Fabienne Bossuyt of Ghent University noted that the EU understands its limitations to promote democracy and its approach to democracy promotion is up for review. Democracy needs to come from within, and the EU will need to accommodate local forms and understandings of democracy.

 

The US Embassy in Bishkek issued a cautious statement congratulating the people and acknowledging Japarov as the newly elected president. However, the statement went in length to highlight the widely reported procedural irregularities, disproportionate financial means, misuse of administrative resources, and allegations of voter intimidation.[22] Nevertheless, the US would have to wait and see how the new President and his administration would treat the fragile Kyrgyz democracy. Dr. Shairbek Juraev, President of Crossroads Central Asia, a Bishkek-based think tank, does not think the political system generally would change Western donors’ attitude to Kyrgyzstan.[23] They would be more concerned about the new leadership’s adherence to freedom of speech, human rights, rule of law and political pluralism, as well as their policies on the matters that concern Western partners the most.

 

As to the regional authoritarian powers, their views and policies towards Kyrgyzstan are even more difficult to evaluate. There are reports that President Jeenbekov’s resignation was a strong disappointment for the Kremlin.[24] Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak travelled to Kyrgyzstan a few days before Jeenbekov’s resignation and attempted to facilitate negotiations between key Kyrgyz political forces. Another sign of Russia’s disappointment was its suspension of its financial assistance to Kyrgyzstan until the political situation stabilises. However, this could be a simple pragmatic measure to ensure Russia’s assistance goes to a legitimate government.

 

China’s approach to Kyrgyzstan is a very pragmatic one. As Bishkek-based researcher Niva Yau noted China’s top two interests in Kyrgyzstan are its stability given the proximity to Xinjiang province and its potential role as a pivot for China’s land-based trade routes.[25] However, China might have certain concerns about Japarov’s nationalist rhetoric, which has been directed against foreign investors and border delimitation deals with neighbouring countries.

 

Overall, all international actors might have their concerns about Japarov’s presidency, but their actions will depend on his policies in the areas of their concern. Japarov inherits a country in dire straits with plenty of international commitments. If he is able to address the most urgent needs of people and demonstrate adherence to Kyrgyzstan’s international commitments, his presidency would last and leave a decent legacy. However, if he is unable to deliver to both domestic and international partners, he might follow the fate of his predecessors.

 

Recommendations

Based on the research in this publication there are several suggestions for possible action.

 

For the Governments of Kyrgyzstan’s international partners:

  • Instigate an independent investigation into the corruption schemes, where Kyrgyz corrupt officials freely launder the money stolen from Kyrgyzstan in third countries, including Western nations that are engaged in democracy promotion in Kyrgyzstan. This information is vital for the Kyrgyz public to understand domestic processes and make decisions.
  • Ensure that organised crime and corrupt officials do not seek money-laundering services in your countries. Western laundromats undermine any efforts to promote democracy and rule of law and devalue the achievements of your own political systems. This could be done through introducing and expanding such programmes as the UK National Crime Agency’s unexplained wealth order.
  • If you are involved in promotion of democracy and rule of law, revise your engagement strategies on the ground. There is a clear gap between Western educated urban expert communities and the large mass of rural populations. Widen your pool of experts and include the non-liberal, non-democratic, non-Western-minded ones too as this might help you build your engagement strategies on a more accurate foundation. Principles of democracy and liberalism are sometimes perceived as largely Western alien concept. It is important to challenge this narrative, which often portrays civil society, liberals, human rights defenders and many other proactive members of society as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘grant-eaters’. In order to challenge this narrative, it is required to relate the principles of democracy and liberalism to local values.

 

For the new Kyrgyz leadership:

  • Ensure that the Constitution drafting process strictly follows all legal procedures and is fair and transparent. Any more legal and political irregularities associated with the Constitution drafting and adoption process will undermine the public trust in the main legal document of the country.
  • Revise the current mode of operation of the Constitutional Council to increase the transparency of the process. The Council does not share the crucial details of what has been changed so far. In addition, there seems to be no information on next steps, i.e. whether the draft will be given a round of evaluation by independent experts, and if it would be submitted to the Venice Commission for their professional feedback. The lack of transparency and clarity about the process will undermine the public trust to the new Constitution and leave many legal loopholes to challenge its legitimacy, which might cause further instability.
  • Ensure a system of checks and balances within the governance structure. A strong presidential rule has never worked for Kyrgyzstan.

 

Dr. Aijan Sharshenova is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. Dr. Sharshenova holds a PhD in Politics awarded by the University of Leeds. Prior to joining the OSCE Academy, Dr. Sharshenova has worked at the UN and UNDP country offices in the Middle East and in international development projects in Kyrgyzstan. Her research interests include democratisation and democracy promotion, post-Soviet authoritarianism, and international development. Currently, Dr. Sharshenova works on a research project on Russia’s influence on the Kyrgyz Republic. Dr. Sharshenova has recently published her book ‘The European Union’s Democracy Promotion in Central Asia’.

 

Image by Official website of the Presidency of Kyrgyzstan.

 

[1] Munduzbek Kalykov, Japarov had no right to run for presidency: Two CEC members refuse to acknowledge the election results, Kloop, January 2021, https://kloop.kg/blog/2021/01/21/zhaparov-ne-imel-prava-ballotirovatsya-v-prezidenty-dva-chlena-tsik-ne-priznali-itogi-vyborov/

[2]These legal and political irregularities are well covered by Bruce Pannier, Questions arise with ex-fugitive Japarov, the favourite in Kyrgyz presidential race, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-presidential-election-japarov-questions-constitution-controversy-qishloq-ovoz/31038709.html

[3] Temirkulov, Azamat. 2010. Kyrgyz “revolutions” in 2005 and 2010: comparative analysis of mass mobilization. The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Vol.38 (5): 589-600

[4] Isabelle Khurshudyan, After Kyrgyzstan’s third uprising in 15 years, a nationalist who was sprung from prison is elected president, Washington Post, January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/after-kyrgyzstans-third-uprising-in-15-years-a-nationalist-who-was-sprung-from-prison-is-elected-president/2021/01/11/1ed36db8-503c-11eb-a1f5-fdaf28cfca90_story.html

[5] Election 2020: The list of parties, Azattyk, October 2020, https://rus.azattyk.org/a/30828971.html

[6] Kyrgyzstan election: President Jeenbekov resigns after protests, BBC News, October 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54553173

[7] Vyacheslav Polovinko, Freedom, equality, bros: Kyrgyz President resigned and opened path to power to the local underworld, Novaya Gazeta, October 2020, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/10/15/87529-svoboda-ravenstvo-bratva

[8] Nationalist politician wins Kyrgyz presidential election, set to get sweeping powers, Azattyk, January 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/japarov-kyrgyzstan-presidential-election-referendum-/31040110.html

[9] Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, Permanent Mission of the Kyrgyz Republic to the United Nations, October 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/japarov-kyrgyzstan-presidential-election-referendum-/31040110.html

[10] The CEC approved the outcomes of the early presidential election of the Kyrgyz Republic, Central Electoral Commission’s website, January 2021, https://shailoo.gov.kg/ru/news/4383/; The CEC declared the referendum on the political system of the Kyrgyz Republic completed, Central Electoral Commission’s website, January 2021, https://shailoo.gov.kg/ru/news/4384/

[11] As cited in Joanna Lillis, Sadyr Japarov is elected president of Kyrgyzstan in a landslide, The Economist, January 2021, https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/01/11/sadyr-japarov-is-elected-president-of-kyrgyzstan-in-a-landslide

[12] Aizirek Imanalieva, Kyrgyzstan: Japarov, last hope or populist menace?, Eurasianet, January 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-japarov-last-hope-or-populist-menace

[13] The last two years of President Bakiyev’s rule were riddled with increased corruption cases, political assassinations, and all-pervasive nepotism.

[14] Aizirek Imanalieva, Kyrgyzstan: Japarov, last hope or populist menace?, Eurasianet, January 2021, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-japarov-last-hope-or-populist-menace

[15] Anna Kapushenko, Ex convict, a banker, several MPs and a national security officer: Who is running for presidency?, Kloop, January 2021, https://bit.ly/3s8yKlb

[16] Georgy Mamedov, Japarov is our Trump, Open Democracy, January 2021, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/japarov-is-our-trump-kyrgyzstan-is-the-future-of-global-politics/

[17] While serving his prison sentence Japarov has lost his both parents and his oldest son to diseases and a car accident, source: Aruuke Uran kyzy, From prison to presidency: Sadyr Japarov’s victory, The Diplomat, January 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/from-prison-to-presidency-sadyr-japarovs-victory/; See more about his life in Aruuke Uran kyzy, From prison to presidency: Sadyr Japarov’s victory, The Diplomat, January 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/from-prison-to-presidency-sadyr-japarovs-victory/

[18] Ivan Nechepurenko, Populist, prisoner, president: A convicted kidnapper wins Kyrgyzstan election, New York Times, January 2021, https://nyti.ms/2LBCM4W

[19] Chris Rickleton, Kyrgyzstan’s former first son living the high life in UK, Eurasianet, 2015, https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstans-former-first-son-living-the-high-life-in-uk-report; See also Global Witness, Surrey Mansion Used To Hide Suspect Funds, March 2015, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/reports/surrey-mansion-used-hide-suspect-funds/

[20] Interview with Dr. Chiara Pierobon, January 2021.

[21] Paul Stano, Kyrgyz Republic: Statement by the Spokesperson on the Presidential Elections and on the referendum on the future political system, European External Action Service, January 2021, https://bit.ly/2Y44aLN

[22] U.S. Embassy Statement on 2021 Kyrgyz Presidential Elections, January 2021, https://kg.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-on-2021-kyrgyz-presidential-elections/

[23] Interview with Dr. Shairbek Juraev, January 2021.

[24] Vyacheslav Polovinko, Freedom, equality, bros: Kyrgyz President resigned and opened path to power to the local underworld, Novaya Gazeta, October 2020, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/10/15/87529-svoboda-ravenstvo-bratva

[25] Interview with Niva Tsz Yau, January 2021.

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