Skip to content

Social media mobilisation and the rise of populism in Kyrgyzstan

Article by Gulzat Baialieva and Dr. Joldon Kutmanaliev

March 1, 2021

Social media mobilisation and the rise of populism in Kyrgyzstan

Nationalist populism and online political mobilisation

The rising illiberal populism that imperils even established democracies including the US, Brazil, the UK, Turkey, and many European countries, has become a favourite political tool for many autocratically inclined politicians. Until recently, countries of the post-soviet region, where local authoritarian leaders prefer to rule with the help of traditional administrative methods of suppression, had been mostly spared from this phenomenon. But the recent political dynamics in Kyrgyzstan shows that leading political actors increasingly adopt populist language, nationalist discourses and polarising strategies to gain political power.


Looking at the recent Kyrgyz political realm, this essay discusses how nationalist populism has become a dominant political force in Kyrgyzstan. As we see today’s global populism is also associated with the power of social media platforms.[1] Skilfully promoted through the Kyrgyz-speaking social media platforms by the newly elected president Sadyr Japarov, a pro-Japarov populist movement has gained political momentum in the aftermath of popular uprising against the then president Sooronbay Jeenbekov. On January 10th, Sadyr Japarov won the presidential elections. This happened only three months after he had been released from the prison by street protestors following rigged parliamentary elections on October 4th 2020 and popular uprising that deposed the regime of President Jeenbekov.


A campaign banner of Sadyr Japarov (January 2021): ‘Sadyr Japarov. Serving the Future!’


Sadyr Japarov, a new president and currently the most powerful political figure who was just recently in prison, successfully employs populist behaviour by producing divisive and hostile language. Japarov represents the image of a new type of populist politician who knows how to use social media in his favour to influence people. His power derives from, and popularity is based on, an unusually high number of followers on social media. Very much like Trump, who used Twitter to have direct appeal to his supporters, Japarov personally administers several large social media groups. He admitted in his interview that he used all kinds of social media networks, created 50 groups and managed them even while in prison: “In prison you are a free person for 24 hours, you have free time.”[2]


A screenshot from Sadyr Japarov’s biggest Facebook group (177K) which shows a list of the admins and moderators.[3] The one written in Latin Alphabet as Sadyr Japarov is his personal account which was created in 2012.[4]


Online mobilisation impacts real-world mobilisation, turning it into a crucial element of Japarov’s strategy that has de facto secured him a strategic advantage (winning the street during the initial protests and subsequently) and then the presidency. Our interviews with people in various localities indicate that Japarov’s followers often mobilised by creating local WhatsApp groups, which were then used to coordinate their actions, including travel to Bishkek to join forces with other supporters in the city’s Old Square.


The online mobilisation in the wake of the October post-electoral crisis that turned into actual street mobilisation and the physical presence of pro-Japarov groups in the Old Square in the post-election crisis period, was crucial to the successful rise of Japarov.[5] Hundreds of his supporters gathered to support and protect the populist politician following his nomination to the post of interim Prime Minister on October 6th. At the same time, supporters of a broad coalition of opposition politicians including former president Atambayev along with liberal youths gathered on the central Ala-Too square just a mile away. On October 9th, Japarov’s supporters attacked and chased their opponents on the Ala-Too square.[6] That clash became a critical juncture that determined the fate of political power struggle. From that moment, Japarov emerged as the most powerful actor in a political scene.


Background to social media populism

With the growing access to the internet and the availability of smartphones in recent years, the Kyrgyz speaking population has been increasingly exposed to online news content. Kyrgyz online nationalist groups are a relatively new phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan’s social domain. According to the data report for 2020 the number of internet users in Kyrgyzstan increased by 55 thousand (+1.8 per cent) between 2019 and 2020.[7]There were 3.06 million internet users in Kyrgyzstan in January 2020 and 2.5 million use social networks. In Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz-speaking social media users usually come from traditional rural backgrounds as opposed to urban dwellers, consumers of social media content in Russian language, including the content that comes from the Russian Federation’s media space.


Why now and why social media? Mobile internet provides rural people with great opportunities in expanding social communication networks through social media platforms. For many of them, news circulated in and through social media has replaced traditional newspapers and TV programmes as a primary source of getting information and entertainment. People in rural areas tended to trust the content in newspapers, so, not surprisingly, when the news circulated in social media came to replace traditional newspapers, people readily took for granted the reliability of the online content, especially if it is spread through trusted networks.


Emergence of nationalist groups and social media manipulation

However, despite this, in the pre-October period, the influence of Japarov’s social groups on public opinion was rather limited. Before 2020, nationalist groups were not highly visible on online platforms, mostly appearing to the public during controversial events such as anti-corruption demonstrations, the ReAction 1.0 and 2.0, the March 8th feminist march, and the Femminale art exhibition. Those events were used as focal points and windows of opportunity for nationalist groups to showcase their strength and public presence. The strong connection between these high-publicity events and the emergence of nationalist groups signaled the first signs of social media manipulation of the nationalist mobilisation.


In particular, the organisation of the ReAction 2.0 on December 18th was countered by an unprecedented level of sophisticated informational attacks against anti-corruption activists organised by pro-regime trolls supposedly financed by a controversial figure, Raiymbek Matraimov, popularly known as ‘Raiym Million’ for his alleged wealth.[8] Several edited videos and images emerged in social media several days before the ReAction 2.0 demonstration targeting anti-corruption activists. These mounted videos and edited images stated that the forthcoming demonstration was organised by LGBT groups and western agents. The pictures of some anti-corruption activists were placed next to images and video-footage of sexually explicit gay scenes and images of LGBT activists. In other images, taken from the demonstration, some participants were randomly outlined as ‘western agents’. The supposed aim of those falsified information attacks was to activate yet another societal cleavage – between conservative-nationalist and liberal groups – to shift away from the anti-corruption discourse to cause societal outrage against ReAction 2.0 exploiting homophobic and anti-western sentiments that are dominant in Kyrgyzstan’s largely conservative society. The troll attacks skillfully build on recent controversies around feminist events such as the Femminale art exhibition and the March 8th feminist march in Bishkek that was joined by some LGBT activists. These events caused huge outrage among conservative groups. Several female activists were attacked by aggressive men from nationalist groups, some of them allegedly linked to Kyrk Choro (Forty Knights) – one of the first conservative-nationalist groups, also infamous for their vigilante raids against prostitutes and brothels, that later was co-opted by Japarov’s populist movement. Their appearance at the controversial events was an indicator of growing polarisation between liberal and conservative groups.[9]


Populist manipulation

Currently, pro-Japarov online groups are the most numerous and influential in the Kyrgyz-speaking social media domain. The membership significantly multiplied and the number of groups supporting Japarov mushroomed since he claimed political power last October. In the pre-October 2020 period, being probably the only politician who realised a high potential of social networks for political mobilisation, Japarov actively worked from the prison to create his support base on social media platforms. As Japarov himself claims: “More than a hundred people whom I worked with were released while I was still in prison. They started working for me, spreading the word that I was a good man. When I got out, they were all at rallies, supporting me. That is the whole secret of the third revolution.”[10] He continues in his interview after the election: “In jail, I wasn’t just wasting time, I was working with the people through social media.[11] For three and a half years, I communicated directly with ordinary people. I created groups on Odnoklassniki, on Facebook, on Instagram. I collected people’s contacts on WhatsApp and created more than 50 groups there: one group holds 256 contacts. Through these groups I spread information about Kumtor, about my work. That’s how I reached all the people in three and a half years.”


Japarov’s popularity and influence sky-rocketed after he was released from the prison and nominated for the position of interim prime minister by a group of MPs with close ties to the then president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and a powerful Matraimov’s clan. His overwhelming dominance in Kyrgyz social media became obvious thanks to the work of hundreds of aggressive trolls who attacked not only Japarov’s political opponents, but also ordinary people with dissident and opposition views.[12] Their favourite target was liberal or opposition female activists whom trolls and then-ordinary users threatened with sexual violence.[13] The hate speech incited by online trolls, and even Japarov himself, created an atmosphere of impunity exacerbated by the inaction of state authorities, Facebook administration, and moderators of social media groups run by or affiliated with Japarov and his close associates. Such impunity further emboldened or incited ordinary users to make attacks and open death threats against the opponents of their icon. Japarov’s divisive language sent clear signals to his supporters designating ‘enemies of the people’. Our monitoring of social media content and interviews with prominent opponents and civic activists reveal that the intensity of online threats and hate attacks would often increase after Japarov’s divisive speeches. Typically, trolls would label prominent human rights activists and opposition leaders, as ‘western agents, gays, and spies’. Another critical factor is new exposure to online manipulation. The absolute absence of experience among people to deal with fake news played a crucial role in the rapid spread of populist messages and manipulation of public opinion through fake news. Massive exposure to fake news and hate speech made inexperienced ordinary social media users sincerely believe the fake content of troll factories.[14]


On December 12 2020, a protest by young males was held in Bishkek.[15] The organisers explained that they are against any protests in Bishkek. The banners read: “Ï am a patriot of my country. I want peace in my city”, “By organising a protest of 10 people, don’t claim your rights!”, and “I am against the destabilisation in my country”. Some internet users compared them to a new version of a conservative ‘Kyrk Choro’ group of men. The head of this movement against protests, as they call themselves druzhinniki (vigilantes), is Marat Mamraliev. He is a young politician and entrepreneur who is developing a security agency, the rapid response group ‘Division’.


Virtually all nationalist groups and social media trolls rely on anti-western and anti-liberal discourse propagandised by the Kremlin as ready-to-use templates for nationalist actors to manipulate public opinion. High legitimacy of the Kremlin’s anti-liberal discourse among Kyrgyzstan’s general population provided political actors with a valuable tool to manipulate public opinion. Presidents, especially Atambayev, have willingly exploited this high legitimacy discourse in their political interests. Japarov fully employed this strategy against his political opponents. What Japarov added to the existing discourse frames is an anti-establishment discourse that he has splendidly promoted through numerous social media groups that he personally controls. For example, he personally administers his biggest Facebook group, which has 180,000 members.[16] In general, there are more than ten big pro-Japarov groups on Facebook and Instagram. During the pre-election period, between November 19th 2020 – January 1st 2021, his Facebook groups created 49,500 posts. Japarov related groups produced more than a half of all posts generated by the biggest political Facebook groups taken together. This is much more than even groups with news information content, as the figure shows.


The army of trolls has been a crucial factor to bringing Japarov success. The hate-filled comments defending Japarov and attacking his opponents have been traced not only on Facebook and Instagram but also on YouTube. One of the authors of this paper, Gulzat Baialieva, together with Janeta Jakypova, conducted a textual data-analysis of two mostly watched videos where Japarov and his opponent Tekebaev talk about constitutional reforms.[17] They have scraped all 6,799 commentaries to examine how the referendum and changes to the Constitution were discussed on YouTube. Among 100 of the most frequently used words (excluding pronouns) there is no mention of ‘law’, ‘referendum’ or ‘constitution’. As the cloud of words shows, the comments refer to these two politicians, Japarov and Tekebaev (used shortly by the users as a derogatory name ‘Teke’ meaning goat).  After these two names, the other most frequently used words are ‘people’ and ‘God’.


Cloud of words used under YouTube videos related to referendum and Constitution.


Sadyr Japarov’s groups made 49,500 posts in the pre-election period. Source: Center for Media Development.


Japarov’s populist message fell on favourable ground. It came when the fatigue for the corrupted system and politicians among ordinary people reached a high point, after years of rampant corruption among politicians and officials in practically all levels of state institutions. Japarov efficiently used the people’s fatigue and their distrust towards politicians. Many of his political decisions contain populist references to the ‘people’s will’. What we observe now is the overwhelming popularity of Japarov in mostly rural regions of Kyrgyzstan.


Performance during the pre-electoral campaign in Karakol on December 29 2020. The scene from the local genealogy of the seven saints ‘Jeti Ake’. The saints are blessing and initiating the presidential candidate Japarov blessed into the eighth saint warrior!


Liberal groups did not manage to effectively neutralise the populist message promoted by Japarov. Nor had they an effective plan to counteract his aggressive strategy. The main weakness is the lack of grassroot connections amongst the predominantly Russophone liberal groups with Kyrgyz-speaking social segments. They tend to adapt liberal ideas from western liberal discourse with little or no attempt to convert it into plain language that could be acceptable and comprehensible to the most traditional and rural segments of society. Abstract ideas that have little to do with the prosaic reality of everyday life of ordinary rural dwellers strongly contradict their traditional views and values. Attempts by Russophone liberals to ‘educate’ or ‘civilise’ fail to take into account the context and cultural values of rural people. Therefore, when liberal groups tried to resist Japarov’s illiberal constitutional reforms only appealing to the breach of constitutional procedures, his rural supporters simply did not buy those arguments. For Japarov’s supporters, the breach, even if they recognised it, did not make any sense because the constitution was violated so many times by Japarov’s predecessors for the personal benefit, so then why their political favourite could not do the same especially because he wanted it to work ‘in the interests of the people’?


Similarly, Kyrgyz and Russophone segments independently exist in parallel lives in social media networks rarely intersect in everyday life. But when they intersect to reflect high-publicity and controversial political and social events, the debates produce ideological cleavages and acute conflict. On the contrary, Japarov often personally engages in discussions with social media users in a simple popular language clearly understandable to many ordinary people. This informal direct contact that strikingly contrasts with the behaviour of traditional politicians appeals to many people who consider Japarov ‘our guy’.


Photo from Sadyr Japarov’s Facebook group. Pre-election campaign in Karakol, December 29 2020.


The following examples demonstrate his direct involvement in online discussions. Sadyr Japarov wrote a post on his personal Facebook account to respond to a critical publication about his endless promises: “Were you born as a nine-months-old? Or were you born premature? Please be patient, my brother. All in good time. There is so much you don’t know…”[18] Japarov’s public posts against his opponents contain a patronising, accusing and discriminative language. Japarov does not hesitate to blame his critics for fake news and uses religious articulation: “How do you tell such lies? Have you no faith and morals?”, called the opposing groups “bastards” and wrote hate-filled posts “Go to hell those who cry out for their own interests!”.


Some populist measures have even seemingly caught sympathies of liberal middle-class urbanites. Anti-corruption discourse ‘kusturabyz’ (we make corrupt officials throw up what they stole) or the so-called economic amnesty is another effective populist move.



Japarov’s anti-establishment and anti-liberal rhetoric is framed as ‘the people’s voice’ and is characteristic to many populist leaders across the world. He skillfully manipulates rising inequality in Kyrgyz society to shift blame on old elites, liberal activists, and independent media – whom he calls as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘traitors’. His blaming strategy and a reputation of a national hero and a victim of the corrupt and unjust system that he carefully constructed over years, allowed him to get a tight grip on ordinary people making him the most popular and powerful actor in Kyrgyzstan’s political scene. Sensing his power and popularity, Japarov has taken a successful gamble on changing the constitution that would dismantle democratic institutions and grant a new president with an unprecedented level of power. A huge popularity for Japarov among ordinary people provided him with high potential to push through anti-democratic constitutional reforms that threaten to transform the country into deep authoritarianism.


We suggest that key elements of Japarov’s populism, such as ‘eldin talaby’ (popular will) and ‘eski sayasatchylar’ (the corrupt elite), the direct appeal via social media and his political imprisonment with tragic personal consequences have been activated by context. The factors that led people to vote for President Japarov, including concerns about the country’s growing economic inequality, corrupt judicial system and foreign influence, were not new in 2021. The difference was the ways in which Japarov communicated about these issues. His provocative statements, rhetoric and social media trolling increased the intensity and polarised the society. Japarov and his political team attacked opponents and the independent media, presenting them as the “enemy”, “western influence” and “threat” to Kyrgyz unity and identity. Japarov was refashioned into a ‘uluttuk lider’ (national hero). We do not suggest one silver bullet to mitigate the negative effects of populism, especially when the societies are dismantled from within. Yet, we highlight several important considerations to respond to the effects of populism:


  • Avoid efforts to ‘enlighten’ and ‘educate’ the ‘other side’ which aggravates polarisation: Simply exposing people to ‘the real facts’, ‘true story’ or to break down pre-existing beliefs are ineffective and can accentuate polarisation. They are especially ineffective when they are communicated by untrusted actors or messengers, which leads people to stay even more closely to their own group-congruent beliefs.
  • Focus on shaping people’s perceptions of norms: As research on combating populism suggests people’s behaviour is shaped by individual attitudes and normative context. So rather than seeking to ‘educate’ and to change attitudes, which more likely have developed over a long period of time, liberal actors should focus on shaping norms.
  • Create unifying beliefs, values and narratives: Japarov focused greatly on the ‘us versus them’ narrative, a typical tactic used by populists and authoritarian leaders. The liberal forces should avoid using their divisive language. They should create their brand of inclusive narratives and highlight unifying beliefs and values.


Gulzat Baialieva is a PhD candidate at the Social Anthropology Department, University of Tübingen. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Science (Comparative Politics) from Central European University and a graduate diploma in European Civilisations from Bishkek Humanities University. She has been teaching at the Social Anthropology Department, University of Tübingen and previously at Bishkek Humanities University. Her research interests include populism, environmental anthropology, post-socialist transformations, water use in Central Asia and digital ethnography.


Joldon Kutmanaliev is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen. He received his doctoral degree in political science from the European University Institute in Florence and MA in political science from the Central European University. Previously, he taught at the University of Tübingen and the Bishkek Humanities University for many years. He is an author of a forthcoming book ‘Intercommunal Warfare and Ethnic Peacemaking: The Dynamics of Urban Violence in Central Asia’, to be published with the McGill-Queens University Press.


Image by Etienne Combier under (CC).


[1] Flew T, Iosifidis P. 2020. Populism, globalisation and social media. International Communication Gazette, 82(1):7-25. doi:10.1177/1748048519880721

[2] Kommersant, “In prison you are a free man 24 hours a day”, January 2021,

[3] Sadyr Japarov, Facebook Public Group, Facebook,

[4] Sadyr Japarov, Facebook Personal Account, Facebook,

[5] Gulzat Baialieva and Joldon Kutmanaliev, How Kyrgyz social media backed an imprisoned politician’s meteoric rise to power, openDemocracy, October 2020,

[6] Kyrgyzstan election: Fresh clashes as state of emergency comes into force, BBC News, October 2020,

[7] Simon Kemp Digital 2020: Kyrgyzstan, DataRePortal, February 2020,

[8] Raiym Matraimov, a former head deputy of the Customs, was a main target of the ReAction anti-corruption campaign for his involvement in high-level corruption schemes in transborder trade with China and his involvement in the assassination of Aierken Saimaiti, a whistleblower murdered by hired killers in Istanbul. Matraimov’s clan founded a Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (‘Homeland Kyrgyzstan’) party that ran in the parliamentary elections on October 4th 2020. His party gained a majority of seats along with a pro-presidential Birimdik (‘Unity’) party in what independent observers called highly fraud and rigged elections that caused outraged and popular protests.

[9] Joldon Kutmanaliev and Gulzat Baialieva, Polarisation grows as Kyrgyzstan tackles controversial corruption issues, openDemocracy, December 2019,

[10] Kommersant, “In prison you are a free man 24 hours a day”, January 2021,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gulzat Baialieva and Joldon Kutmanaliev, In Kyrgyzstan, social media hate goes unchecked, openDemocracy, December 2020,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kamila Eshaliyeva, Real fakes: how Kyrgyzstan’s troll factories work, openDemocracy, November 2020,

[15] Barakelde, Anti-protest rally took place on Ala-Too Square, December 2020,

[16] Sadyr Japarov, Facebook Public Group, Facebook

[17] Gulzat Bayalieva and Janetta Zhakypova, Social Networks: Discussion or Disruption, RFE/RL, December 2020,

[18] Sadyr Japarov, Facebook Post, Facebook, December 2020,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre