Is something terrible about to happen in Kyrgyzstan?
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
On 10 January 2021, Kyrgyz citizens are set to vote for the future of their country. Not only will they be electing a new president, but will also decide on the type of governance system - presidential vs parliamentary. The likely outcome for this “Island of democracy in Central Asia” (a term I put in question later in this text) is the presidency of Sadyr Japarov - a conservative nationalist leader with connections to a powerful Matraimov family linked to corruption schemes in the customs sector. Another likely outcome is a vote for a presidential form of governance. Both of these scenarios threaten to turn the country with relative civil freedoms in Central Asia into an autocracy glorifying conservative values, prioritising religion and ethnic nationalism.
The stolen revolution or who is ruling Kyrgyzstan now?
On 14 November, Talant Mamytov became yet another acting president of the Kyrgyz Republic.
The frequency of leadership change in Kyrgyzstan is rather unusual for the post-Soviet sphere in general and for Central Asia specifically, where presidents tend to hold on to power until death sets them apart.
The events that led up to Mamytov’s appointment were accompanied by political controversies, social unrest and surprise career accelerations.
Parliamentary elections that took place on 4 October 2020 led to mass protests in the capital of Bishkek, escalating into confrontations with state forces but eventually leading to the retraction of the latter. On the night from 5 to 6 October protestor managed to storm the country’s “White House” (an administrative building shared by both president and parliament) and other state facilities, demanding the resignation of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and releasing several political prisoners.
Among the released were ex-president Almazbek Atambayev, who later returned to his detention cell and Sadyr Japarov, who would become acting president ten days later.
The parliamentary elections results were annulled on 6 October and a new election date was set for 20 December 2020. However, on 22 October acting parliament members announced that first, presidential elections will take place, and parliamentary elections will be held sometime “before June 1, 2021”.
Thus, after one month of acting as president, Japarov resigned on 15 November amid becoming one of the 60+ presidential candidates who filed their applications. After seeding out, a total of 18 candidates (with only one female among them) are competing in the elections set for 10.01.2021.
Read in detail about all the candidates here.
Replacing the constitution with a “khanstituion”?
Amid prison releases, political (re)appointments and shifts in the election plans, a mysterious proposition, with obvious roots, entered the discourse suggesting constitutional amendments that would grant enormous powers to the president. This fact brought about a mocking label for the new version of the highest law - “khanstitution” - the constitution of a khan, emphasising the powers it would grant to the executive.
Without any public discussions and debates, it was announced that “the people will decide” on the country’s fate of either remaining a parliamentary republic or, as per proposed amendments, becoming a state with a powerful executive, akin to the neighbouring states. Defying the frequency of ongoing political castling in the country, new components of the proposed constitution draft were being discussed by special committee members. From doing away with the definition of the country as “secular state” to renaming it into “The Republic Kyrgyz” or “Kyrgyz People’s Republic” to bringing capital punishment back - the range of committee’s wild fantasies would be entertaining if they weren’t so disturbing.
Japarov and the proposed constitutional amendments are resented by the intelligentsia in Bishkek, some of whom march in protest every Sunday. Protest participants have been accused of disseminating "false information" by the head of the information policy department of the presidential administration. Meanwhile, others are embracing Japarov as a political martyr.
As such, Kyrgyzstan is currently confronted with (re)negotiation of national identity, shared values and greater societal cohesion in the vision for the country’s future.
With the penetration of relatively cheap internet and widespread use of social media, the Kyrgyz public sphere theatre has shifted into the digital domain. Discussions of the political status quo, coordination of citizen-organised forces to protect the city from looters amid the power vacuum, fundraising, charity activities, as well as political campaigning and influence operations make-up a vibrant social media segment in Kyrgyzstan.
The digital domain became so central that amid the recent turmoil in October 2020, the country’s (now former) Ambassador to Russia, Alikbek Djekshenkulov, found out about his dismissal “via social media”.
While social media can be perceived as a public sphere bringing together all segments of society through its connective affordances, in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere, this assumption is continuously challenged. Polarisation in the Kyrgyz social media domain is driven by deeper linguistic, economic, and social divides. Although not novel, these divisions have become illuminated amid the ongoing political crises and can be traced across various platforms.
Read about social media nuances amid the recent turmoil here.
Read about social media role in bringing Sadyr Japarov to power here.
Read about online attacks on civil society and independent journalists amid the absence of control on social media in Kyrgyzstan here.
The “Island of Democracy”?
Due to its comparative freedoms, Kyrgyzstan has been labelled as “the Island of democracy” in Central Asia. The term has become a mantra-like phrase used to describe the country and regional context of terra incognita that Central Asia remains to be.
However, corruption, poverty, kleptocracy, kinship, dysfunctional institutions and increasing repression of the press are prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, just like in the neighbouring countries, and these are not the concepts one would affiliate with functional democracy.
A more suitable label is “the Island of political opportunities” in Central Asia.
To put things in perspective, presidential election of Imomaly Rakhmon that took place on 11.10.2020 in Tajikistan went almost unnoticed in the social media segment of Central Asia as the event was fully predictable. Instead, all the attention was once again on Kyrgyzstan where governance, national identity, history and foreign policy are in a constant process of (re)negotiation.
What does the future hold?
Among other things, the October coup demonstrated that:
1) In Kyrgyzstan, presidents can end up in prison as easily as prisoners can ascend into presidency.
2) There are powerful criminal groups behind the scenes who appear immune to political shifts in the country and continue pursuing own interests regardless of who is technically ‘in charge’.
3) Kyrgyzstan is standing at the crossroad of polar opposite directions of its future. The country can as easily be a secular state with a vibrant civil society and parliamentary form of governance as it can turn into a religious, conservative, nationalist, presidential autocracy with all the ‘best practices’ of the worst governance approaches.