● KYRGYZSTAN IN TURMOIL
It was hoped and expected when the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan was amended in June, 2010 that democracy would develop strong roots and that Kyrgyzstan’s days of coups and forced change of governments would be over.
The change in the Constitution in 2010 took place in the aftermath of what is called the Kyrgyz Revolution which saw the ouster of the then President Kurmnabek Bakiyev who had assumed power after his predecessor Askar Akayev fled the country following the Tulip revolution in 2005. The Constitutional changes resulted in lessening the power of the Presidency and increasing that of the parliament. Unfortunately, the fond hopes at the time of amending the Constitution in 2010 were dashed to the ground when another coup took place in just over ten years as a result of which the incumbent President Sooronbai Jeenbekov was forced to tender his resignation. This has introduced a huge uncertainty and potential instability in the country.
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked, mountainous country in Central Asia which is not abundantly bestowed with mineral resources like petroleum and natural gas as other countries in the region like neighboring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in Asia (US$1,309 per capita GDP). Due to the lack of local opportunities, many Kyrgyz people look for work abroad (mostly in Russia and Kazakhstan).
Constitutionally, Kyrgyzstan has a semi-presidential system in which the prime minister heads the government and the president appoints defence and security officials. Until now, the prime minister and president have always been political allies, with the latter playing the dominant role. Surrounded by authoritarian states, Kyrgyzstan is the most democratic country in Central Asia although its democratic structure leaves quite a bit to be desired. OSCE monitors for the 2011 and 2017 presidential elections, and the 2015 parliamentary elections, described them as ‘lively’, ‘competitive’ and offering voters ‘a wide range of choice’. However, they also noted serious shortcomings, such as widespread vote-buying and misuse of administrative resources. The NGO Freedom House labels Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partly free’, citing restrictions on the media and opposition. Its elections are however seen to be much freer and more transparent than of any of its neighbors.
Kyrgyzstan is plagued by periodic instability. Since becoming independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been through two revolutions (in 2005 and 2010) and ethnic clashes (in 2010). The political landscape remains highly volatile, with no fewer than 14 prime ministers since 2010, none holding power for longer than two years. An August 2020 opinion poll highlighted the potential for renewed unrest with 53 % of respondents believing that the country was heading in the wrong direction – more than at any time since the 2010 revolution. The poll identified the poor state of the economy (which shrank by 5.9 % in the first seven months of 2020), the coronavirus pandemic (which 67 % believe the government handled badly) and endemic corruption as the main reasons for rising discontent.
Most Kyrgyz parties lack a firm ideological basis, serving as mere platforms for political and economic elites to compete for access to power and resources. Depending on the shifting balance of power, politicians change sides, parties form, merge, split and disappear. The ephemeral nature of Kyrgyz parties is illustrated by the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). The two most recent presidents, Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Almazbek Atambayev, both came from the SDPK, which was also the largest party in the 2015-2020 parliament. However, in 2020 the SPDK disintegrated after a clash between the two men. Atambayev ended up in jail on corruption and murder charges. In the 2017 elections, Atambayev had toiled tirelessly to make his protégé Jeenbekov win the election, in the process even taking up cudgels with the then President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. As often happens in politics, Jeenbekov soon fell out with his mentor by slapping charges of corruption against some former colleagues and confidantes of Atambayev. This ultimately led to the incarceration of Atambayev in August, 2019.
Elections to the 120 seats of the Parliament took place on 4th October, 2020. Prior to this, many political parties had appealed to the government to postpone the elections on account of the coronavirus pandemic. President Sooronbai Jeenbekov however decided in August that the elections would be held as scheduled.
During the election, many parties were accused of buying votes. Several journalists also reported that they were harassed or attacked.
Pro-Jeenbekov Unity Party received the maximum number of votes and captured 46 seats in the Parliament. Overall, supporters of President Jeenbekov managed to win 100 out of the 120 seats. The results are being seen by some political analysts and commentators as a contest bet6ween the agrarian South which supports Jeenbekov and the more industrialized north situated around Bishkek and the Issyk-kul lake region.
Following the election, the streets of capital city Bishkek dissolved into chaos as protesters stormed prisons, freeing a number of high-profile inmates, including former MP Sadyr Japarov and former President Almazbek Atambayev.
On 5th October morning, 1,000 people assembled in the main centre of Bishkek. This number swelled to more than 5,000 by the evening. They demonstrated against rigging and vote buying by political parties.
Protests continued throughout 6 October resulting in one death and around 590 injuries. 12 parties signed a memorandum urging the government to annul the elections and hold new ones.
Following continued protests and worsening law and order, results of the election were annulled by the Central Election Commission on 6 October. The Prime Minister and parliament speaker along with several mayors and governors tendered their resignations.
The parliament announced opposition figure Sadyr Japarov of the nationalist Patriotic Party as acting Prime Minister on 11th October. Japarov had been serving a prison sentence till he was freed by protesters on 5th October. Jeenbekov first vetoed the nomination on 12 October, but later accepted it after the parliament voted to confirm him on 13 October. Jeenbekov promulgated a one-week emergency from 12th Oct to restore peace and calm. The move eased tensions in the city, where residents, going by past experience, had feared a wave of looting.
On 15 October, President Jeenbekov announced his resignation to prevent further bloodshed. While announcing his resignation on the presidential website, Jeenbekov said, “For me, peace in Kyrgyzstan, the integrity of the country, the unity of our people and tranquility in society are above all. There is nothing dearer to me than the life of each of my compatriots. I’m not holding on to power. I do not want to remain in the history of Kyrgyzstan as the President who shed blood and shot at his own citizens. Therefore, I’ve decided to resign.”
Prime Minister Japarov was installed as interim President by the parliament until new elections are held. This is in spite of the provision in the Kyrgyz Constitution that the next person in line of succession would be the speaker of the parliament. Speaker Kanatbek Isaev who had assumed office on 13th October stated that he was not interested in the position.
The dust has temporarily settled on Bishkek’s streets and the political upheaval that followed Kyrgyzstan’s disputed parliamentary election has quietened down somewhat. But uncertainty still looms large.
Coups Are A Recurrent Phenomenon
Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to coups. In fact, Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country to have undergone violent changes of power since the region gained independence in 1991. This was the third coup in a series which started in 2005.
In 2005, the then President Askar Akayev, who had assumed power as a compromise candidate in 1991 after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was evicted from power following demonstrations against a rigged election. Akayev was forced to flee, first to Kazakhstan and then to Russia where he currently lives.
The second coup took place in 2010 when President Kurnambek Bakiyev who had assumed office after Akayev was forced out, faced large scale demonstrations against rising prices, corruption and increase in energy tariffs. Bakiyev had also apparently lost support of the then Russian President Medvedev because of his failure to take action against the American base in the country. Violent protests occurred leading to deaths of 80 people and injuries to several hundred. Bakiyev fled first to Kazakhstan and then to Minsk, Belarus where he currently lives.
Roza Otunbayeva, a highly respected politician, took over as the interim President to bring the situation under control and arrange elections for the post of the President.
Almazbek Atambayev won the election and ruled for one term of 6 years as stipulated in the 2010 Constitution. He was replaced in Nov, 2017 through a democratic election by Sooronbai Jeenbekov. Jeenbekov could survive in his position for a little less than 3 years.
What Does The Future Hold?
The man of the moment is Sadyr Japarov, the acting President and Prime Minister. Most observers of Kyrgyz politics believe that the appointment of a low-ranking, convicted politician to the top position has been orchestrated by forces working behind the scenes. Only time will bring them to the fore.
Japarov was elected to the Parliament in 2005 as a supporter of former President Bakiev who was overthrown in the revolution in 2010. Japarov continued his political career and over the years staunchly supported the nationalisation of the country’s gold mines and accused the management company, Centerra Gold, a Canadian company, of environmental violations and corruption. This won him huge popularity among his fellow countrymen. In 2013 he was sentenced to 11 and half years in prison for taking a provincial governor hostage during a protest against the local Kumtor goldmine project. Japarov’s appeal to the masses appears to be based on his nationalistic zeal and the promise to give back to the people the privatised gold mines, the “stolen” national wealth! According to some political commentators, the idea that natural wealth should belong to the people is extremely popular among ordinary citizens.
It appears possible that Japarov may run for a full term if the country amends its constitution. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution currently bars caretaker Presidents from running in the elections they oversee. This is why the former interim President Roza Otunbayeva who took over after Bakayev fled the country in 2010, and who was immensely popular, did not contest the elections in 2011. Amending the constitution to allow Japarov to run might require holding a referendum before the presidential election.
Soon after assuming office, Japarov published a long-term program hinting that he planned to be more than a temporary leader.
Under the Kyrgyz constitution, presidential elections are to be held within three months of the termination of the preceding president. As Prime Minister and acting head of state, Japarov must now also oversee a rerun of the October 4 election which was annulled on 6th October. Japarov has been trying to form a viable government to run the affairs between now and parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December and January, respectively.
Instability in Kyrgyzstan does not augur well either for itself or for the region. Kyrgyzstan is the only semi-democratic country in the region and frequent changes of government through violent protests and demonstrations have not set a good example for democratic system of governance. All other countries in the region are semi-authoritarian and have witnessed continuation of same leadership for long periods. It was hoped that the new Constitution of 2010 would provide stability to governance in Kyrgyzstan. That hope has unfortunately been belied. These developments will make Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors in Central Asia even more wary of democracy as they develop.