Violent change of government in Kyrgyzstan amidst COVID-19 pandemic: Patronal presidentialism, oligarchisation of politics, and public indignation with corruption and rigged elections
On October 5th 2020, several thousand Kyrgyz citizens poured in the main square of the capital Bishkek to denounce fraudulent elections. By the late evening of that day, this unexpected mobilisation led to the storming of the White House and to the beginning of a cloudy process that resulted in the removal of the incumbent president from office.
With this recent round of events, this post-socialist state has witnessed the third violent change of government since its independence in 1991. There are many structural conditions that led the country to a permanent state of instability, not the least of which is the breakdown of the economy since the collapse of the USSR, which were never given priority by elites amidst incessant struggles for power.
Focusing on the political, this essay looks at the conditions that have enabled such frequent uprisings. In particular, it is argued that the constitutional design of 2010 did not only temper temptations to abuse office by the president but also led to the increasing oligarchisation of politics and a still divided opposition. These factors contributed to public frustrations about corruption and distrust towards the political establishment amidst devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, the emergent party system had further implications for the balance within the state-oligarchy relationship, which still stands to shape politics in Kyrgyzstan for the foreseeable future.
October 2020: Murky change of government against the background of a genuine citizen mobilisation
With the October events of 2020, Kyrgyzstan experienced the third violent change of government via a popular uprising. Although every uprising of 2005, 2010, and 2020 is unique, one element is central to all of them: citizens and political opposition challenged the usurpation of power by presidents, which they deemed illegitimate. This time around, the regime of Sooronbay Jeenbekov grew unpopular because of the combined factors of mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, the usurpation of power over the legislature, and the President’s perceived weak charisma. In August 2020, prior to the parliamentary elections, 53 per cent of the Kyrgyz population thought that the country was heading in the wrong direction, whereas only 41 per cent saw it going in the right direction.
These perceptions and negative sentiments did not grow out of nowhere. In 2019, a consortium of independent mass media published a series of investigations unravelling massive corruption schemes that involved the then former deputy head of the State Customs Service, Raiymbek Matraimov, whose illegal business helped him to allegedly take $700 million out of the country. These investigations did not only expose the involvement of state bodies in transnational corruption but also stressed the connection between Matraimov and the highest echelons of power, including President Jeenbekov himself. These publications spurred a series of citizen protests called ‘Reaksia!’ (from Russian – ‘Reaction!’) calling on authorities to launch an official investigation into these corruption schemes. Despite the multiple pressures coming from liberal civil society, the President kept denying Matraimov’s involvement in corruption and even went as far as supporting Matraimov’s political party ‘Mekenim Kırgızstan’ to run in the parliamentary election. Following the election outcomes, three ‘parties of power’, including ‘Mekenim Kırgızstan’, won 107 out of the 120 seats thanks to massive electoral manipulations involving the use of ‘administrative resource’, vote buying, and others means. The orchestrated victory of the three parties of power left opposition forces such as ‘Bütün Kyrgyzstan’, ‘Mekenchil’, ‘Reforma’, and ‘Ata-Meken’ outside of the system. Within the context of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on citizens’ livelihoods, such usurpation of power by the ruling regime-oligarchic tandem led to powerful anti-elite sentiments. While struggling with economic hardships and COVID-19-related issues on their own, people observed flagrant corruption among the elites and highest echelons of power. Ordinary citizens traced these inequalities back to the excesses of the post-revolutionary party system.
However, the peaceful protesters who gathered on the next day of the parliamentary election, October 5th, did not demand the President’s immediate resignation. In addition, most ‘system’ elites were not in the position to contest Jeenbekov’s grip on power as many of them were co-opted into the ‘parties of power’ on the eve of the parliamentary election. Moreover, the regime’s opponents who rallied next to the protesters to contest the election outcome, and who were competing with Sadyr Japarov for public support, did not seek the President’s removal as it was feared such a move could lead to a major destabilisation along the North/South cleavage and ethnic clashes like in the aftermath of the ‘April Revolution’ of 2010. Finally, the international community recognised President Jeenbekov as the only legitimate authority to remain in power and prevent the country from falling into abyss. Having the majority elite loyalty, President Jeenbekov could have, perhaps, avoided his deposing by swiftly conceding to protesters’ demands and cancelling the election outcomes, for example. Without the manpower, the street opposition would not be able to contest the regime. But while he lost the momentum, the citizen mobilisation around two opposition camps has acquired its own dynamics in parallel to the dynamics of regime contestation.
The competition emerged between political forces that were illegally released from prison on the night of October 5th and who sought to capitalise on popular mobilisation. Two opposing groups were formed in the days after the start of the peaceful demonstration: a nationalist group under Japarov’s leadership and an amalgam of ‘liberal’ forces including the former president Almazbek Atambayev. While the Japarov’s group has quickly and skilfully moved to consolidate protesters around their claims for power by framing the uprising as anti-regime and anti-elite, the liberals were slow and hesitant to adopt similar muscular strategies. The struggle for power between the two groups grew out of control when representatives of the liberal camp were ousted from the main public square, some of them were attacked and people allegedly close to Japarov shot at Atambayev’s departing car. Facing the risk of destabilisation, President Jeenbekov sought to negotiate his own remaining in power by granting legitimacy to one of these camps. The choice was not complicated: his lasting rivalry with Atambayev, whom he sacked and imprisoned after being brought to power by him, determined his option for Sadyr Japarov. On the other hand, leaving the liberal camp to win over Japarov would entail the President’s certain demise. The deal between the President and the ‘newcomer’ Japarov was even sealed by Putin’s deputy head of administration, Dmitry Kozak, who flew to Bishkek in order to facilitate the peaceful maintenance of the regime. However, neither the President nor the Russians expected that the group he had helped to legitimise would breach the agreement and force him to resign soon after. Several members of parliament and public figures hinted to the pressures exerted by organised crime, whose alleged collusion with Japarov was decisive in the president’s removal and takeover of power. Further research is required in order to shed light on these obscure dynamics and the regime fragility.
‘Post-revolutionary’ constitutional reform 2010: Parliamentarism by discourse, money, and further oligarchisation of politics
Authors of the post-revolutionary constitutional reform of 2010 claimed the new design would put an end to strong presidentialism by giving more powers to political parties and the parliament. However, the supposed increase in political pluralism increased the fragmentation of power hence propelling the role of a central mediator in return. Despite constitutionally diminished powers, President Atambayev managed to control the defence and special security forces, the general prosecutor and the courts. In the past, access to these institutions had allowed the authoritarian regimes to suppress the opposition and civil society. President Atambayev gradually fell in line when he successfully attempted to first craft a loyal parliament via national elections of 2015 and then, second, to appoint a political heir via the presidential elections in 2017. By mobilising the state apparatus, he succeeded to bring to power a formerly unknown politician, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who only three per cent of a spring 2017 poll respondents said they trusted most against the well-established businessman-cum-politician Omurbek Babanov, who had 35 per cent of the popularity in the same survey. Jeenbekov continued this tradition by seeking to fill the parliament with three pro-presidential parties, excluding the opposition, weakening the party system, and further eroding the relationship between the electorate and elites.
The creeping usurpation of power by the presidency is one reason for increased popular frustration, but it is not the only one. The new constitutional design did not foresee that the emerging party system would further strengthen the oligarchisation of politics, bearing real implications for the regime stability. The new constitutional design suddenly bestowed political parties with the power to control the government and make important appointments. However, to participate in highly competitive parliamentary elections, parties faced an acute problem of funding. Sponsorship by businessmen and oligarchs quickly became sine qua non for managing electoral campaigns. In practice it is believed that this was often done by selling seats in electoral party lists, with the first top ten to 20 seats believed to be worth between $500,000 thousand and $1 million in a country with only a GDP of $8.5 billion in 2019. The newly elected parliamentary groups viewed the system as a way to access the state and use it for rent-seeking. Employing their new constitutional powers, the parliamentary groups appointed their ministers and this way ‘divided’ the state among themselves. Oligarchs who had entered this system began employing their access to the state to return their prior investments in the election.
Although the oligarchisation of Kyrgyz politics began in the 90s and was part of the state building, Jeenbekov’s recent regime had allowed for a certain degree of incorporation of oligarchs into the state system, which became a risk for regime stability. By summer 2020, according to elite claims oligarchic power had succeeded in infiltrating major state institutions including the special security forces, prosecution, and the courts. By placing loyal people inside the state bodies and relying on the power of money, the Matraimov family allegedly used the state to advance their own and their clients’ interests. By getting things done for a growing number of elite members, they earned the reputation of effective doers in contrast to the ‘indecisive’ and ‘slow’ President Jeenbekov. As the electoral outcome of October elections shows, their party ‘Mekenim Kırgızstan’ was just 0.71 per cent behind the presidential party ‘Birimdik’ contesting the president’s monopoly to form the majority and control the future legislature.
Violent change of government 2020: An intra-elite contestation? No, populism!
Given the above account of state-oligarchy competition, it could be implied that Jeenbekov’s removal from office was a result of the changing state-oligarchy relationship. We do not know what would have become of this relationship if the parliamentary elections were not annulled and if Jeenbekov were to face an increased competition within the newly elected oligarchic parliament. However, such a changing of balance cannot explain the unexpected emergence of populist leader Sadyr Japarov. Two and half months later, Sadyr Japarov not only has won the presidential election, but has succeeded in carrying out a referendum with the goal of returning to a system of strong presidentialism. At the time of writing this essay, another referendum was scheduled to take place on April 11th to vote for a new constitution in which the president becomes the head of the executive, the electoral system goes back to a mixed one and the number of deputies is reduced from 120 to 90. The rise of a populist leader, even if it conceals an important informal process of oligarchisation that would have erupted into a major elite contestation, testifies to fundamental crises. One is the crisis of representative government, in which the emergent party system detached the elites even further from the people. By supporting Japarov’s idea of strong presidentialism people seek, paradoxically, a better accountability of the political system because it is easier to hold one person accountable rather than shallow political parties, frequently changing government ministers and the oligarchy-serving parliament. The following saying “We have brought Japarov to power and we will depose him if necessary” is currently a favourite tale one can hear in public places, bazaars and transportation. A tale that hints to the desires of the ordinary people, of the poor, who helped the populist leader to seize power, to see their own importance, to have their voices finally heard. Capitalising on people’s deep-seated frustrations and anger about elite corruption, the ineffective party system and the oligarchisation of politics, Japarov has surprisingly easily effected a constitutional coup.
As the October violent change of government has shown, there are multiple crises at work in Kyrgyzstan. The first is the crisis of representative government and the party system which led to deepening of popular distrust towards the elites. Early popular support for nationalist Sadyr Japarov in detriment to a coalition of well-established politicians such as Babanov, Atambayev and Madumarov (despite their representation of diverse social strata and geographic constituencies) also demonstrates low trust in the establishment. Yet within the corrupt system, new leaders with real programmatic visions have no chance to emerge. The party system failed to become a source of new leadership paving the way to populism to take over. In such conditions, the donor community should reconsider its past support to political parties and parliamentarism. The current crisis of the party system shows that the past programmes aimed at enhancing exchanges between MPs and their constituencies, exchanges between Kyrgyz PMs and other world parties have severe limits. Support to political parties should acquire a new dimension in the light of the new constitution which, if adopted on April 11th, will shift to a mixed system and less power to parties.
Programmes aimed at developing and supporting liberal civil society which produce similar artificial results should be also reconsidered towards a better analysis where the real sources of authority and change are located. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, citizens of all avenues were quickly mobilising to step in where the state was missing or failing. From youth engagement in voluntary movements, to religious charity activities, to female solidarity groups, to business structures, to migrant safety nets, these mobilisations demonstrated existence of other sources of change and resilience. The donor aid should better understand these dynamics and work towards helping to sustain these safety nets and resilience.
It is important to understand that under the present conditions liberal NGOs and independent mass media are discredited in public eyes and enjoy a construed reputation of Western agents. Promoting these actors further will not help neither the liberal society nor the image of the international community. The focus on human rights, including the LGBT rights, has worsened considerably the Western image and consequently diminished the degree of influence of Western ideals and projects on local politics. To redress these negative images against the background of anti-Westernism prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, Western partners should work to promote other human rights images than of themselves.
As international practice shows, one of the dangers of nationalist populism in times of unaddressed economic hardships is a possible mobilisation of nationalism against vulnerable groups. In the Kyrgyz context, these traditionally include ethnic minorities, women, and LGBT people. Attacks on these groups have been frequently accompanying political changes in the country’s short history of independence. Therefore, one of the donor’s priorities should be focused on monitoring and preventing possible violence against these groups.
Most importantly, since current populism has economic roots, it is absolutely vital to pay more attention to people’s economic security and in particular to education. Half of the country’s population is less than 25 years old and their education and prospects of employment will determine the future political system of the country. There are multiple and diverse possibilities of improving the primary education which suffers from decades of underinvestment and neglect, which yet could become the motor of economic development and democratisation. One possibility is to support the teachers’ education and curriculum development in rural areas. Another possibility is to promote the idea that migrant remittances should be invested in children’s education and not in consumption culture. Children who suffer from the absence of migrant parents should receive extra psychological and educational council.
Finally, the donor community could help by investing in more research and public opinion polls as the primary and fundamental way of understanding societal processes that lead to populism, nationalism and right wing politics. The political system cannot know which policies to adopt if it lacks key knowledge about which policies which social groups would benefit from.
Dr. Asel Doolotkeldieva is a Senior Lecturer at the OSCE Academy (Bishkek). She holds her PhD from the University of Exeter and she previously was a Visiting Fellow at College Mondial, FMSH. Her academic interests include social mobilisations, regime transition and democratisation, post-socialism, political economy of resource extraction in Central Asia.
“Foreign Policy Centre”
by Dr. Asel Doolotkeldieva