The West Must Stick with Kyrgyzstan

Photo: Acting President, Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov addresses a news conference, October 21, 2020. Credit: gov.kg
Photo: Acting President, Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov addresses a news conference, October 21, 2020. Credit: gov.kg

Are the latest protests a new hope for democracy or a return of the strongman leader?

Kyrgyzstan’s popular uprising has been cast as a justified revolt against the country’s farce of a parliamentary election. But there’s more. The latest developments threaten Central Asia’s only experiment with the pluralism of a parliamentary democracy — the 2010 decision to split governing authority between the country’s president and prime minister. This promising framework may soon be rolled back, much to the delight of Kyrgyzstan’s more authoritarian neighbors. The West can, and should, engage. Doing so intelligently requires understanding the situation better.

The current crisis has been years in the making. In 2017, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev was attempting to orchestrate his succession by installing reliable patsies into the two branches of government. He tapped Sooronbay Jeenbekov – a political nonentity – to be president, while installing his right-hand man, Sadyr Japarov, as prime minister. In April 2017, Jeenbekov had a 3% approval rating; by October, he became Kyrgyzstan’s seventh president, and Japarov was prime minister.

What Atambayev had failed to account for was that Jeenbekov might already be in someone else’s pocket. This was a crucial miscalculation. Once in power, Jeenbekov turned on his political mentor. In a flurry of accusations and violent arrests, Jeenbekov jailed Atambayev and Japarov. As it turned out, Jeenbekov, who hails from a clan in the country’s south, was more loyal to two fellow southerners: his brother and influential Kyrgyz MP, Asylbek, and powerful oligarch, Raimbek Matraimov.

There are many sources of political alienation that led up to the latest revolt, but regional dynamics play a part. There is a deep political split between northern and southern Kyrgyzstan, and it manifests in intense divisions and power plays. As a source in Bishkek pointed out, after the jailing of Atambayev and Japarov, “there were no strong northern leaders left. They were all in prison or outside the country. The north was angry.”

There were, of course, other serious problems with Jeenbekov’s administration. He presented himself as a corruption-fighter, even as his patron Matraimov brazenly engaged in fraudulent business dealings, including one of the biggest money-laundering scandals in Kyrgyz history. Jeenbekov’s response to COVID-19 was also particularly disorganized, which has led Kyrgyzstan to suffer more than its neighbors.

In October, a routine parliamentary election became mired in accusations of vote-buying and corruption. No opposition parties met the 7% threshold to get a spot in parliament despite the incumbent party’s low approval ratings. Of the four parties that did win seats, two had been financed by Matraimov. The Kyrgyz were furious, and things escalated quickly. Protesters sprung Atambayev and Japarov from prison, took over the main square in Bishkek, and stormed government buildings. On October 15th, President Jeenbekov announced his resignation—or was forced to resign, depending on whom you ask.

Kyrgyzstan currently has no elected president. Former jailed PM Japarov is acting president and prime minister. In the lead-up to the presidential elections, tentatively planned for January 2021, it is possible—some say inevitable—that the Kyrgyz government will try to hold a referendum to re-consolidate power in the presidency. Then, come January, it is almost certain that Japarov would win this newly empowered office. With parliamentary elections set to take place before June 2021, Japarov would be well-positioned to take the helm of a weakened legislature.

This outcome is not certain. After the charges of vote-buying and bullying, Kyrgyzstan has already amended some election rules. The 7% threshold has been replaced by a 3% threshold, which amounts to about 65,000 votes in Kyrgyzstan. The Electoral Commission took away the ability to substitute in polling places—called Forma 2—a tactic widely used for voter fraud. And finally, the commission lowered the party fees from 5 million (about $62,000) to 1 million som (about $12,500), which should open up elections to more diverse candidates.

Despite reforms, a re-consolidated strongman presidency remains the likely outcome. Though you wouldn’t know it from Western headlines, Japarov is popular, and boasts support in the north and the south, something rare Kyrgyzstan. His proud nationalism appeals to the Kyrgyz people right now, who are eyeing a resurgent China with wariness. And Japarov, as an associate of Atambayev, will certainly have Russia’s support.

The West must act. Already, the EU has done an excellent job supporting Central Asia’s only attempt at a parliamentary democracy — usually through budget support in return for reforms. Should Kyrgyzstan’s people vote to re-invest power in a strong executive, the EU must not disengage; Kyrgyz civil society will need more support, not less, in this new environment.

The United States’ main involvement in Kyrgyzstan has been tied to the ill-fated Manas airbase, which was vital to US operations in Afghanistan. US payouts to successive Kyrgyz governments helped fuel corruption, and have sown lasting suspicion among Kyrgyz voters about American intentions. President Trump’s addition of Kyrgyzstan to his travel ban blacklist only intensified this mistrust.

Trust should be won back. Vice-President Biden has said that support for democracy abroad would undergird his global strategy. Regardless of who wins the US presidency, the upcoming administration should consider piggybacking off EU programs to engage with Kyrgyz democratic development. Investing in Kyrgyz democracy makes sense. Kyrgyzstan, after all, borders Xinjiang, China’s most restive region. Placing a long-term bet on democracy in Kyrgyzstan is morally sound and strategically foresighted.

October 23, 2020