Post-Election Crisis in Kyrgyzstan
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Associate , VIF
Introduction

Recently, Kyrgyzstan faced one of the worst political crises in a decade. The current political turmoil is no different from the previous two popular revolutions of 2005 and 2010. The 'Tulip Revolution' of 2005 marked the then President Askar Akayev's fall from power, while the 'Melon Revolution' resulted in the toppling of President Kurmanbek Bakiev following the Osh conflict of June 2010. Regime change in this landlocked Central Asian republic has almost always led to a political crisis, ultimately paving the way for a popular revolution piloted by political elites and opponents of the ruling regimes. The recent crisis is significant because it did not produce bloodshed like the other two political revolutions. It also led to the resignation of the President and the appointment of a Prime Minister freed from jail.

On October 4, 2020, the Kyrgyz republic went to polls to elect a new parliament. The election results resulted in a pro-government parliament, wherein only four of 16 parties cleared a 7 percent electoral threshold. Three of these parties were seen as pro-Jeenbekov.1 Only one opposition party could cross the threshold. Claiming the election results as rigged, opposition parties and ordinary citizens started protests in Bishkek and all over the country. The protesters seized the parliament and the presidential office, the White House, which ultimately led to the annulment of the elections by the Central Election Commission. The unrest forced Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov and Parliament Speaker Dastan Jumabekov to step down from their positions. Several high-profile prisoners were also freed, including former President Almazbek Atambayev, former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, and nationalist leader Sadyr Japarov.2 On October 10, Atambayev was rearrested on the charges of organizing the anti-government demonstrations.

President Jeenbekov, who hails from the strategic southern region of Osh, shared a close association with another influential southern clan leader, Raimbek Matraimov, a major financier and influential figure. Matraimov was a customs officer who had control of the cargo transit via the Kyrgyz-Chinese border checkpoints, which made him rich and influential. His association with Jeenbekov in the October elections has enraged northern clans who were routed in the election and were also deprived of representation in the new parliament. They instigated their supporters to take over Bishkek city, eventually toppling the government. The fragile state structure collapsed. And in the chaotic conditions, President Jeenbekov went into hiding, causing a power vacuum.3

Considering the anti-government sentiments, the impasse appeared to favour the now-deposed President Jeenbekov. He sought to restore constitutional order by seeking a new government and a Speaker of Parliament, which could stand in a situation where parliament had to decide whether the president should resign or be impeached. However, the situation rapidly altered into a multi-player battle on clan-based interests.

There were many claimants to the political power in Kyrgyzstan. The first such faction was the supporters of the Sadyr Japarov. His supporters were organised and determined to have him established as Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister (PM). They were also reported to be resorting to street violence. The second faction is related to former President Atambayev, who formed a tactical pact with Omurbek Babanov, a former presidential contender and an adversary of Atambayev. The third group was a coalition of opposition parties and social movements, including the Bir Bol, Ata Meken, and Reforma parties. After protesters demanded a law preventing those with criminal convictions from participating in politics, many in this group felt concerned about aligning with Atambayev. These factions are mainly divided based on their regional association and clan interests.

Jeenbekov was a close aid of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Before the election, he went to Moscow to consolidate his support. However, the Russian response to the political crisis has been disappointing for Jeenbekov, which compelled him to resign from the post. Seeing the bloody history of political revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, his resignation has also sent a commendable message.

Rise of Sadyr Japarov

On October 10, Japarov was elected Prime Minister by 61 parliamentarians, though only 51 were allegedly present during the vote. Jeenbekov declined to authenticate the Japarov's appointment, citing irregularities in the procedures. But on October 14, he confirmed his appointment and resigned as President of Kyrgyzstan on October 15. He also reaffirmed his desire to avoid bloodshed in the face of lingering tensions. Alternatively, Kanat Isaev, the new Speaker of Parliament, refused to take up the responsibility of the acting President, which ultimately directed the control to the newly elected PM Sadyr Japarov.4

Japarov hails from the Issyk-Kul region in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Before being elected as a parliament member, he worked as a policeman. After the 2005 revolution, he was appointed the head of the anti-corruption agency during Bakiyev Regime (2005-10). In 2010, he became a part of the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, led by Kamchybek Tashiev. The influential figure behind Japarov's success as a politician is his long-time ally and nationalist politician Tashiev.5 Japarov, along with Kamchybek Tashiev, were charged and arrested for allegedly attempting a coup in 2012. In 2013, he campaigned for the Kumtor gold mine's nationalisation and kidnapped a local politician. Subsequently, he fled the country and was jailed in 2017 after his return. Currently, Tashiev is the leader of the nationalist party Mekenchil, which nearly fell below the electoral threshold, receiving 6.99 percent of the vote.6

Four fundamental manifestations are notable while understanding the recent events in Kyrgyzstan. First, Kyrgyzstan was already overwhelmed with the inefficiency of handling the pandemic, giving a jolt to the country's socio-economic condition. Secondly, a backdrop of electoral fraud supplemented by the political instigation paved the way for political vacuum. The dispute represents a conflict between competing networks of political elites, businessmen, and criminal grouping to pursue state capture. Thirdly, although local politics is often viewed as a conflict between southern and northern regions, both Jeenbekov and Japarov camps included southern groups in this political upheaval. Japarov belongs to the eastern part of the country and is not a southerner. Therefore, concluding that the battle transcends a too easy north-south reading of the situation may not be entirely correct.7 And lastly, the external intervention was absent in this conflict.

Japarov's initial promises appear to show determination and efforts to consolidate power among political groups. To fight corruption in the country, he created a reform commission. Raimbek Matraimov, a close ally of Jeenbekov, was arrested on October 20 on corruption charges.8 This will not only improve Japarov’s anti-corruption credentials but would also help control the rival groups. He has also signalled for constitutional amendments, which would allow him to contest the next elections. However, he may be challenged by others, including the famous and well-off Omurbek Babanov.9 As an anti-corruption move, Japarov announced a 30 days 'economic amnesty' to formal officials, allowing funds to be returned to the government in return for free passage.10 However, it does not signal a valid anti-corruption programme. Japarov's close ally Kamcybek Tashiyev was appointed as head of the State National Security Committee, which will lead the programme. It will also strengthen Japarov's control of the country's run-up to the elections.11

Japarov needs to secure legitimacy of his rule both domestically and internationally, and this could be done by allowing different political groups, including the younger generation of activists, to establish reliable institutions. Implementation of actual reforms in the law enforcement and judiciary would mitigate regional political risks and reduce corruption. If not done so, he too will have to face public resentment, as have previous presidents who all failed to address systemic issues. Without the financial incentives that being in office offer, this is now possible, but Japarov cannot do it alone, and it needs to be done legally and legitimately.

Possible Implications for Russia and China

External powers have been noticeably absent from direct or indirect involvement in the Kyrgyz crisis. Russia and China are the two most significant partners of Kyrgyzstan. Its economic dependence on Beijing is frequently mentioned, including its USD 1.8 billion in debt, but China's response has been muted. Kyrgyzstan shares a porous border with China's Xinjiang province and had the most significant Uighur diaspora in the entire Central Asian region. Chinese investments are also at stake in the country. Anti-Chinese sentiments have been on the rise, and Chinese activities in Kyrgyzstan have generated corruption issues at large. Therefore, it will be appealing to look forward to how the new regime balances China and Sinophobia.

Kyrgyzstan is a crucial asset of the Russian security strategy in Central Asia.12 The Kant airbase is vital for Russia's national security. On October 6, Moscow made an initial statement referring to Kyrgyzstan's chaos. It states that "We call on all political forces of the country to show wisdom and responsibility to preserve internal stability and security in this critical moment."13 After this, on October 12, Dmitry Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin's deputy chief of staff, visited Bishkek for a few hours and met with Japarov and Jeenbekov as well. Jeenbekov claimed to have had multiple phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the crisis, while Japarov stressed Russia's role as Bishkek's strategic partner during his ascent to power. The Kremlin has not openly sided with either Japarov or Jeenbekov and has instead of stressed the need for stability. This lack of vocal support signalled that Putin does not have confidence in the ousted President Jeenbekov.14

Since 2014, from Crimean Crisis and western sanctions against Russia to decreasing oil prices, Moscow's problems do not seem to end. The recent troubles in its neighbourhood, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan have direct implications for Russian interests in the Post-Soviet Eurasian space. Russia's top priority in the region seems to be preserving the status quo in Central Asia. All these countries are members of the Russia-led security initiative, Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).15 So, Russia's economic as well as strategic ambitions in the regions are at stake.

India-Kyrgyzstan Relations

India was among the first few countries to establish diplomatic relations with Kyrgyzstan in 1992. The two countries have many agreements, including Trade and Economic Cooperation, Investment Promotion and Protection, Avoidance of Double Taxation, etc. In 2011, the joint military exercise 'Khanjar' was started. There are thousands of Indian students who study medicine in various medical institutions in the country. The Kyrgyz leaderships have been mostly supportive of India's stand on Kashmir. They also support India's bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC.

India is the largest democracy, and Kyrgyzstan is referred to as the only democratic country in Central Asia; therefore, India has a lot of offer to support the democratic process. In Kyrgyzstan, a departure from a democratic regime may bring uncertainty for India's interests. India also needs to maintain a communication channel to support the democratic and peaceful political system in Kyrgyzstan.

India's attempts at reinvigorating its Central Asia policy have given some positive results in the recent past. Any adverse development in Central Asia will have a direct impact on India's aspirations. For India, it is imperative to keep up the pace of bilateral engagement intact on all possible fronts.

Conclusion

Events related to the parliamentary elections had plunged Kyrgyzstan into a political crisis. However, the appointment of a new government and the President's resignation brought an end to the unrest. The new government under Sadyr Japarov has taken necessary steps to ensure stability in the country. The efficient handling of the pandemic and resolving the socio-economic problems will be the priority areas for Japarov's government. Adopting a more competent foreign policy will be another key concern for the new Kyrgyz government. Russia is the closest political ally of Kyrgyzstan, and its position remains unaffected with the coming of a new regime. Soon after his appointment, PM Japarov declared that Russia would remain the Kyrgyz republic's main strategic partner.

China-Kyrgyzstan relations have been impacted negatively by the recent political crisis. The protesters have attacked the Chinese people and businesses in Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, securing its economic interests would be Beijing's primary concern. India also shares close relations with Kyrgyzstan, and enhancing trade, connectivity, and investments remain the areas of mutual interests. It is expected that New Delhi would play a significant role in maintaining peace and stability in Kyrgyzstan. This could be done by strengthening the bilateral dialogue mechanism.

Endnotes
  1. Nikola Mikovic, “Kyrgyzstan’s turmoil and the competition for Central Asia”, Lowy Institute, October 15, 2020. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/kyrgyzstan-s-turmoil-and-competition-central-asia
  2. Matteo Fumagalli, “Kyrgyz electoral fiasco involves familiar faces” East Asia Forum, 20 October 2020. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/10/20/kyrgyz-electoral-fiasco-involves-familiar-faces/
  3. M. K. Bhadrakumar, “Another color revolution fails in Kyrgyzstan”, Asia times, October 16, 2020. https://asiatimes.com/2020/10/another-color-revolution-fails-in-kyrgyzstan/?fbclid=IwAR1StcPxnbhdHNBX8QWLBfUX05AIgDMeYszfMPp5EXML%E2%80%A6
  4. Tolkun Namatbayeva and Christopher Rickleton, “Kyrgyzstan PM Claims Presidential Powers in Post-Vote Crisis”, the Moscow Times, October 15, 2020. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/10/15/kyrgyzstan-pm-claims-presidential-powers-in-post-vote-crisis-a71771
  5. Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Colleen Wood, “Election officials annulled Kyrgyzstan’s October election. Here’s why”, The Washington Post, October 10, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/10/election-officials-annulled-kyrgyzstans-october-election-heres-why/
  6. Shairbek Dzhuraev, “Turbulence in Kyrgyzstan: a hijacked revolution or business asusual”, Commentaries, Crossroads Central Asia, October, 12, 2020. https://www.crossroads-ca.org/turbulence-in-kyrgyzstan-a-hijacked-revolution-or-business-as-usual/
  7. Matteo Fumagalli, “Kyrgyz electoral fiasco involves familiar faces” East Asia Forum, 20 October 2020. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/10/20/kyrgyz-electoral-fiasco-involves-familiar-faces/
  8. “House Arrest Ordered For Kyrgyzstan's Powerful Oligarch Raimbek Matraimov”, RFE/RL, October 20, 2020. https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-detains-former-customs-chief-matraimov-on-corruption-charges/30902497.html.
  9. Kate Mallinson, “Kyrgyzstan's Protracted Political and Economic Crisis”, Chatham House, October, 26, 2020. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/10/kyrgyzstans-protracted-political-and-economic-crisis
  10. “Kyrgyz acting president announces 'economic amnesty'”, CGTN October 22, 2020. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-22/Kyrgyz-acting-president-announces-economic-amnesty--UNadMd86S4/index.html
  11. “Kamchibek Tashiev appointed as State National Security Committee Chairman”, AKI press, October 16, 2020.https://akipress.com/news:649779:Kamchibek_Tashiev_appointed_as_State_National_Security_Committee_Chairman/
  12. M. K. Bhadrakumar, “Another color revolution fails in Kyrgyzstan”, Asia times, October 16, 2020. https://asiatimes.com/2020/10/another-color-revolution-fails-in-kyrgyzstan/?fbclid=IwAR1StcPxnbhdHNBX8QWLBfUX05AIgDMeYszfMPp5EXML%E2%80%A6
  13. Russian Foreign Ministry: Russia interested in ensuring stability in Kyrgyzstan”, 24 KG, October 6, 2020. https://24.kg/english/167964_Russian_Foreign_Ministry_Russia_interested_in_ensuring_stability_in_Kyrgyzstan/
  14. Nurbek Savitahunov, “In Crisis-Hit Kyrgyzstan, Russia Weighs Its Influence and Intentions” The Moscow Times, October 16, 2020. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/10/16/in-crisis-hit-kyrgyzstan-russia-weighs-its-influence-and-intentions-a71772
  15. Tolkun Namatbayeva and Christopher Rickleton, “Kyrgyzstan PM Claims Presidential Powers in Post-Vote Crisis”, The Moscow Times, October 15, 2020. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/10/15/kyrgyzstan-pm-claims-presidential-powers-in-post-vote-crisis-a71771

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