On January 10, 2021, the people of the Kyrgyz Republic selected their sixth president at early presidential elections, which was urgently scheduled after the collapse of the previous government in October last year. According to the Central Election Commission, out of 16 candidates, Sadyr Japarov had won the elections with 79% of votes. However, this election had a number of inconsistencies, which makes it disputed, creating a precedent in the region. It also triggers us to scrutinize the overall political background of Kyrgyzstan and its socio-economic conditions that impact developments of internal politics and differentiate Kyrgyzstan from other Central Asian states, which is discussed further.
Kyrgyzstan has been in a political crisis since October 2020, in virtue of the disputable results of the parliamentary elections announced on October 4. The day following the election, protests and violent showdown between riot police and demonstrators occurred in Bishkek that led to the voluntary resignation of the then President Sooronbay Jeenbekov on October 15. A wave of discontent arose due to the results of parliamentary elections, where out of 16 parties participated in the elections to the Jogorku Kenesh (the Supreme Council), only four passed the 7% threshold, out of which two pro-government parties – “Birimdik” (Unity) and “Mekenim Kyrgyzstan” (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) – obtained 75% of the seats, with President Jeenbekov lobbying the “Birimdik” and “Mekenim Kyrgyzstan” parties, supported by Raiymbek Matraimov, a former top customs official with strong political and economic influence in the country. The triumph of these two parties threatened to overwhelm the Jogorku Kenesh with presidential loyalists, shadow business figures, and individuals connected to criminal groups, in addition to the fact that both Jeenbekov and Matraimov were from the South, thus infringing voices of the northern representatives of the country [Engvall, 2020]. The remaining share of representation, meanwhile, was distributed among the centrist party “Kyrgyzstan” and the opposition “Butun Kyrgyzstan” party, although later the results of the October 4 parliamentary elections were abolished altogether.
All these circumstances led to a political vacuum in the country, when the incumbent parliament elected Sadyr Japarov as a new prime minister, who was released from prison just 24 hours earlier, as he was sentenced to 11.6 years for organizing mass unrest and attempts to take a hostage during the mining protest in Northeastern Kyrgyzstan in October 2013. Sadyr Japarov was freed from the prison together with other imprisoned politicians, including the ex-president Almazbek Atambayev, (who was later imprisoned again), and followed an unprecedented path to the presidency. In just three months he became the leader of the protests, the new prime minister, and the acting president before resigning his duties to participate in the presidential elections, and subsequently turned to be the newly elected president of Kyrgyzstan. Hence, the unconstitutional way of becoming a prime minister and unexpunged convictions in two criminal records, in addition to his possible connection with the criminal world and with the Bakiyev clan, is widely criticized and the legitimacy of Japarov for the presidency was broadly questioned [DW, 2020]. Kyrgyzstan’s key foreign partners such as Russia, the European Union (EU), China, and the USA were also hesitant to recognize the legitimacy of Japarov’s presidency. Nevertheless, his victory with landslide partially resolved the issue, when foreign leaders congratulated Japarov with his triumph, including Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev, who was among the first to congratulate his counterpart [Toktonaliev, 2021].
Another peculiarity of the past elections was that together with presidential elections, the referendum on constitutional reform, which aims to turn the country from parliamentary-presidential to presidential, took place. Kyrgyzstan obtained the parliamentary-presidential system as a result of the 2010 turmoil, when protests occurred throughout the country, accusing president Bakiyev of authoritarianism and the difficult economic situation of the country. However, the past referendum, initiated by Japarov, seeks to return once more to a more authoritarian style, although it is not clear whether the interim parliament has the legitimacy to propose constitutional amendments. Nonetheless, the need for change was grounded on the allegations that parliamentarism was not established in Kyrgyzstan because the power bloc, the state prosecutor’s office, and partly the judicial system remained under the control of the president, whereas the parliament became the place for entrepreneurs to protect their businesses, which led to the oligarchization of parliament [Ryskulova, 2020]. The results of elections show that 80% of voters supported the return to the presidential system, only 10,8% voted for the continuation of the current parliamentary system, and 5% of voters choose the option “against all” [Azattyq, 2021]. Meanwhile, the second referendum is expected to be held possibly in May 2021 and if approved, Kyrgyzstan will no longer be an exception in the region with its parliamentarism.
As for the new Constitution, a draft of which was presented for public discussion in November 2020, significant changes are made in terms of the distribution of power. In particular, the president receives unlimited power to personally pass and repeal laws, and will be responsible for the formation and operation of the government, while the power of the Jogorku Kenesh will be reduced to a minimum along with reducing the number of parliament members, thus all executive power will be in the hands of the president and his subordinate government. The new Constitution also affects the rights and freedoms of citizens, including the exclusion of the right to receive information on the activities of government bodies, to obtain information about themselves in public authorities, and the right of citizens to appeal to international human rights bodies for the protection of violated rights and freedoms and other limitations. The novelty of the new Constitution is the People’s Kurultai, the supreme advisory, consultative, and coordinating body of democracy [Azattyq, 2020]. In fact, the restoration of the presidential system brings is fears of potential return to the authoritarian regime as was during the presidency of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, both of whom were overthrown as a result of mass riots in 2005 and 2010 respectively. It is worth mentioning, that the past referendum on constitutional reforms is the tenth attempt to change the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan since independence. The first Constitution was adopted in May 1993 after two years of discussions. However, only during the presidency of Askar Akayev, amendments were made five times, and after the April 2010 revolution when the Constitution was changed in order to adopt a parliamentary form of government, a moratorium on constitutional amendments until 2020 was imposed. Despite that, in December 2016, another referendum was held to make amendments [Ryskulova, 2020].
Obviously, the frequent changes in the basic law of the country, as well as the power hierarchy undermine people’s faith in the rule of law and government. If during the revolutions of 2005 and 2010, people had at least some belief that their future was in their hands, the past elections showed that their hope is fading. It is evidenced particularly in the exceptionally low turnout of voters amounted to 39.75% of the possible voters – far below in comparison to the previous 2017 elections, when the turnout was 56,32%. Although officially low participation was explained by the cancellation of an opportunity to change the electoral address, it is more likely that people simply do not believe in elections, and the attitude that “nothing will change anyway” is widespread among the public. Either way, the minimum threshold for validating the referendum is 30% and the threshold for presidential elections is not defined, therefore the low turnout did not affect the outcome.
Needless to say, Kyrgyzstan’s political life is rich with rapid changes of political establishment that roots in the deep discontent of its people. Thanks to the openness of the political system and open and active civil society, almost within three decades, Kyrgyzstan had experienced three revolutions when Askar Akayev (2005), Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2010), and Sooronbay Jeenbekov (2020) were overthrown. The only president that peacefully transferred power after the expiration of his term was Almazbek Atambayev, who was later imprisoned on corruption charges. Therefore, the present changes of the government, as well as shifting the form of governance does not inspire hopes for dramatic changes, since corruption is profoundly entrenched in the minds of officials. Moreover, it is more than likely that the current issues will survive the incumbent government.
By and large, corruption and nepotism are Achilles’ heels of Kyrgyzstan’s political and public life. For instance, in the World Bank’s report on the ratio between the aid disbursements and changes in the foreign bank accounts, Kyrgyzstan was included in the survey among the 22 most aid-dependent countries in the world. With its active civil society promoting openness and democratic values in the conditions of severe economic difficulties, Kyrgyzstan is the recipient of extensive development assistance from developing countries and organizations. However, according to the report, the correlation between received aid disbursements that actually target to develop socio-economic indicators of the country coincides with the significant increases in offshore bank deposits, thus promoting the wealth of elites rather than people [Andersen, et al., 2020]. Hence, the rampant corruption that is leaked to all sectors of the economy and at all levels of governance, led to extensive patronage networks that increased both incentives and opportunities for bureaucratic corruption, and was the main trigger for dissatisfaction with governments of the ousted presidents. As for the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, in 2019 Kyrgyzstan was placed in the 126th position out of 180 [Transparency International, 2020].
The regional factor – crucial in the political life of Kyrgyzstan – also impacted flourishing nepotism in the country. The North-South divide, critical in forming the government apparatus, similarly impacts the prevalence of nepotism in daily life. It is also dangerous during times of political turbulence, since it causes a wave of discontent among different groups and subsequently could have irreversible consequences.
In the conditions of widespread corruption and nepotism, together with the misuse of power and political corruption, which in turn cause political and economic instability, no wonder that Kyrgyzstan is stuck in the permanent economic crisis. It is moreover was exacerbated by the aftermath of the global economic crisis thrived by the COVID-19 last year.
Kyrgyzstan’s chronic political turbulence together with economic volatility forced the emergence of a “self-survival strategy of the population”, which forced hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens to search for opportunities for survival in neighboring countries. As a result, Kyrgyzstan accounts among the countries that are the most reliant on remittances from labor migrants, as more than 30% of the country’s GDP comes from migrants’ transfers. According to unofficial estimates, more than one million Kyrgyz work in Russia, that is every sixth or even fifth citizen of Kyrgyzstan is settled in Russian Federation, whilst a third of them plan to stay there indefinitely [Tusupbekov, 2020]. Due to the consequences of last year’s coronavirus outbreak, revenue inflows from remittances decreased by approximately 20-25% that consequently caused 4-5% decline of the GDP, albeit after a deep recession in 2020, economists expect some growth in 2021 [EBRD, 2020].
Another source of income that was heavily affected by the consequences of both coronavirus and political changes was the reception of foreign assistance. If, on the one hand, foreign partner countries and organizations were supporting Kyrgyzstan for realizing the complexity of issues triggered by the corona crisis and political turmoil, on the other hand, they had postponed the provision of assistance aid targeted for the development of Kyrgyzstan due to uncertainty associated with the interim government. Particularly, Kyrgyzstan was among the first countries, which received coronavirus-related emergency financial assistance from the IMF, the Asian Development Bank, and the Eurasian Development Bank along with loans and grants from developed nations as part of development assistance [EBRD, 2020]. At the same time, the EU had postponed discussions of the new bilateral multi-year cooperation program for 2021-2027 and the planned allocation of 6 million euros for digitalization for the period after the parliamentary elections, the injections that were much needed for Kyrgyz economy [24.kg, 2020]. Hence, maintaining macroeconomic stability is the primary task for the incumbent government.
Summarizing the recent political and economic developments in Kyrgyzstan, it could be concluded that for the new government it is essential primarily to return the long-term stability of the country, yet avoiding using radical methods of governance, since historically in Kyrgyzstan the concentration of power in one hand enables thriving corruption and nepotism that is a straight way to another mass protests. It seems that Mr. Japarov understands the complexity of the tasks assigned to him, as he stated that priority will be given to eliminating corruption and it might take three to four years to fix everything [BBC, 2021]. So far, we can only wish good luck to President Japarov.
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Andersen, Jørgen Juel, Johannesen, Niels and Rijkers, Bob (2020). Elite Capture of Foreign Aid Evidence from Offshore Bank Accounts. Policy Research Working Group 9150. World Bank, Development Research Group.
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Ryskulova, Nargiza (2020). “Rollback 30 years ago.” Why is Japarov rewriting the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-54982239. Accessed on 18.01.2021.
Toktonaliev, Timur (2021). Populist Wins Kyrgyzstan’s Presidential Election. Retrieved from https://iwpr.net/global-voices/populist-wins-kyrgyzstans-presidential. Accessed on 18.01.2021.
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Tusupbekov, Alibek (2020). The Kyrgyz are tired of the rampant “democracy” and now rejoice at the unprepossessing EAEU. Retrieved from https://kazvedomosti.kz/article/kyrgyzy-ustali-ot-razgula-demokratii-i-teper-raduyutsya-nekazistomu-eaes/. Accessed on 18.01.2021.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th