The combustible combination of COVID-19, systemic corruption, Kyrgyzstan’s political culture and regional divisions erupted in large protests after two pro-government parties won the majority of the legislature’s seats in the recent parliamentary elections.
The Unity party is closely affiliated with the family of former president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, while My Homeland Kyrgyzstan has ties to the wealthy and influential Matraimov clan.
The commendable resignation of Jeenbekov as president, in his words to avoid ‘bloodshed’, completes the meteoric rise of Sadyr Japarov. The latter sprung from serving an eleven-year prison sentence to becoming interim prime minister as well as interim president – despite reportedly condoning violence and intimidation among his supporters.
Kyrgyzstan has been here before when the country was shaken by revolutions in both 2005 and 2010 but, this time, stakes are much higher due to the impact of the pandemic on the economy. After a decade of 4 percent growth, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently revised its 2020 growth for Kyrgyzstan from -4 percent to -12 percent.
Unemployment is high and COVID-19 has impoverished vast swathes of the Kyrgyz population and certainly made them vulnerable to vote-buying in the elections. According to a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Kyrgyz Economic Policy Research Institute, critical remittance inflows to the country could diminish by 25 per cent, while unemployment could rise to 21 per cent.
Most working-age people have no savings, which makes lockdowns near impossible to enforce and, in the weeks since the political crisis began, the country has seen a share increase in daily COVID-19 numbers. Dissatisfaction with Jeenbekov’s mishandling of the pandemic and the endemic corruption was a factor in his downfall.
Kyrgyzstan’s economic debacle
Economically, the country owes vast sums to China, debts which are frozen owing to the pandemic, but are unlikely to be fully written off. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is bailing the country out while Russia freezes its financial assistance as this third coup has deepened the mistrust of external players towards Kyrgyzstan, and further damaged its image.
In such an unstable and restless world, Japarov urgently needs to secure agreements with Kyrgyzstan’s key geopolitical stakeholders - Russia, China and the US/EU, all of whom are weary of the constant political turmoil but also need assurance that the country can maintain a more balanced, multi-vector foreign policy.
Given budget shortfalls, ongoing economic woes, and a dependence on Russia for remittances from labour migrants, options for the new government appear limited – as demonstrated by Kyrgyzstan’s new foreign minister Ruslan Kazakbaev travelling to Moscow for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov within a few days of his appointment.
Kyrgyzstan has a history of violent protest against foreign-owned assets, often provoked by populist and disruptive figures, and the recent political unrest illustrates how large investors in Kyrgyzstan lack protection. Many suspended their operations, while some saw their property looted, all of which impacted the Kyrgyz budget.
The re-emergence of the nationalist-leaning Japarov, sentenced for the kidnapping of a public official during 2013 riots demanding the nationalization of the country’s largest mining company Kumtor, raises alarm bells as nationalist and anti-foreign narratives have now become populist instruments.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development sees the extractive sector as driving Kyrgyzstan’s GDP growth last year of 4.5 percent, with Kumtor contributing 10 percent of the country’s GDP growth annually. But the political instability and perceived nationalist orientation has reduced output in 2020 and will deter further foreign investment.
Kyrgyzstan needs a solid, consolidated, corruption-free leadership to tackle its challenges, especially issues of external economic assistance, restructuring its debts to China, and taking the oxygen out of the current angry protest mood and rising nationalism.
Forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, if free and fair, can restore some legitimacy to the next government, but not enough. Kyrgyzstan’s politics are characterized by understandings rather than well-legislated rules, the blurring of formal institutions with informal institutions, and organized crime penetrates the government at all levels.
Hidden behind the official political parties, the recent political turmoil was also a battle for power between regional and political factions.
Japarov’s proposed constitutional changes suggest that Kyrgyzstan’s days as a democracy could be numbered. With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place after constitutional elections which follow the presidential elections on 10 January 2021, the political trajectory looks challenging.
Decisiveness and ambition
Although tainted by his complicity in the corruption of Kyrgyz politics, Japarov’s initial promises appear to show he has mettle, and is attempting to consolidate power among political groups while creating a reform commission and vowing to fight corruption.
He has thrown his hat in to run for the presidency but could be challenged by others including the popular and affluent Omurbek Babanov.
But the proof is yet to be seen. The short-lived arrest of Raimbek Matraimov, the controversial former deputy head of the customs service implicated in mass corruption, needs to undergo due process.
And an ‘economic amnesty’ as described by Japarov, allowing funds to be returned to the government in return for free passage, does not in itself signal a genuine anti-corruption programme.
The appointment of Japarov’s close ally Kamcybek Tashiyev as head of the State National Security Committee which will lead the programme, extends Japarov’s control of the country in the run up to elections.
There was initial hope among the younger generation and more-reform minded parties that this protest against falsified elections would result in a wholesale change of government, but the return of insalubrious well-known faces confirmed that this would not happen.
Japarov needs to legitimize his rule both domestically and internationally and allow different political groups, including the younger generation of activists, to be involved in establishing solid institutions. Implementing genuine reforms in the judiciary and law enforcement would mitigate the risks of personality and regional politics, and reduce corruption.
Without it, he too will be overthrown in a relatively short period of time, 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.
Even if his opponents and those who doubt his ability to be an effective leader give Japarov the benefit of the doubt, his honeymoon period will not last long.