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Kyrgyzstan: A Year Since October 2020

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Kyrgyzstan: A Year Since October 2020

It’s been a year since Kyrgyzstan erupted in post-election protests and precipitated the fall of yet another government in Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan: A Year Since October 2020
Credit: Kyrgyzstan Presidency Press Office

A year ago Kyrgyzstan’s electorate went to the polls to vote for a new parliament. The preliminary results revealed a victory for the status quo, with parties close to the government of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and the infamous Raimbek Matraimov securing between them nearly 50 percent of the votes.

Soon after, the streets of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, filled with protesters. The campaign had been marred by brawls and protests and the preliminary results were met with accusations of vote-buying and the use of so-called administrative resources by the government to secure its position.

The initial protests were deeply rooted in a long-simmering gripe in Kyrgyzstan: state aided and abetted corruption. A year earlier, in November 2019, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service and Bishkek-based news platform Kloop, with support from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), had dropped a bombshell investigative report that incriminated former deputy customs chief Raimbek Matraimov as part of a massive scheme that served to bleed more than $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan. The investigation’s core informant had been assassinated in Istanbul mere weeks before the first stories came out. The investigation’s first stories sparked anti-corruption protests in Kyrgyzstan, with the capital’s center filling with protesters carrying caricatured portraits of Matraimov, which the investigation had characterized as “widely seen as so powerful that he is essentially untouchable.”

The Jeenbekov government fumbled in responding to growing frustration with corruption in the country in part by going after the journalists reporting about it. The parliamentary election results in early October 2020 were the straw that broke the camel’s back. But, in a darkly ironic turn, amid the chaos of the protests the very forces the protesters had taken to the streets to decry seized the moment.

“Ironically, Japarov and Tashiev were able to grab power a year ago in part thanks to the public outcry against corruption and authoritarianism,” Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University, explained to The Diplomat.

Sadyr Japarov, until the violent morning of October 6, was four years into an 11.5 year prison sentence. By October 14, he was acting prime minister and a day later, after Jeenbekov tendered his resignation, he was acting president. Jeenbekov characterized his resignation as necessary to avoid bloodshed.

“They used the chaos that ensued following police violence against peaceful protesters to effectively force Jeenbekov out of his position and schedule new presidential and parliamentary elections,” Marat says. 

Japarov pushed for presidential elections (which he won) and a referendum on a new constitution (which was approved, shifting Kyrgyzstan back to a presidential system after a decade experiment with a parliamentary democracy).

Japarov brought with him into government his allies, including Kamchybek Tashiev whom he chose to head the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), the country’s powerful security body tasked with combating both terrorists and criminals. Together they beat the drum of anti-corruption

Matraimov was arrested in late October 2020, but quickly released under an “economic amnesty” scheme, which Japarov characterized as a way for the corrupt to pay the state back. Matraimov was eventually tried in early 2021 and admitted guilt but was released after paying a small fine in addition to what he’d paid as part of the “economic amnesty.” He was rearrested shortly thereafter, but the new charges were dropped weeks later, with Kyrgyz authorities saying they could find no evidence of cash or real estate belonging to his family abroad (despite further investigative reports in December 2020 that had exposed likely Matraimov-owned property in the Gulf). 

Here we are a year later. New parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 28, more than a year after the previous attempt, but the concerns that triggered the protests of October 2020 remain mostly unaddressed.

At the same time, Japarov clearly knows his constituencies and has worked to please them.

“Japarov, a typical populist, gained popular support by promising the Kumtor gold mine and by leveraging his connections to the criminal underworld,” Marat tells The Diplomat. 

Kumtor, which Japarov long pushed to be nationalized, was effectively nationalized under a May 8 law that allowed Bishkek to impose “external management” on the mine for three months if it violated environmental protection and safety obligations. The mine remains under Kyrgyz state control five months later. Recently, Kyrgyzstan was blocked from trading gold on London’s markets. After evading negotiations with the Canadian firm Centerra, which has long operated the mine, Bishkek is reportedly now ready to talk

Kumtor has also served as an avenue for Japarov to detain possible political opponents. A series of former MPs and officials have been taken in for questioning, some detained and others released; even Kyrgyzstan’s first (and first ousted) president, Askar Akayev, returned to be interviewed after 16 years away from the country. 

“Japarov and Tashiev have been clearing the political field against any opponents to prevail in the parliamentary elections in November,” Marat says. “The duo uses the judicial system to prevail politically against competition and protect their own supporters in the criminal underworld and former corrupt officials like Matraimov.”

“For a year now, we are seeing a systematic destruction of any semblance of legal order in Kyrgyzstan,” she says.

As the parliamentary election approaches, a season of political positioning is upon us. “The elections period is usually the time for major political leaders to collect bribes from anyone wishing to gain seat in the parliament,” Marat tells The Diplomat.

Due to the new constitution, the new parliament will be weaker than the previous body and smaller, seating just 90 deputies, but still will present opportunities for access to state resources and power. 

The election will arguably be more confusing than ever, generating the potential for backroom dealing, public frustration, and new protests. Thirty-six seats will be elected from single-seat districts on a majority basis; the remaining 54 seats are to be filled via national party lists. The new system, as RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier writes, requires districts to be redrawn — a contentious process anywhere in the world — and additional new rules change how people vote for party lists. Rather than just selecting a party as in previous elections, voters can choose individual party candidates for party-list seats. Ostensibly the change is to upset the system of buying one’s way to the top of the party list, but critics aren’t so sure the change will do anything but confuse voters.