February in Central Asia: Japarov, the new face of Kyrgyz nationalism3 min read
February editorial. On 28 January, Sadyr Japarov was sworn in as the sixth president of Kyrgyzstan. Just a few months ago he was serving an 11-year sentence for kidnapping a local official in 2017, but in October he was released amid nation-wide protests that led to the resignation of his predecessor, Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
He won the election with a surprising 79 percent of the vote, though it is important to note that only 39 percent of eligible voters actually participated. While he has strong support in rural areas, many worry that Japarov will not bring the kind of change that his supporters were promised. These concerns have been compounded by an ongoing economic crisis and the use of old corrupt political practices that many had hoped the country would move past.
Since he first broke into politics, Japarov has been a staunch nationalist. He is a member of the Mekenchil party, a nationalist political party formed in 2010, whose platform includes changing the electoral system for legislative elections from proportional representation one electing to one based on single-member districts and restoring the death penalty.
The party relies heavily on anti-establishment rhetoric and promises to rid the government of corruption. Many have gone as far to call Japarov Kyrgyzstan’s Trump as the two have taken on a similar populist tone. His populist appeals attracted many living in the rural regions of the country, and thousands travelled to cities during the October protests to rally around him. His reliance on nationalist imagery was visible throughout his campaign, using populist slogans and, at his inauguration, calling for “a dictatorship of law, where justice and prosperity prevail.”
Since becoming president there has already been dissatisfaction among citizens about what he seems to be prioritizing. In his first few days as president, he signed five decrees; a decree on spiritual and moral development and physical education of the individual, a new policy for personnel, protection for entrepreneurs and investors, a plan for improving conditions for migrant laborers, and a reform of the mining industry, which has been a political aim of his for years.
Many have taken to the comment sections of major news outlets, such as Kaktus Media, to express their discontent, arguing that the government should do more to address the skyrocketing prices on groceries and widespread hunger. With prices rising as much as 20% on most items and many finding themselves in dire circumstances as a result of the global pandemic, it would be hard to argue against them.
Another cause for concern since Japarov came to power has been the swift arrests of some of his biggest political opponents. The arrests began a few days before the inauguration on 25 January with former National Security Committee chief Abdil Segizbayev, who was taken into custody for abuse of office. Then a day later the former deputy chief of the Interior Ministry, Kursan Asanov, was arrested for seizing the Interior Ministry building during the protests in October. Both of the arrests seem to be politically motivated as both ran against Japarov in the elections and the evidence leading to both arrests has been questionable at best. This also seems to be fueled by a desire to deliver on the promises of his party, which include removing corrupt politicians from office. As noble as this goal is on paper, it seems that Japarov is just copying from the playbook of the administration that preceded him in a bid to consolidate his power .
While it has only been a few days since Japarov was inaugurated, it seems clear that the comprehensive changes to the political system that many protestors had been rallying for in October are not a current priority. Japarov seems more focused on strengthening his grip on power. The president made big promises to his supporters during the October protests, and while even the president admits that he probably will not be able to revitalize the country in the first year, there are still concerns that he will not be able to do it at all. After seeing the first few decisions Japarov has made while in office, those concerns do not seem unfounded.