The Election of a Strongman: some post-election reflections 7 min read
With a conflicted society following an aborted election mired in scandal, Sadyr Japarov, a former criminal turned political strongman has now taken the helm as Kyrgyzstan’s new President, setting before him a precedent built on populist deeds and nationalist rhetoric. Now the questions remain. What lies ahead for the Kyrgyz people? How will the world react to such a change in leadership? And for how long will the country maintain its partly free label?
Our story begins in the not-so-distant past when the previous incumbent president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, had called for parliamentary elections to be held on 4 October 2020. What was at first seen to be a strong victory for the pro-government parties soon turned to doubt as thousands of protesters marched on the capital Bishkek, storming the parliament building and violently clashing with police. With accusations of vote-buying and corruption, and the continuation of violence in Bishkek, it became almost untenable for Jeenbekov to continue as President and amidst the chaos, he stepped down from office on 14 October.
He was subsequently replaced by one Sadyr Japarov.
A politician turned thug, turned president
Japarov had entered politics in the aftermath of the 2005 Tulip Revolution and had held a number of posts close to the presidential office. However, his links with oppositional factions (a dangerous pastime in Central Asia) led to the kidnapping of a regional governor in 2013 and his eventual arrest in 2017.
By the end of October Japarov, acting as interim president, called for both constitutional reform as well as new presidential elections to be held in early 2021. Within a matter of days, Japarov too stepped down to become an eligible candidate and secure a more permanent contract for his presidential position.
With a campaign heavily accented with Kyrgyz nationalism and mirroring the brand of populism advocated by Donald Trump in regards to vilifying the press, Japarov also caused great concern over his alleged links with criminal organisations operating within the region. However, this did not stop him from securing his presidency with 79 percent of the vote despite claims of voter intimidation and a turnout of roughly 39 percent on 10 January 2021.
Where does this leave Kyrgyzstan?
With an electoral victory under his belt, Japarov was quick to announce his intentions when addressing his supporters in Bishkek the day after the vote. In his speech, he emphasised that “there will be a dictatorship of law and justice”, a saying paraphrased from Vladimir Putin’s first election campaign in 2000. From the sounds of this statement, it would seem appropriate for pessimists to underline this as the start of tougher police provisions and state control.
This is evidenced by the fact that politically charged arrests have already taken place, with many former opponents of the new president being incarcerated on numerous charges.
In reference to the reformation of the constitution, an issue voted on during the elections, there are some concerning signs that Kyrgyzstan may be slipping back into a super-presidential system comparable to its neighbours. Indeed, the granting of sweeping new powers to Japarov and the desire to abolish the post of Prime Minister could potentially spell the end of parliamentarianism in favour of presidentialism.
Among the new draft alterations, is the downsizing of the Parliament from 120 members to 90. To mitigate the potentially diminished representation a national Kurultai will be formed which would act as a forum for citizens to air their issues.
The Kurultai is a traditional gathering of citizens, with roots dating back to the 13th Century, which works to influence the direction of policy both domestic and foreign. However, this forum does not have legislative powers and only serves in an advisory capacity to the reduced Parliament.
Overall, the reduction of representation and accountability for the parliament and president respectively sets a worrying precedent for the democratic prospects for the nation.
In other spheres, Kyrgyzstan as a whole has not effectively dealt with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It appears that financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, a grant of 120.9 million US Dollars awarded in March 2020, may have been misappropriated by corrupt government officials. This has in turn led to a large spike in cases and provoked the Deputy Prime Minister, Elvira Surabaldiyeva, to state that several thousand have died instead of the widely reported 1,400.
In reference to the economic impact that COVID-19 has had on Kyrgyzstan, Japarov has announced numerous governmental reforms, headed by his new Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov, that look to streamline the system. Among these are the amalgamation of the Economic Ministry and Finance Ministry as well as a merger between the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Development. It is said that these reforms may save the country two billion Som (23.5 million US Dollar) which would be critical in combating COVID-19 and future reconstruction of the economy.
In terms of foreign policy, there is no coherent structure in place yet. This may be a risky game for Japarov to play, especially given the current international climate with the ongoing pandemic. Another element to factor in is how Japarov’s position and Kyrgyzstan’s recent history of unrest reflect on rapprochement with both its neighbours and Russia. It is safe to say that any internal turmoil within any of Russia’s spheres of influence would likely cause some consternation. Indeed, this was exemplified when Putin called the events of October 2020 a “misfortune” and stated that Russia, which has a small military presence in the country, “would not meddle in the situation”.
Japarov had made clear his intention of keeping ties with Russia strong. Indeed, this has been exemplified by the maintenance of economic agreements signed between Putin and Jeenbekov in 2019 as well as the recent green light from Moscow for Kyrgyzstan to start manufacturing its answer to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sputnik V. And, despite initial plans for Japarov to make his first international trip to Nur Sultan rather than Moscow, it appears that tradition has been upheld as he met with Putin at the end of February to “continue strengthening strategic partnership and allied ties”.
Russia is not the only interested power in the region however as China too holds a large stake in the region. Indeed, the new Kyrgyz President has expressed his hope to build on the mutually beneficial economic relations that the two nations have developed. Yet, this may be easier said than done. Even with the optimism shown by the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, China and Kyrgyzstan have much work to do in order to become closer partners. With outstanding debts to China and very little leeway given by Beijing, Japarov has suggested paying off China with resource concessions and mining rights yet, as of writing, it appears that this idea may have been scrapped after the decision to ban foreign companies from taking part in future mining projects. This development could potentially hurt Kyrgyzstan’s aspirations to develop a new multi-vector foreign policy.
A new political era?
Overall, Japarov has an uncertain and uneasy road ahead of him both domestically and internationally. On the domestic front, Japarov appears to be pursuing a somewhat authoritarian stance in having his rivals, current and former, placed under lock and key. Furthermore, Japarov is pushing for a constitution that would give him greatly increased powers to solidify his power base. This may undermine trust and alienate much of the population in Kyrgyzstan, something that Japarov can ill-afford to do at this time. Additionally, the recent news regarding the COVID-19 statistics in the country as well as the economic implication of the virus could yield further unrest in the months to come despite the development and deployment of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
On the foreign policy front, it is clear where Japarov’s sympathies lie, and it is clear that despite efforts to incorporate multi-vectorism in his foreign policy outlook, there will only ever be one outstanding influence on Kyrgyzstan for the time being, and that is Russia.
The events in Kyrgyzstan over the past four months certainly pave the way for a new era for the nation. Authoritarianism and diminished representation may well be on the cards given the trends shown by Japarov since his swearing-in on 28 January, but until the new constitution is signed and reforms enacted, there is little one can do but look upon the fledgeling regime from afar and take notes.