The End of Freedom in Kyrgyzstan?11 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Politics
Kyrgyzstan has been downgraded from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in the 2021 edition of Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report. The Central Asian nation’s sudden ten-point drop since the 2020 edition is explained by the “deeply flawed parliamentary elections featuring significant political violence and intimidation that culminated in the irregular seizure of power by a nationalist leader and convicted felon who had been freed from prison by supporters.” This new leader, President Sadyr Japarov, has transformed Kyrgyz governance back into a presidential system, putting an end to the eleven years of parliamentary rule since the overthrow of President Bakiyev in 2010. 

Many international organisations and commentators have sounded the alarm. They fear that Japarov may be preparing to consolidate an authoritarian regime. However, the Japarov phenomenon is hardly a deviation from the norm in Kyrgyz politics, where a weak system of governance has prevented the emergence of an entrenched autocratic ruler while also offering few opportunities for democratic development. Most likely, Kyrgyzstan will remain trapped in its recurring cycle of “pluralism by default”.

What happened in 2020?

The official results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections delivered a rout for parties supporting President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The Unity party – led by Jeenbekov’s younger brother – won 46 out of 120 parliamentary seats, just ahead of the My Homeland Kyrgyzstan party, linked to the former head of the customs service Raimbek Matraimov, the central figure in a major corruption scandal in 2020.

Only one party outside the pro-presidential camp overcame the 7% electoral threshold – the nationalist United Kyrgyzstan party. The election result was marred by allegations of vote-buying. The investigative agency Kloop published reports  and videos purporting to show voters being paid around 2,000 KGS (25 US Dollars) for showing photos of their ballot confirming that they had voted for a particular party. To make matters worse, all of the pro-Jeenbekov MPs elected (100 out of 120 seats) were from the South of Kyrgyzstan, which was bound to inflame tensions in a country with a strong North-South divide, where presidents traditionally try to maintain a balance between the Northern and Southern “clans” in the political arena.

After the results were announced thousands took to the streets protesting against unfair elections and Jeenbekov’s consolidation of power. Violent clashes erupted with the police across the country. Protestors stormed and ransacked the parliament building in Bishkek. There were widespread reports of armed gangs seizing property, while local self-defense units were formed to protect neighbourhoods and businesses. After three days of chaos, President Jeenbekov announced that he would resign once “legitimate heads of the executive authorities are approved and the country takes the path of legitimacy”. 

Two competing opposition movements quickly emerged to fill the void. The first group was headed by Japarov, who declared himself Prime Minister after the resignation of the incumbent Kubatbek Boronov. Japarov claimed to have been chosen by the parliamentary majority even though President Jeenbekov had not yet accepted Boronov’s resignation. Unsurprisingly the other opposition parties rejected Japarov’s appointment. A second group of opposition party members formed a People’s Coordination Council and nominated Omurbek Babanov (Jeenbekov’s opponent in the 2017 presidential election) as Prime Minister, and Tilek Toktogaziyev as Vice Prime Minister on 9 October. 

These tumultuous events are difficult to untangle as government buildings changed hands several times and frequent clashes occurred between opposition groups. Japarov and Babanov supporters clashed on 9 October and Toktogaziyev was hospitalised after being hit on the head with a rock. In any case, Jeenbekov resigned as president on 15 October and Japarov assumed the role of interim President. 

Since the Central Election Committee annulled the results of the parliamentary election, the country lacked a legislature. Ultimately, the members of the old parliament controversially voted to extend their own mandate until June 2021. Japarov was then elected president in January 2021 with nearly 80% of the vote. 

In a referendum on 11 April 2021, 79% of voters approved constitutional amendments to create a presidential republic, but the turnout only marginally exceeded the 30% threshold required for the vote to be valid.  It seems that the old MPs have pledged loyalty to Japarov, since they have approved his two referendums and drafted the constitutional amendments. However, there was considerable confusion surrounding the publication of the draft with at least one lawmaker who was listed as a signatory claiming that he had never seen the draft

Is Kyrgyz democracy on the brink?

Japarov’s controversial takeover and his restoration of a presidential system are understandable causes for alarm in the current age of democratic backsliding. However, the character of Kyrgyz democracy is dramatically different to countries like Poland, Hungary and the United States. Kyrgyzstan has never been able to successfully build stable democratic institutions and lacks most of the preconditions considered essential for the emergence of a mature democracy. Instead, Kyrgyzstan can be described as “pluralist by default” (a term coined by political scientist Lucan Way), because no contender for power has ever been able to successfully build an autocratic state. 

This state of affairs is the result of a weak governance apparatus that inhibits democratic growth while resisting autocratic consolidation. Such “pluralist by default” systems were common in the post-Soviet space in the 1990s. In Yeltsin’s Russia the failure to build an effective ruling party led to a period of chaotic pluralism until the rise of Vladimir Putin. Ukraine and Moldova have both alternated between periods of autocratic consolidation and “pluralism by default” since independence. 

These political systems may have relatively free elections and respect some basic political rights and freedom of speech. However, these characteristics are not based on robust democratic safeguards and a commitment by parties to respect the rules of the game. Instead, incumbents endeavour to restrict the opposition, use state resources to fund their political ventures and impose a tight grip on the police, army and security forces. Despite these measures, such regimes lack either the private or state resources to achieve their aims, which forces them to grant a veneer of respect to the democratic process. These countries are also highly prone to mass mobilisation, especially in the aftermath of disputed elections. 

Dramatic though Japarov’s recent rise to power appears to be, it is far from unusual in Kyrgyz politics where, since independence, three presidents have been deposed by protesters, while a fourth was imprisoned on corruption charges in 2019 after leaving office. Only one interim incumbent – Roza Otunbayeva – has been able to avoid the presidential curse.

What next for Japarov?

Japarov seems to have emerged in a highly advantageous position. He won the presidential election by a high margin and garnered widespread support for a presidential system. The constitutional amendments grant the president the power to initiate legislation and to appoint and dismiss cabinet members. The joint opinion of the OSCE and Venice Commission warns that the president has the power to “single-handedly appoint and dismiss almost the entire administration of the state”, including judges, the Prosecutor General and half of the Central Election Committee. They will also reduce the number of MPs from 120 to 90 while granting significant authority to the kurultai – a traditional people’s council – without clear rules for the selection of its members.

However, in an unconsolidated political system such as Kyrgyzstan, with a high degree of informality and an unclear separation of powers, Japarov’s strong position may prove insufficient. A presidential system did not save President Askar Akayev in 2005 or President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010 from being overthrown. Despite their limited presidential power under the parliamentary system, Presidents Almazbek Atambayev and Sooronbay Jeenbekov were still able to consolidate their rule through building pro-presidential majorities in parliament. 

Presidentialism may make Japarov’s life slightly easier by increasing executive powers. He may use the newly created constitutional court to lend a veneer of legitimacy to his use of executive powers. The new constitutional prohibition on public events or publications contrary to “generally recognized moral values and the traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan,” may prove an excellent means for selectively targeting the opposition.

Yet will these formal constitutional arrangements save Japarov from an angry mob storming the presidential compound? Kyrgyz leaders have already succeeded in creating an “uneven playing field” to ensure victory in elections but, so far, none have succeeded in withstanding mass mobilisation. If Japarov is to survive he must succeed where none have succeeded before. One possibility is for him to convince the Kyrgyz people that he can provide genuine improvements in living standards and reduce corruption, or deliver on his vague promises to revive the nation. 

He can point to some early successes, such as the signing of a deal with Uzbekistan to end decades of border disputes. He has also exchanged warm words with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his first official visit, which has helped to dispel rumours that Russia was displeased with Japarov’s takeover. However, the economy is on its knees, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, and the state is swamped with debt, mostly owed to China. Moreover, Japarov has gone quiet on the issue of the Kumtor goldmine despite having risen to prominence a decade ago based on promises to nationalize the mine; and he is yet to offer any concrete steps to reduce the country’s endemic corruption.

The other possibility is to strengthen his control of the repressive apparatus to prevent any future seizure of power. Many commentators cite Japarov’s links to organised crime, which has often played a role in the rise and fall of Kyrgyz leaders. If he can maintain any links he currently possesses, and cultivate more, he may be able to compensate for clearly feeble capacity and unclear loyalty of Kyrgyz security forces. He needs to quickly gain the loyalty of a variety of state officials and regional leaders. He will have to walk a tightrope between growing his repressive capacity and sparking unrest. Any attempts to restrict the opposition, control the media or rig elections must be balanced against the risk of a backlash in the early stages of consolidation. The clock is also against Japarov. 

Although he succeeded in winning over the old parliament, this was only possible because MPs voted to extend their mandate after the annulled October 2020 election. He faces fresh parliamentary elections in June 2021, with a lower threshold (down to 3% from 7%), likely meaning more opposition MPs in parliament. Despite his success in both the presidential election and two referenda, building a majority will be no easy task for a man who has spent the last few years in prison and whose party wasn’t expected to win a single seat at the last election. In an electoral battlefield where the primary weapon is money, Japarov may struggle to raise enough for his war chest without the blatant misuse of state resources. Eurasianet has already reported how swarms of new parties are rushing to contest the upcoming local elections in April. In Bishkek alone, almost 1,900 candidates from 25 parties are running for only 45 spots on the city council.

The End of Pluralism?

How can we interpret Freedom House’s dramatic downgrade in light of recent Kyrgyz history? After previous revolutions Kyrgyzstan’s ”Freedom Score” generally improved, especially after the transition to a parliamentary system in 2010, leading to a long period of classification as “partially free”. The 2020 takeover was interpreted negatively due to Japarov’s criminal and nationalist background and purported use of violence. However, all previous revolutions were accompanied by significant violence and instability, especially the ethnic violence in the south in 2010. The main difference is that previous opposition movements such as Bakiyev’s “People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan”, the SDPK and the Ata Meken party were able to convince (mostly Western) observers that they were a legitimate democratic opposition movement. This is despite the fact that these parties were often stocked with familiar faces from the previous regime and generally reverted to corrupt patrimonial practices.

Japarov has not styled himself as the classic “liberal” opposition which Western commentators usually praise. Yet despite positioning himself as a nationalist politician, Japarov has so far not manifested any dramatic ideological differences from his predecessors. His call for a review of the status of the Kumtor goldmine, rather than swift nationalisation, suggests the return to pragmatic politics and stakeholder management. Several high-profile figures from the previous government have been arrested; however, Matraimov (the principal suspect in the customs corruption investigation) though arrested was released from prison the next day, suggesting that he may be useful to the new regime. 

A lot could change this year; the outcome of local and parliamentary elections deserve careful attention. Yet rather than interpreting developments through the Western prism of democratic backsliding, attention should be paid to the ups and downs of Kyrgyzstan’s chaotic “pluralism by default”. In thirty years, no party or leader has ever tamed the Kyrgyz leviathan, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Featured image: Kyrgyz presidents / Amanda Sonesson
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