Kyrgyzstan in a Political Vortex: When Two Revolutions are “Not Enough”

2020 / 10 / 30

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributor policy analyst, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)

Eter Glurjidze, Contributor policy analyst, postgraduate student at the Estonian School of Diplomacy and alumnus of the North China University of Technology


In the October Parliamentary elections, more than 16 political parties competed for the 120-seat unicameral parliament - the Jogorku Kenesh. While the preponderance of the parties was critical towards the president and the government, three out of four parties which reached the 7% threshold were pro-governmental. For instance, Birimdik (Unity) and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Homeland Kyrgyzstan) were backed by President Jeenbekov’s loyalists, criminal groups and businessmen who enjoy a vast economic and political informal influence in the country. The despair caused by the election results led thousands of people to protest and rally in the capital demanding the annulment of the votes and the holding of new elections. Despite the police’s efforts to crush the protests, citizens stormed the presidential headquarters and the parliament building and freed former President Almazbek Atambayev along with other imprisoned political figures. 


Struggle for Democracy or Power? 

Kyrgyzstan has a complex and fragmented political and social environment full of uncertainties for long-term democratic perspectives. Depending on the concentration of power inclusively between the country’s elites or merely in the hands of small influential groups, the Kyrgyz political field has been shifting between semi-democratic and semi-authoritarian regimes. Once the power tilted towards the interests of small elite groups, the stability of the state was under question.

Throughout its 29 years of independence, Kyrgyzstan demonstrated its highly revolutionary spirit. Despite being located in the “ocean” of non-democratic regimes, the country managed to oust authoritarian leaders back in 2005 and 2010. However, the revolutions always followed the elites’ temptation to narrow the access to power and money. This issue emerged under first President Askar Akayev’s fifteen-year incumbency. In the 2005 Tulip Revolution, was overthrown after the parliamentary elections in which only pro-presidential political parties performed successfully. President Akayev’s attempts to appease the protesters failed and, in the aftermath, he fled to neighbouring Kazakhstan and then to Russia and officially resigned from the post. The leader of the protests against Akayev, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was elected president with 89% of the votes. However, Bakiyev’s government, which sought to bring about changes, soon found itself surrounded by similar accusations of corruption, especially during the 2009-2010 economic crisis. Critical voices turned into protests and Bakiyev fled to Kazakhstan and then Belarus.

After the 2010 revolution, newly elected elites tried to control the power temptation and adopted a new constitution in order to reduce the executive power and ensure that all major political factions were able to be present in the parliament. Nevertheless, the parliament’s major responsibility was to distribute corrupt revenues between elites and resolve their disputes. Despite the attempts to balance the inclusiveness of the power distribution among the elites, new President Almazbek Atambayev still managed to gain power for the presidential seat. However, his plans failed, and he eventually found himself in jail. Atambayev was followed by Jeenbekov who promised Kyrgyz citizens that he would not follow the mistake-laden path of the previous governments, albeit he still ended up doing the same. The 2020 elections were found controversial by voters since the political power once again was transferred to the hands of family networks associated with the president. Thus, the balance of power distribution between the elites once again collapsed.


Loss of Trust - Old Faces Reappearing?

The current instability is similar to the 2005 and 2010 protests in many ways. The riots unfolded after leaders who made a number of promises started to follow the path of previous incumbents. The revolutions did not lead to improved governance with anti-corruption policies and votes were still won by informal influential groups and criminals. Hence, the democratic charade seems to continue for an indefinite period.

The difference with the past, however, is not striking although in October protesters and activists did not seem to be willing to unite around political leaders. People’s expectations are no longer aligned with political figures. It is evident that the long-lasting “patron-client” landscape peculiar to Kyrgyzstan is making way for a new and independent force led by fresh-minded civic activists. They are hopeful of a new beginning and the lustration of corrupt politicians and officials.

Nevertheless, the presidential post of Kyrgyzstan was taken by Sadyr Zhaparov on October 15. In 2013, he had been sentenced to 11.5 years in prison for kidnapping a public official during a protest against a goldmine project. The appointment of a convicted criminal to this post has been associated with some informal influential groups. Zhaparov became a member of the parliament in 2005 as he supported ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was ousted after the 2010 revolution.

Despite the evident changes in people’s trust towards politicians, the old elites continue to reappear and controversial individuals still find power in their hands. While Kyrgyz civil society started to find it hard to put its trust in someone, they ended up being a power force for old elites to regain power. Therefore, the democratic struggle in Kyrgyzstan seems to be trapped in a political ’vortex.’

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