The year 2020 was marked for Kyrgyzstan not only by a severe pandemic that claimed hundreds of lives, but also by a deep economic and political crisis that once again brought the country to the brink. The ferocious virus and the helplessness of the government, which led to human casualties, became a catalyst for protest moods in society. Information bombs blasted corruption scandals, further fuelling protest moods in the country. All of this raged in social networks and messenger apps as an irresistible stream, instantly capturing the entire society.
Azamat Temirkulov is a political scientist focusing on security and peacebuilding. He works as a consultant for the government of the Kyrgyz Republic and international organizations, and previously worked as an analyst at the Security Council of the Kyrgyz Republic and as an Associate Professor at the American University in Central Asia (AUCA). Translation by Yulia Kalinichenko.
In this tense context, the country’s leadership had to hold regular parliamentary elections on 4 October 2020. The authorities made the same mistake that all the previous presidents of Kyrgyzstan made—they tried to provide the parties under their control with the majority of seats in the new parliament. Already on 5 October, thousands of citizens dissatisfied with the election results, representing various political forces, seized government buildings. During this time, supporters of the imprisoned middle-level politician Sadyr Zhaparov released him, their leader, who was elected the President of the Kyrgyz Republic four months later, on 10 January 2020.
Another violent change of power in Kyrgyzstan has deeper and more structural reasons than just a banal power struggle. Firstly, the political parties of Kyrgyzstan, which had long demonstrated their incompetence before 4 October, themselves led to the collapse of the system of political parties, which had never functioned properly. Secondly, the large social gap between the rich and the poor, which had been accumulating during all the years of independence, resulted in outright hatred, especially of the residents of the provinces, towards the rich who held various positions in government. Trends in the development of these two factors have long been observed in society, but the pandemic has accelerated all processes and become a catalyst for their aggravation.
The Political Parties Collapse
Since gaining independence, not a single genuine political party has been built in Kyrgyzstan with its own ideology and its own social class as a source of members, electorate, and financial support. All political parties were based mainly on the charisma of their leaders, who were used to gathering their relatives, friends, countrymen, as well as shadow businessmen who were ready to sponsor the party’s election programme in order to get into the parliament under the banner of the party. Political parties included in their electoral lists anyone who was ready to contribute the required amount, regardless of ideological views and moral principles. Following the conjuncture, defecting politicians changed parties from election to election, standing now under the banners of the supposedly right-wing, then under the supposed left-wing parties. Thus, since 2015, the parliament consisted mainly of businessmen whose purpose was only to protect and develop their own business, as well as semi-criminal and criminal elements who needed parliamentary immunity from prosecution by law enforcement agencies. The oligarchs and semi-criminal individuals, completely dependent on the authorities, adopted any laws to please the ruling group, which caused rejection and protest among the bulk of the population.
Pseudo-political parties in the parliament elected the prime minister and his cabinet, dividing portfolios among themselves, albeit not for the purpose of implementing a particular program, but rather to place their people in the executive branch. Ministerial posts were given as compensation to those candidates from party electoral lists who contributed to the party's election campaign but could not get elected. Thus, ministers were subordinate to their party bosses and not to the prime minister, which led to a complete disruption of the work of the entire government. While in power, candidates from such pseudo-parties sought to recover their finances spent on the election campaign, plunging headlong into various corruption schemes. Moreover, each new minister (often having nothing to do with the sphere of the ministry) brought with him personnel loyal to him, but lacking proper qualifications, thereby destroying the state personnel system. Competing with each other, pseudo-political parties exposed their opponents, giving rise to a long series of corruption scandals, which often ended with the collapse of the ruling coalition and, accordingly, a change of the government. Thus, over 30 years of independence, Kyrgyzstan has had 31 prime ministers.
All of the aforementioned factors negatively affected the work of state bodies, at times leading the government to complete incapacity, which impeded the socio-economic development of the country. Pseudo-political parties have thoroughly discredited themselves in the eyes of the population, and at the same time the institution of parliament and the parliamentary form of government. The phrase “political party” began to trigger irritation among the broad public, especially among the residents of the regions.
That is why not a single popular political party remained in the country by the elections on 4 October. The once powerful Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan was split and exhausted because its permanent leader, ex-president of the Kyrgyz Republic, Almazbek Atambayev, was in prison. His sons went to the polls with the new Social Democrats party, but lost, gaining only 2.14 percent of the vote. The leader of another popular party, Republic, Omurbek Babanov, was forced to step back from politics in order to preserve his big business, as a result of which the party was also unable to pass the 7 percent threshold. The once influential Bir Bol party lost more than 50 percent of all votes compared to the previous 2015 elections and gained only 3.35 percent. The oldest opposition party, Ata-Meken, lost about 30 percent of the vote in comparison with the previous elections in 2015, and gained 4 percent. The only old opposition party that did not lose its electorate compared to 2015 and passed the 7 percent barrier was Butun Kyrgyzstan. New parties, such as Yiman-Nuru, Chon Kazat, Reform, as expected, could not even come close to the 7 percent threshold.
The two parties Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, which are directly related to the most influential political and financial clans in power, received almost 25 percent of the votes each. Throughout the election campaign, these two parties were accused of using administrative resources and bribery of voters. Having lost all faith in political parties, voters sold their votes en masse, hoping to get at least some benefit from parties and party elections. Another party close to the ruling circles, Kyrgyzstan, received about 9 percent. This meant that out of 120 seats, 91 would belong to two controlled parties and another 16 to the one loyal to the acting government.
Observers were surprised by the relative success of the little-known Mekenchil party, whose leader was a prisoner and now the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Sadyr Zhaparov. Despite the fact that this party took part in the elections for the first time, it fell slightly short of the 7 percent threshold. This relative success was due to the fact that its electoral list included former members of the Ata-Zhurt party, which occupied the leading positions in the last two elections. But even they could not provide Mekenchil with the required 7 percent.
Thus, the parliamentary elections of 2020 demonstrated a complete failure of political parties, as well as discredited parliamentarism in the eyes of the population. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the gap between the poor and the rich in society increased, where the former were forced to wander abroad in search of work, and the latter, running from party to party, sat in parliament and other state bodies of the country.
Returning the Loot to the People
In 2019, 1,313,000 people lived in Kyrgyzstan below the poverty line, of which 73.8 percent were residents of rural settlements. Largely unemployed, many are forced to leave for labour migration. Almost every fourth citizen of Kyrgyzstan works in Russia. If for some, migration has become a source of improvement in their financial situation, for many others it has brought various deprivations, humiliation, family breakdown, and other hardships.
Contrast this against the picture of corruption scandals in astronomical amounts involving Kyrgyzstan’s top leaders. Since 2019, scandals have not abated around the resonant journalistic investigation of corruption schemes built at the customs of Kyrgyzstan, which the country's authorities were in no hurry to investigate. Thanks to the Internet and modern methods of communication, photo and video materials about the innumerable wealth of those in power were disseminated throughout the country. This all led to protests with demands to start investigations and punish those responsible.
Since 2019, videos began to appear on social networks with radical calls for the need to return to people the people's property plundered by deputies and corrupt officials over 30 years of independence. These appeals were picked up by the public and, closer to the parliamentary elections, formed into the Chon Kazat political party, the main programme of which was the frank “let’s return the loot”. Although the party gained 2.34 percent, the popular appeal to return the loot reflected the mood of a big part of the population.
The Pandemic as a Catalyst for Radical Processes
Public distrust in political parties and the government in general, as well as the popular appeal to “return the loot”, was exacerbated by the pandemic in the country. The introduction of strict quarantine from March to May 2020 made it possible to slow down the spread of the disease, but completely blocked the country’s economy, which negatively affected the well-being of the population. In June, as soon as all restrictive measures were lifted, the number of infected people began to grow exponentially, and from mid-June on some days it reached 700 people, bringing the total number of victims to more than 1,300 people. The apparent unpreparedness and confusion of state bodies led to panic and harsh criticism on social networks, sometimes with direct threats and insults to the country's leaders. Outright hatred and anger towards politicians and officials flooded social networks and instant messengers, which clearly indicated that any elections held in such conditions risked becoming a catalyst for unpredictable consequences.
Numerous appeals from public figures and experts with a proposal to postpone the elections to a later date were not heard by the country’s leadership, and the elections were scheduled for 4 October 2020, in the extremely difficult conditions of a pandemic and a negative attitude towards the authorities on the part of the population.
Another “Revolution”, but Who Is Sadyr Zhaparov?
President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and his entourage apparently felt that they needed to stay in power at any cost in order to avoid justice, and decided to hold elections in this very tense atmosphere. From the very beginning, the opposition, the media, and civic activists accused the pro-government parties of explicitly using administrative resources and bribing voters, which further exacerbated the situation. An explosion of public outrage erupted when the preliminary results of the vote were published, according to which 91 out of the 120 seats in the parliament were won by two pro-government parties Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan; another 16 seats were won by Kyrgyzstan, loyal to the government; and the remaining 13 seats went to the opposition Butun Kyrgyzstan. On 5 October, a crowd of thousands, protesting against the election results at the central square, began storming government buildings in the evening, and that night launched another coup d’état, the third in the history of independent Kyrgyzstan.
The struggle for power between various political forces that began immediately after that brought the country to a dangerous brink. Oppositionist Sadyr Zhaparov, who had been imprisoned before and was not perceived by society as a political figure of a republican scale, suddenly appeared on the political arena. Since 2017, he has served his 11-year sentence for organizing riots and taking hostages during protests against the development of the country’s largest mine, Kumtor, by a Canadian mining company. Demonstrating their determination and willingness to take the most extreme measures, Zhaparov’s supporters put pressure on all other political forces and made their leader first the prime minister and later the interim acting president of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Everything spoke of good preparation and well-coordinated work of a team of Sadyr Zhaparov: organized actions of a large number of physically well-prepared people, well-designed speeches, a well-developed election programme that was published immediately after his release from prison, as well as large-scale work in social networks in support of him. All of the above, as well as the image of a martyr who experienced deprivations and misfortunes in the struggle for the rights of the people, turned a middle-level politician into a figure claiming the role of a national leader and even a saviour in the shortest possible time. The financial sources for such an expensive project remain a mystery, which generates a lot of guesses and suspicions. There are several versions of who is behind Sadyr Zhaparov: some of his opponents claim that behind him is the fugitive former President of the Kyrgyz Republic Kurmanbek Bakiev, whose supporter was once Zhaparov himself; a presidential candidate Kanat Isaev accused Zhaparov of having links with the Chinese special services; and Omurbek Tekebaev and Omurbek Babanov, long-serving politicians, claim that President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who was ousted on 5 October, is behind Zhaparov. Others talk about the possible truthfulness of all these three suspicions at the same time.
In addition, Sadyr Zhaparov or his advisers grasped the underlying causes of the recent coup d’état described above, namely, the discrediting of political parties in the eyes of voters and the mood of the population for “returning the loot” from corrupt politicians and officials. In his speeches, he did not skimp on criticism of political parties and parliamentarism, promised to carry out lustration, and also confidently promised to return the loot, realizing that not being a major politician in the past, he has an advantage over his opponents.
Zhaparov and his supporters immediately turned from words to action and announced a capital amnesty for those who wanted to legalize their illegal income by paying part of the funds to the state budget. Every day, news began to arrive about former or current politicians and civil servants who were prosecuted for embezzlement, corruption, and illegal enrichment. News about embezzlers who returned large sums of money or property to the state also began to appear regularly. Thus, a signal was sent to the people that Sadyr Zhaparov began to implement the popular slogan, “return the loot”. This was naturally approved by the population, and the political points of the interim president Sadyr Zhaparov grew.
In November 2020, a constitutional council was created to develop a new version of the constitution, which predominantly included supporters of the presidential form of government. The constitutional council actively discussed the inclusion of the traditional Kyrgyz institution kurultai (congress) in the new system of government. In addition, Sadyr Zhaparov proposed to elect half of the parliament in single-mandate constituencies, which will naturally reduce the role of political parties. After protests from supporters of the parliamentary form of government, it was proposed to resolve this issue through a referendum, giving the population the opportunity to choose the form of government themselves. Such actions of the acting president Zhaparov were also met with approval by the majority of the population and contributed to the rise of his popularity until the early presidential elections in 2021.
Reforming the constitutional order, which minimized the role of political parties, lustration, as well as the promise to return the loot to the people, became the basis of Sadyr Zhaparov’s election program in the early presidential elections on 10 January 2021.
Presidential Election and Referendum
Having placed his closest supporters in key government posts, on 14 November 2020 Zhaparov resigned as the acting president and suspended his duties as the prime minister to participate in the presidential elections on 10 January 2021. Well-coordinated teamwork, serious funding, the image of a martyr and saviour of the nation, as well as decisive actions to “return the loot” and reform the constitution allowed Sadyr Zhaparov to receive almost 80 percent of the vote. The second in the race, with 6.8 percent, was the leader of the Butun Kyrgyzstan opposition party, Adakhan Madumarov, who has had a loyal voting base for many years. In third, gaining 2.34 percent of the vote, came a novice politician, businessman Babyrzhan Tolbaev, who, having Uzbek roots, presumably received the votes of the ethnic minority. The remaining 14 candidates received about 1 percent or less each. Some presidential candidates did not recognize the election results, despite the fact that, according to observers and the Central Electoral Committee, a minimum number of violations were recorded in these elections.
In the referendum held along with the elections, the presidential form of government was preferred by 81 percent of the voters, almost the same number as for Sadyr Zhaparov. This means that by voting for Sadyr Zhaparov, the population voted to change the form of government and minimize the role of political parties.
However, it should be noted that the turnout was the lowest in the history of Kyrgyzstan—just under 40 percent of the entire electorate. This is explained, on the one hand, by the fact that the majority of voters believe that their votes do not decide anything, and, on the other hand, by the fact that there was no bribery of voters in these elections.
The fact that Sadyr Zhaparov was elected with a wide margin from the rest of the candidates suggests that he managed to convince a large part of the population that he is a kind of saviour of the nation. Considering that he had never had such massive support from the electorate before, it can be assumed that the bulk of the people who voted for him are not his loyal long-term supporters, they simply believed in his image and promises. Sadyr Zhaparov discerned the mood of the electorate and used constitutional reform, lustration, and “returning the loot” to his benefit. The people, who yearned for all this, saw someone who demonstrated determination to realize their aspirations—the Kyrgyz dream received hope for its realization.
Further development of the situation will depend on whether Sadyr Zhaparov will be able to fulfil his promises to voters. This is where the high risks lie.
First, constitutional reform and the introduction of a new institution with traditional roots, kurultai, will change the entire system of public administration, which will inevitably become painful for the civil servants themselves, as well as for the population. Many civil servants will lose their jobs because their positions will be reduced or other people will take them, as a result of which they will express dissatisfaction with the current government. During the reforms and sometime afterwards, there will be disorder and confusion in government agencies, which may negatively affect the opinion of the population about the changes taking place. In addition, lustrated politicians and officials will also join the ranks of disaffected citizens. In case of unsuccessful implementation of reforms, in which paralysis or collapse of public administration may occur, the number of dissatisfied people will be many times greater. It should be emphasized that a successful reform is only possible with the availability of qualified personnel, the lack of which has long become a big problem in the country.
Second, fulfilling the promise to expropriate illegally acquired property risks increasing the number of opponents of the current government. Behind each oligarch, politician, and official persecuted by law enforcement agencies are not only numerous relatives, but also supporters who, in one way or another, depend on the welfare of their patron. They can turn into a serious protest force. At the same time, refusal to fulfil this promise will lead to even greater risks, since in this case the masses who supported Zhaparov can quickly move from being his supporters to opponents. On the other hand, the fulfilment of this promise will help strengthen Zhaparov’s position and attract new supporters among the common people. However, this is only possible if reforms are successfully carried out, the economic crisis is overcome, and also if the new government does not protect the interests of only one political group.
Third, if Sadyr Zhaparov defends the interests of only one political group, as was the case with the previous presidents of the country, then this will negate even the positive effect of the possible fulfilment of all his promises. In this case, numerous citizens who cast their votes for him, but who are not his long-time loyal supporters, will consider themselves deceived and can quickly move from the category of supporters to opponents. This circumstance is aggravated by suspicions that Sadyr Zhaparov owes his miraculous leap from a prison cell to the presidency to some secret political forces.
Fourth, the problems described above are exacerbated by the global pandemic, socio-economic crisis, and the collapse of the global security architecture. The Kyrgyz economy, which is dependent on migrant remittances and external aid, is likely to face major challenges in the near future. The collapse of the global security architecture is already exacerbating regional and local conflicts in the world, including in Eurasia. In addition, from 2021, the peak of external debt payments begins, most of which belongs to China. In this context, social tension is inevitable, since society will demand from the authorities an adequate response to these problems. Reforming public administration in the midst of these crises will reduce the ability of government to respond to the challenges facing society. A policy to recover looted property can further exacerbate tensions in society.
In order to fulfil all the promises made to the people and realize the Kyrgyz dream, it will not be sufficient for Sadyr Zhaparov to have a team of highly professional managers and significant financial resources. In this historical context, he will still need a real miracle.
 Kurultai (Kyrgyz for congress) is a traditional Kyrgyz institution of direct democracy, at which representatives of various clans solved common problems. As the Western model of parliamentarism based on political parties turned out disappointing, a certain demand appeared in society for its own model of government based on traditional institutions. Several social movements were formed to promote the inclusion of the traditional institution of kurultai in the public administration system. Several options for the role of the kurultai in the modern model of the state structure have been proposed, but a single concept has not been developed yet.