Kyrgyzstan’s latest revolution
13 Oct 2020|

Much of Kyrgyzstan’s capital has been unnaturally calm for several days now. Municipal workers clean and wash the streets, but there are few passersby. There are also few signs of the recent clashes in which police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse young protesters. But the covered windows of the city’s shopping centres attest to the simmering tension in this Central Asian country, which now faces its third major political crisis in 15 years.

The most recent protests erupted following the country’s 4 October parliamentary election, in which three pro-government parties—with, by Kyrgyz standards, huge official and unofficial financial resources at their disposal—won an implausible 107 of 120 seats. Only one opposition party got into parliament, barely exceeding the 7% threshold. That party, and 12 others that failed to win seats, refused to recognise the results.

The subsequent revolution was swift and thorough, dismantling most of the country’s political system in little more than 24 hours. On the night of 5–6 October, several thousand opposition supporters protested in Bishkek’s central square, and some stormed parliament and other government buildings. The cabinet resigned, and the country’s central election commission annulled the election results, promising to schedule a new vote. Even NEXTA Live, the Telegram messaging app channel widely used by protesters in Belarus, focused almost exclusively on news from Kyrgyzstan, posting information, photos and videos from the capital.

On 9 October, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov said that he would step down once a new cabinet was appointed. But he also declared a state of emergency in the capital and ordered military units to end the unrest—including fighting between rival opposition groups.

The fact that Kyrgyzstan has been here before, with revolutions overthrowing governments in 2005 and 2010, makes it an outlier in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is so far the only country in the region where popular protests have ousted unpopular leaders, and where elections have been recognised as free and fair by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

But this third revolution in less than two decades puts Kyrgyzstan in real danger of sinking into an abyss of confusion and chaos. Kyrgyz citizens and neighbouring states are concerned about the country’s instability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t want Kyrgyzstan to slip into China’s orbit, hopes that ‘a normal democratic political process will be restored’. The presidents of the other Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—issued a joint statement on 9 October expressing concern about the crisis. And the Chinese foreign ministry said, ‘China sincerely hopes that all parties in Kyrgyzstan can resolve the issue … as soon as possible.’

So, why did this latest political eruption happen, and why so quickly?

Kyrgyzstan’s use of modern electronic ballot boxes meant that the opposition had no complaints about the vote-counting process. The main reason for the mass discontent was instead electoral bribery, with voters reportedly being paid 2,000 Kyrgyz soms (US$25)—a significant sum for a poor citizen here—to vote for one of the pro-government parties. Observers reported that the 4 October election was tainted by ‘credible allegations of vote buying’.

The protesters also objected to the presence of representatives of criminal groups and a ‘corrupted elite’ on the pro-government parties’ electoral lists and to widespread administrative pressure placed on voters by local authorities. For example, the Matraimov family, who were behind the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party—which won a quarter of the vote—became the main target of investigations by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Kloop and Bellingcat. This revealed the scope of members’ corruption and illegal business practices. Few of them still hold public posts.

As an ancient nomadic people, the Kyrgyz have always had a special craving for freedom and justice, and today they feel thwarted in their desire to live in a socially just and democratic country. Power here was never inherited, and rulers had to have popular support. Unlike in a sedentary culture, in which political power is derived from control of the land on which subjects lived, if a ruler couldn’t ensure his tribe’s security and economic prosperity, families simply migrated to another place with a different ruler.

Today, exit is not an option for most people, and Kyrgyzstan’s increasingly precarious economic situation is also fuelling discontent. Lacking the vast hydrocarbon reserves of most of its Central Asian neighbours, the country instead relies mainly on the development of several gold deposits, the biggest of which is the Canadian-run Kumtor project, as well as a growing tourism sector.

Until recently, Kyrgyzstan’s chronically high unemployment rate was partly mitigated by the fact that almost one million Kyrgyz migrants could leave and work abroad, mainly in Russia. As a result, Kyrgyzstan received remittances in 2019 totalling about 30% of GDP, one of the highest levels in the world.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has stranded many of these migrant workers, exacerbating the economy’s plight. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Kyrgyzstan’s GDP will fall by 4% this year, making it the worst-performing Central Asian economy.

Many are asking how tens of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens managed to accomplish in one night what hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have so far been unable to do in two months. Differences of mentality, customs and experience seem to be key: unlike Belarusians, the Kyrgyz are far less constrained by the sense that legality outweighs justice.

That inclination is of course a double-edged sword. The rebellious Kyrgyz have overthrown another government. But what comes next is far from clear.