Democracy in peril

by Edda Schlager

Taboo (Issue I/2021)


People gather in front of the occupied seat of government in Bishkek in October 2020 in protest against the results of the parliamentary elections. Photo: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

On 5 October 2020, the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek descended into chaos. Parliamentary elections had taken place a day earlier. By nightfall, 20,000 people had gathered in the city centre to protest the results. The White House, the seat of government, was stormed and set on fire. On that day, Kyrgyzstan's political system was turned upside down - quashing hopes that the country would remain the “island of democracy in Central Asia” that the West likes to see it as.

The protests were triggered by the outcome of the election: only four of a total of 16 parties made it into parliament. These four parties had all openly bought votes in advance: 2,000 Som, about twenty Euros, were paid by parties like Mekenem, Birimdik and Kyrgyzstan for each vote. Under pressure from conservative forces, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who had been regularly elected president in 2017, announced his resignation. The same forces elevated Sadyr Japarov to interim president and prime minister. Does this spell the end of the short-lived Kyrgyz democracy?

Political instability is a hallmark of Kyrgyzstan. Since independence in 1991, the country has experienced two bloody ruptures: in 2005 came the so-called Tulip Revolution - a mass uprising that led to the resignation of the dictatorial President Askar Akayey - and in 2010 another government was overthrown. The latter sparked a profound political restructuring. In the summer of 2010, the Kyrgyz voted in a referendum to amend the constitution, turning the presidential system into a parliamentary republic, unique in Central Asia to this day. In the neighbouring post-Soviet states, parliaments usually serve more as pseudo-democratic decoration for their authoritarian presidents.

The Kyrgyz population is demanding political participation

The fact that parliamentary elections led to such a crisis shows that the Kyrgyz population is demanding political participation. “There are different readings of democracy here,” says Medet Tyulegenov, a political analyst at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. He does observe a growing understanding of democracy in the country, but has reservations. “On the one hand, there is not much awareness of using one's right to vote, since many people recently sold their votes voluntarily. Nevertheless, society has made a giant leap in its forming of political opinions.”

The 44-year-old Jarkyn Samanchina is the Kyrgyz country director of the British conservation NGO Fauna & Flora International and is not politically active. Still, she has an opinion as a citizen. “I believe,” she says, “that Kyrgyzstan will continue to be an 'island of democracy' - but not thanks to, but despite its political leadership.” Since 2010, she says, much has changed for the better, though not equally in all spheres. “Civil society has become more visible. Young entrepreneurs have significantly improved living standards.” At the same time, however, many migrant workers still migrate from the rural regions to earn money in the capital or abroad, says Samanchina.

Civilian volunteers built up a functioning system of self-help during the corona pandemic

Civil society is more active and influential in Kyrgyzstan than in any other country in Central Asia. For example, it was civilian volunteers who built up a functioning system of self-help during the corona pandemic. Because the state was overwhelmed, they took over the protection of government buildings during the protests in October, supplied protesters with food, removed rubbish and repeatedly appealed against the use of violence.

Iskender Kakeev is a lawyer at the Adilet legal advice fund. In the chaotic days after the elections, he posted a much-shared appeal on Facebook. Writing explicitly “as a simple citizen of Kyrgyzstan”, he said: “Dear fellow citizens… do not be afraid to express your opinion, do not be silent, we are the Kyrgyz people and the rule is ours.” Kakeev says he does not want to be pushed around by the elite. He is convinced that the days after the elections were not as haphazard as they seemed at first. “The people have understood that all political establishments - the parliament, the government, the attorney general's office - have acted in coordination with the president. That means that there must have been instructions to this effect.”

Ex-president Jeenbekov went into hiding for days before he appeared in public again. And the fact that his successor was apparently able to persuade him to resign without much resistance illustrates the reality of Kyrgyz politics. Despite its democratic tendencies, Kyrgyz politics are dominated by forces dating back to the time before 2010.

Japarov, 52, who became interim president within a few days, was serving a prison sentence as recently as October 2020. As a member of parliament in the 2010s, he had campaigned for the nationalisation of the country's largest gold mine - against the government's policy at the time. He went as far as kidnapping a local politician in 2013. After fleeing abroad, he was not arrested until 2017, when he returned to Kyrgyzstan. In the turmoil following the 2020 parliamentary elections, he was freed from custody by his supporters. To this day, he is considered a companion of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who rose to the presidency in 2005 through the Tulip Revolution and was overthrown in 2010. Japarov, therefore, represents the old, corrupt Kyrgyzstan.

The political analyst Medet Tyulegenov is convinced that confidence is vital: “The most important task now will be to create a system that enables trust in political institutions such as elections and parliament. But a resilient political system must then be translated into good governance.” For him, it is clear that only early parliamentary and presidential elections can create this trust.

But whether a government under Sadyr Japarov will be able and willing to move in this direction is questionable. Japarov resigned from the office of President of the Interior on 14 November in order to run in the presidential elections scheduled for 10 January 2021. His chances of being elected are good. A referendum on constitutional reform is to be held on the day of the election. The overall plan is to repeal the 2010 constitutional amendments which ushered parliamentary democracy into the country. It is doubtful that these political moves are constitutional. When the interim government's plans became public, hundreds of people took to the streets once again.

For Kyrgyzstan, it more than its reputation as the only democracy in Central Asia that is at stake. It is about safeguarding its long-term political stability and helping its economy withstand the pressure of the corona pandemic.

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