In its 29 years of independence, Kyrgyzstan has seen more than its fair share of political turmoil. A former colony of the Russian empire, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence for the first time with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the years since, there have been 2 separate revolutions. Now, after protests erupted following the October 4th elections, the small central Asian country is potentially undergoing a third.
On October 5th, thousands took to the streets in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, to protest what they believed to be fraudulent election results. This was attributed to reports and videos of voters being paid (among other irregularities) which began to emerge from the country’s more rural areas. While 16 parties were up for election, only 4 reached the 7% threshold required for a party to acquire seats in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament. Of these 4, all supported the current administration under president Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The newly-formed, pro-Jeenbekov Birimdik (“Unity”) party, which was already expected to come in first, did so in tremendous fashion, shattering expected results by taking in over 25% of the vote. Similarly, the Menekim Kyrgyzstan (“My Homeland Kyrgyzstan”) party, which came in second, is linked closely with Raimbek Matraimov, a controversial former customs boss who was accused in 2019 of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars from Kyrgyzstan via customs fraud. Matraimov denies these allegations entirely, and he is still viewed as an influential figure within Kyrgyz politics.
As for the opposition parties, their defeat was historic, with even the most popular social-democratic Respublika and socialist Ata-Meken (“Fatherland”) not meeting the requirement to hold seats for the first time since 2005. While this can partially be attributed to the sheer number of anti-status quo parties present, the results were still shocking to many given the current conditions within Kyrgyzstan.
Prior to the election, many were unhappy with the Kyrgyz government. Corruption was a large issue, particularly with the Matraimov case from 2019, however the Kyrgyz government has been somewhat associated with corruption in general since it gained its independence. President Jeenbekov’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis drew the state heavy criticism as well. In May the president relaxed initial lockdown guidelines and the virus spread rapidly over the summer, peaking in June. Medical supplies began to dwindle across the country, and medical professionals became more and more vulnerable as supplies diminished. The Kyrgyz parliament, meanwhile, failed to pass a relief act before summer recess, forcing volunteers to supply and feed medical professionals throughout the summer months. During this time the economy was in shambles, as the lockdown measures of March and April had dealt businesses a serious blow without slowing down the virus enough for an attempt at recovery in the summer. This likely made the aforementioned vote-buying much more effective; while voters reportedly only received about 2000 kgs (around $25), the average schoolteacher makes around 8000 kgs in a month in normal times.
Because of these conditions the incredibly pro-government outcome of the October 4th election resulted in days of protests. The public outrage was so intense that on October 6th the Kyrgyzstan Central Election Committee announced it would vacate the results of the earlier election and hold a new one on November 6th. The prime minister and the speaker of parliament both subsequently resigned. Days later president Jeenbekov made a statement saying that he would be willing to step down from his position once “legitimate heads of the executive authorities are approved and the country takes the path of legitimacy.” This was seen as an opportunity by many, as the prime minister would be the most likely to take Jeenbekov’s position after his resignation, and the prime minister is decided by parliament.
Over the course of a few days, several camps formed over who should become the next prime minister: those supporting former parliament member Sadyr Japarov, those supporting the young businessman Tilek Toktogaziev, and those supporting the businessman Omurbek Babanov, who had ran against Jeenbekov in 2017. Japarov, who had been freed from jail by rioters and was in the middle of serving an 11 year prison term for kidnapping – which he claims had been politically motivated – was known as a nationalist and criticized by Toktogaziev and Babanov supporters for being cut from the same cloth as Jeenbekov and previous officials. Toktogaziev was seen as a political outsider and garnered large amounts of support from young people. Babanov was perceived in a similar way, holding comparable views on economic investment, and the coalition of leaders who nominated him within the parliament also nominated Toktogaziev as vice prime minister.
On October 9th, clashes erupted between Babanov and Japarov supporters in the capital city over who was the rightful nominee. During this conflict, Toktogaziev was reported knocked unconscious by a rock and taken to a hospital. President Jeenbekov declared a state of emergency, a curfew was imposed, and order was gradually restored to Bishkek. Then, on October 14th, the Kyrgyz parliament officially selected Sadyr Japarov as the new prime minister.
This leaves many questions remaining for Kyrgyzstan. What will happen to Jeenbekov and his administration? The country has a history of political punishment, as the only former president still residing in Kyrgyzstan was freed from jail alongside Japarov. In addition to this, the divide in Kyrgyz society that was responsible for the clashes between Babanov and Japarov supporters still exists, and there are still concerns about whether or not Japarov would continue a trend of corruption that has plagued Kyrgyzstan’s leaders for decades. There’s considerable doubt surrounding the future of all of these issues, however it seems likely that many of them will be faced in the coming months.