Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan was one heralded as an “island of democracy” in Central Asia. In the previous three decades, the former colony has faced a number of revolutions ending in presidential removal (Laruelle & Engvall 2015), with weeks of public demonstration preceding Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s October 2020 resignation, which served as the third in fifteen years. Now, his prisoner-turned-president replacement Sadyr Japarov is redirecting the nation’s slow trend toward democratic reform, steering Kyrgyzstan into authoritarianism.
Nearly a year ago, thousands of Kyrgyz protested the outcome of their parliamentary elections, with many claiming votes were being bought and fraudulently reported. These riots, primarily occurring in the capital of Bishkek over the course of week, injured more than 1200 and killed one individual. During this period of turmoil, supporters occupied a government building, breaking Sadyr Japarov out of prison and subsequently naming him prime minister. Jeenbekov resigned October 15th with Japarov claiming presidential powers that same day. The parliamentary elections were annulled and new elections were set for January 10th 2021. Both the constitution and formation of government were up for revision, with 81% of voters electing to switch the parliament-led system to a president-led one. For Japarov, this conveniently reverses the 2010 referendum that placed power squarely in the seat of the prime minister. Japarov easily cleared his group of sixteen challengers, winning 79% of the presidential vote in a landslide.
A Kyrgyz nationalist, Japarov has a history of capitalizing on the country’s ethnic tensions, previously taking part in Osh riots targeting Uzbek residents from April to October of 2010. In this unrest, rural Kyrgyz bucked against property-owning ethnic Uzbeks living in the area. This string of violence resulted in the death of 893, with Japarov being noted as an inciter of attacks. His current rhetoric echoes similar sentiments regarding “rich” Kazakh neighbors and the perceived short end of the stick Kyrgyzstan was handed in the wake of the USSR. Japarov espouses anti-Western ideals, a holdover from the 2013 crimes that got him arrested, exiled, and detained. He was involved with a rally advocating for the nationalization of the Canadian-owned Kumtor Gold Mine, which eventually led to the attempted seizure of the Kyrgyz White House. After his acquittal, he plotted to kidnap the area’s akim (local head of government). He then fled the country, returning in 2017 when he was promptly sentenced and imprisoned.
While in prison Japarov strengthened the Mekenchil (“Patriotic”), a national-conservative party he founded in 2010. It has close ties with other nationalist parties in the country and gained a massive following the aftermath of the election recall, especially with oft-neglected rural voters. In his tenure as both president and prime minister, he has succeeded in portraying the culture of political parties as western-imposed idea, centralizing presidential authority in a manner similar to the Soviet model of vertical power and tradition of strongman leaders. In May, the new constitution went into effect and gave Japarov expansive powers, facilitated by a president-led led assembly that will advise all governmental behavior. In August, he signed an executive law removing a quarter of the seats in the Jorgorku Kenesh (Supreme Council), reducing the number from 120 seats to 90, while also calling for a Kurultai organization structure, a gesture to his nationalist base. Of the 90 parliamentary seats, “54 seats will be elected through national party lists and the remaining 36 will be decided in individual district races” (RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service 2021).
Along with his constitutional reforms, Japarov has signed other legislature like his August “false information” bill many predict will only serve to limit press freedoms in the country. Many of his critics—including opposition party leaders—have been charged and jailed with various crimes, pointing to even more restrictions on political autonomy and free speech. He also relieved many from their positions, including the First Deputy Prosecutor General, acts done in the name of eliminating legal conflicts but raise questions of possible corruption.
It goes without saying that this extreme executive aggrandizement will plague the nation for years to come, but despite foreboding signs, there are still some who believe Kyrgyzstan can recover from their political instability. Political analysts like Emil Dzhuraev have faith that strides toward democracy will be made after Japarov, just with a few more delays than anticipated. This sentiment aligns with the initial belief that after gaining independence Kyrgyzstan would gradually reach democratic statehood. In the meantime, Japarov continues to relieve officials of their posts and sign amendments undermining the parliamentary and presidential elections of the nation with no signs of stopping.