The October events in Kyrgyzstan: the trap of street power?

The 2005 Tulip Revolution caught everyone in Kyrgyzstan by surprise, including the opposition leaders: too quick and easy was the demise of President Askar Akayev’s regime. In April 2010, when the second president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was ousted, doubts started creeping in that Kyrgyzstan was falling into the “coup trap” of a sort. The October 2020 events dispelled the remaining doubts. The power of the street indeed emerged as the only working path to change power in Kyrgyzstan. Why the ruling regime fell this time, and what are the main risks for the country?

As in the “colour revolutions” of the early 2000s, fraudulent elections became the starting point of the October events in Kyrgyzstan. Three parties (Birimdik, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan), loyal to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, were declared the winners of the parliamentary elections on October 4, 2020. The election campaign was marked by massive vote-buying, mainly in favour of the above three parties. The next day, several thousand supporters of the parties that did not make it to parliament marched to demand new elections.

After several hours of confrontation with law enforcement agencies, protesters seized the government building, including the office of President Jeenbekov. The latter was neither seen nor heard, and the same could be said about the prime minister, the interior minister, and the police themselves. Following several days of anarchy, opposition politician Sadyr Japarov emerged as the leader of the street, and soon after, of the country. On the night of the unrest, he was released from prison (where he was serving a sentence for taking a hostage), and a few days later the country’s parliament elected Japarov as the new prime minister. Next day, President Jeenbekov announced his early resignation. Thus, he became the third president of Kyrgyzstan in the past 15 years ousted from power.

In addition to the classic and well-known set of problems (economic crisis, high levels of corruption, and low levels of trust in the authorities), two factors directly contributed to this turn of events. First, the high seven per cent electoral threshold left almost all opposition-minded parties, from socialists to nationalists, outside the parliament and united them into a single protest movement. The president’s team’s persistent efforts to reserve parliament for their loyal parties only made the situation worse.

Secondly, the country leaders and security officials proved utterly paralysed, as protests unfolded. The political weakness of President Jeenbekov was known, but the entire leadership of the country turned out to be just as helpless and absent. This may well be sufficient to explain why law enforcement forces disappeared from the streets. The previous “revolutions” experience would also prompt the police to withdraw for the risk of being beaten or ending up in a court.

The overthrow of President Jeenbekov upset a few people in Kyrgyzstan. Yet, few expected Japarov to become acting head of state. The latter is now handing out promises to the people and offices to his potential opponents. Few parties that led the post-election protests have remained outside the new regime. Others de facto joined Japarov’s team, citing the need to “save the country.”

A lack of legitimacy is haunting the new country leaders. However, consolidating the power position seems more urgent for them than reinstating the rule of law. Evidence of this is the “extension” of the powers of the current parliament for a sixth year, a direct violation of the country’s constitution. The protests on October 5 sought to cancel the parliamentary elections and declare new ones. As of now, however, new parliamentary elections will only happen after presidential elections in early January 2021, and the referendum on changes to the constitution.
Gaining international legitimacy has proved to be much more difficult. The neighbouring countries’ leaders jointly expressed concern about the situation but did little more than that. Russia, as “the most strategic partner”, tried to chip in but Dmitry Kozak’s visit didn’t result in anything. Moscow and Brussels have officially suspended the allocation of previously agreed financial injections until the situation normalizes.

The recent events exposed several factors that risk long-term stability in the country. First, the practice of overthrowing the government through street protests has become a “normal” phenomenon. Elections, in contrast, have failed to become an effective mechanism for power succession. The only precedent for a peaceful victory of the opposition remains the election of Askar Akayev as president of the then Kyrgyz “Soviet republic” in 1990. Since then, power on the “island of democracy” has been changed only by force, except cases when power was handed to the incumbent’s preferred choice.

The actions of the protesters who seized government buildings, as well as the disappearance of law enforcement officials, indicate that key actors, other than the country’s leaders, are learning from past mistakes. With fair elections still out of view, forceful seizure of power has emerged as an effective and proven way to fix the problem. Whether to call it a revolution or a coup is a secondary matter.

Furthermore, the return to the presidential system and majoritarian parliamentary elections, promised by the Japarov, may lead to new rounds of political instability. The shameful implementation of “parliamentarism” by Atambayev and Jeenbekov (and by all the participating parties) discredited the concept, and revisionist ideas may find widespread support from the population. However, in the context of routine disregard for the law, the above changes will only strengthen the centralization of power and resources in the hands of a small group. Such developments in the past served to trigger widespread unrest.

The October events also demonstrated the growing appeal of national-populist forces. The electoral success of the Butun Kyrgyzstan, Mekenchil or Chon Kazat parties that used such rhetoric illustrates this trend. On the one hand, the growing political relevance of nationalism may indicate the increasing influence of ideas as opposed to the factor of money or administrative resources. Those keen on developing democracy in the country might have wanted just this. On the other hand, instructive is the experience of countries where, in the context of the economic crisis and the chronic corruption of the establishment, democratic procedures brought not-so democratic forces to power.

The fall of another political regime, mired in corruption and incapable of real reforms, means it should be a straightforward task for the new leaders to show the difference. The task requires real reforms in the economy and governance, fair political competition and, most importantly, a clear understanding of how and why the above should be achieved. Given the experience, few in Kyrgyzstan will trust the “revolutionary” forces by default. If the latter have ideas and political will for reforms, those must be made evident from day one.

Shairbek Dzhuraev is co-founder and president of Crossroads Central Asia.

This is a translation of an article published at IPG-Journal (https://www.ipg-journal.io/regiony/azija/na-vyborakh-ne-svergnut-1179/)