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How Kyrgyz social media backed an imprisoned politician’s meteoric rise to power

Amid post-election chaos, Kyrgyz-language social media was increasingly flooded with support for nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov - and can help explain his unlikely rise to prime minister.

Gulzat Baialieva Joldon Kutmanaliev
15 October 2020
Sadyr Japarov
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Source: YouTube / Bishkek 2020

Kyrgyzstan’s recent parliamentary elections were marked by massive vote-buying and fraud, creating mass-scale contention and protests. Amid the resulting violence, chaos and power vacuum, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov went into hiding, only to re-appear a few days later. Since then, multiple coalitions have sought to claim power.

Now it appears that Sadyrbek Japarov - a former MP from the nationalist Ata-Jurt political party and disgraced politician - has unexpectedly emerged as the likely political victor. On 10 October, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament appointed Japarov interim prime minister, albeit with questionable legitimacy. Only a few days before, Japarov’s supporters had freed him from prison in the midst of the post-electoral chaos, during which they descended onto Bishkek streets, occupying government buildings and clashing with opponents.

These rapidly changing events highlight the important role social media play in everyday political life in Kyrgyzstan. While most Russophone social media users condemn the pro-Japarov mobilisation for being “uneducated”, suggesting that these protesters are being paid, Kyrgyz-language social networks depict the pro-Japarov protests as a “national victory for real patriotism”. In Kyrgyzstan, while Russian-speaking social media are generally oriented towards middle-class and urban residents, Kyrgyz-language social media are normally popular among residents in regions and rural areas.

A close examination of chat groups on WhatsApp and Sadyr Japarov’s 117,000-member public group on Facebook (the largest politics Facebook page in Kyrgyzstan), as well as other Kyrgyz-language online communities underlines the gap between these two audiences, allowing us to see how, in the words of the New York Times, “a convicted kidnapper is chosen to lead the government of Kyrgyzstan”.

Our observation of Kyrgyz-speaking social media suggests that propaganda and troll attacks against Japarov’s rivals and critics have contributed to his popularity among Kyrgyz-speaking people, largely thanks to his anti-establishment credentials burnished on social media. This online mobilisation was later translated into growing street mobilisation, which allowed Japarov to win the real-life battle in the capital Bishkek.

“A national victory”

Some observers have analysed Kyrgyzstan’s current political conflict according to the conventional template of clan politics, the country’s north-south divide and nomadic mentality, which have long dominated expert analysis of the country’s politics. For many years, politicians and political entrepreneurs exploited geographical and cultural distinctions between Kyrgyzstan’s northern and southern regions to construct political divisions and polarise society for their personal benefit.

However, we believe that what is happening in Kyrgyzstan now goes beyond established analytical scripts about regional divisions in terms of mobilisational structures. While it is true that Japarov enjoys strong support among residents in his home region of Issyk Kul, there is also strong evidence of support coming from many people across the country, predominantly rural residents.

Throughout the recent political unrest, we have monitored Kyrgyz social media, tracking how Kyrgyz-language channels present Japarov. Before the current post-election clashes, the 51-year-old was an iconic politician for many people north and south, enjoying a reputation of a patriot who fights for justice, a transparent state budget, and against corrupt politicians and foreign investors. In March 2017, around 500 protesters rallied in Bishkek against Japarov’s detention for his role in organising protests for the nationalisation of the Kumtor gold mine in 2013, during which he tried to force his way into the presidential palace. Japarov was later sentenced to 11.5 years in jail for hostage-taking during another protest the same year.

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 16.32.42.png
Sadyr Japarov addresses supporters in Bishkek, 6 October | Source: YouTube / KaktusMedia

After Japarov’s supporters freed him from prison on 6 October, his heroism was further heightened in social media. It is important to stress that there was a pre-existing constellation of social media channels interested in promoting Japarov among Kyrgyz audiences. The main media platforms feeding his heroisation and the demonisation of his rivals are online TV channels, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, and, to a lesser extent, Twitter and Telegram. In Kyrgyzstan, the latter have been predominantly used by Russian-speaking urbanites.

Against the backdrop of political turmoil, Kyrgyz content-makers ramped up their work: a daily flow of messages in support of Japarov gained a critical mass across social media platforms, influencing popular perceptions of what was happening in the country. This content usually transmits distorted, conspiratorial and sensationalist news. For example, following the election, dozens of new Japarov fan pages were set up on Instagram and Facebook. One such Facebook page, which only a few days ago could count 35,000 followers, has increased its following daily to reach 118,200. Many Kyrgyz media users have been attracted by glorified images around Japarov’s persona. It is not immediately clear to what extent fake accounts have contributed to this online mobilisation.

Kyrgyz social media have focused on three general trends: the glorification of Japarov, long-standing anti-establishment rhetoric, and consistent attacks on Japarov’s rivals. The main online media platforms are his fan groups on WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram titled after his name, which, together with other smaller platforms, boast a combined 630,000 followers in a country with a population of six million. Other pro-Japarov social media pages are the online electoral campaign pages of Kamchybek Tashiev’s “Mekenchil” (Patriot) Party and their fan pages. The party’s banners also contained images of the then imprisoned Japarov during the election campaign.

Video of supporters celebrating Japarov's appointment as PM, 10 October. Source: Channel 7

Online TV and YouTube channels covering Kyrgyz politics are a well-oiled multimedia system which connects people as they watch sensational and emotional short videos, with the possibility to react and comment immediately. The most popular is Akyrky Kabarlar, or Latest News, which has 1.32 million subscribers. Here, the comment sections under Japarov-related content show similar sentiments of admiration for his leadership. In the words of some commenters on this channel, he is referred to as the “nation’s real patriot” and the “long awaited people’s Son”.

At the same time, videos and messages about Japarov’s previous political activism in regard to the Kumtor gold mine have been circulated on all Kyrgyz online networks, from Youtube and TV channels to Instagram and pro-Japarov Facebook groups and other pages on Kyrgyz politics. From there, the videos and memes gravitate to WhatsApp networks that often contain content with fake news and conspiracy theories.

Popular video materials include a montage of Japarov’s anti-establishment speeches from 2012, where he demanded an investigation into the Kumtor mine, which garnered 43,735 views on Instagram alone. In addition to these archive videos, the pro-Japarov channels also post emotional videos such as crying migrant workers (116,337 views) and older citizens (20,694 views) seeking justice from Japarov and calling him their national leader. The comment sections suggest his overwhelming influence and how Kyrgyz users perceive his image. On Akyrky Kabarlar, the biggest Kyrgyz YouTube news channel, he is even acclaimed as “the support from Allah that people had long hoped for”.

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Sadyr Japarov, 2012 | Source: YouTube

Pro-Japarov media segments also contain strong anti-establishment rhetoric. Comments in social media groups express fatigue over familiar faces on Kyrgyzstan’s political scene and the futility of politics in general, pinning hopes on Japarov’s political rise. Among ordinary people, the Kyrgyz parliament is discredited and ridiculed for its incompetence. The word “chimkirikter” (snot), popularised by ex-president Almazbek Atambayev, is now commonly used as a derogatory word for MPs. When Kyrgyz social media focuses on the country’s political elite (in effect, Japarov’s rivals), the comment sections overflow with disrespect and mistrust.

In one video published on Akyrky Kabarlar at the height of the post-election chaos, Japarov describes how several rival politicians have apparently moved against him in an attempt to destabilise the country, calling out biased media coverage against him at the same time. This 18-minute clip has received 593,000 views and over 13,000 comments since it was posted on 8 October. Regardless of the type of news - real or fake - one salient trend on Kyrgyz social media appears to be personal attacks, negative memes and hate speech towards rival civic activists and young political leaders. The majority of Japarov’s supporters mock his political opponents without questioning the authenticity of the content.

With the country’s history of political contestation, political actors in Kyrgyzstan have learnt that the size of supporters’ groups physically present in protest hotspots, normally Bishkek’s central square, provides a key advantage in claiming power or exerting influence on political processes and key government nominations. Interviews with people in various localities indicate that Japarov’s followers often mobilised by creating local WhatsApp groups, which were then used to coordinate their actions, including travel to Bishkek to join forces with other supporters in the city’s central Ala-Too square.

At the time of writing, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan remains uncertain and volatile. President Jeenbekov has introduced a curfew in Bishkek. Law enforcement institutions remain loyal to the president, while on 14 October parliament officially voted Japarov in as the new prime minister. Amid the current political crisis, Japarov’s unexpected rise to prominence underlines the growing importance of Kyrgyz-speaking social media for political mobilisation. Ignoring it would reduce the accuracy of any analysis of the country’s political processes.

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