oDR: Opinion

The incredible resilience of Kyrgyzstan

As Kyrgyzstan enters another round of disruption and upheaval, society emerges better networked for change.

Erica Marat
12 October 2020
Druzhinniki in Bishkek record a video address to their fellow citizens
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Source: YouTube / Kloop

A week after controversial parliamentary elections on 4 October, Kyrgyzstan is in a political stalemate. The elections were mired by widespread reports of voter bribery by pro-establishment parties which managed to win a majority of parliamentary seats. The following day, peaceful protesters amassed on Bishkek streets demanding new elections. They were met with police violence. In retaliation, angry mobs broke into president Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s headquarters, demanding his resignation. The president’s allies in parliament elected Sadyr Japarov, a nationalist with a criminal background, to lead the government.

This is Kyrgyzstan’s third attempt since independence from the Soviet Union to remove a sitting president and establish a more inclusive political system. In 2005 and again in 2010, thousands gathered in central Bishkek demanding better governance and less corruption. In both cases, the people succeeded in eventually forcing out the incumbent. Kyrgyzstan has been titillating between increasing authoritarianism and a bottom-up push for greater political representation.

Such political transitions are disruptive. In the capital, protests evolve into a citywide looting frenzy with mobs tearing down shops and small businesses across the capital. Interim political coalitions emerge to capitalise on chaos and capture government offices by ignoring popular grievances – endemic corruption, unemployment and ineffective governance. Political operatives with a criminal background or connections to organised crime rise to the top.

To an outsider paying attention to Kyrgyzstan only in times of crisis, the unfolding developments may seem like yet another regression in political development. The previous two ousters of sitting presidents haven’t even resulted in a stable political system. Inside Kyrgyzstan, many find the constant political upheavals exhausting. The private sector suffers from an unpredictable economy and families who can afford it send their children to study and live abroad. Over a million of Kyrgyzstan’s six million population works in Russia and Kazakhstan.

But beneath the county’s near constant political turmoil lies the robust social resilience of its citizens. People whose anger towards power-hungry politicians and a dysfunctional government drives them to rely on themselves and their communities rather than on state services. With every cycle of political turmoil and government dysfunction, civic networks only grow stronger.

As a response to ensuing instability after each regime change, a self-organised ad hoc force druzhinniki (community patrols) formed to protect Bishkek from looters. First organised in March 2005 after president Askar Akayev fled the country, the druzhinniki mobilised again in April 2010 when president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted. As post-election protests turned to riots this week, thousands of druzhinniki guarded government buildings, retail centres and banks. Restaurants and private citizens supplied the guards with food, water, and hot tea. Across Bishkek and its surrounding areas, the number of men who rallied together to protect their communities outnumbered police forces. Most joined a new apolitical formation Bizdin Bishkek (Our City); old networks formed in 2010 like the Patriot organisation reassembled as well. As tech entrepreneur Ermek Niyazov put it: “It used to be that druzhinniki joined the police, now the police joins druzhinniki.”

Previous political regime changes in Kyrgyzstan have shown how a resilient society is growing to counter the impudence of those in power

This was the second time ordinary citizens had to organise to replace the ineffective state this year. The COVID-19 pandemic in summer exposed the Jeenbekov administration’s unpreparedness before the crisis. Disillusionment with the government grew as images of people dying in front of overcrowded hospitals spread among a shocked public. The rapid rise of cases mobilised volunteers who donated money, time, and hand-sewn personal protection equipment in an effort to save the lives of their fellow citizens. One volunteer, Sofia-Aidana Murzaeva, used to work at a restaurant but, like hundreds of others, at the height of the pandemic in July she raced around Bishkek responding to emergency calls, hooking up those suffering from low oxygen levels to portable ventilators. Yegor Borisov, the renowned head of the Emergency Center in Bishkek, reported the daily load of new critically sick patients, often contradicting official numbers that tended to underestimate the real spread of the virus. Volunteers tackled the pandemic’s spread in rural areas as well.

A month later, a new political party, Reforma, stepped onto the political stage. Their platform was singular: improve governance by electing forward-thinking and inclusive leadership. The party crowdfunded its $63,000 registration fee required by the Central Election Commission - a first for a Kyrgyz political party. Other political parties, including Ata-Meken (Fatherland) and Bir Bol (Be One), featured new political leaders to appeal to voters fed up with corruption. Last week, these three parties led the first protest over the controversial parliamentary elections, demanding Jeenbekov’s resignation.

Since 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has functioned as an imperfect, but representative legislative body. It has allowed for the rise of new leaders who fight for principles of cleaner politics and better governance for the people. Among them are young deputies Dastan Bekeshev, Elvira Surabaldieva and Janar Akayev. Their election to parliament has given them a national platform to voice bold, democratic ideas. Former member of parliament Shirin Aitmatova was among the first to rally the public against high-level corruption in the current government. Later, investigative journalists alleged that former customs chief Raimbek Matraimov had presided over unprecedented levels of capital flight (he denies the allegations strongly). The Matraimov-backed political party, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, won last week’s election thanks to widely reported cases of voter bribery

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President of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbay Jeenbekov | Source: President of Kyrgyzstan

To be clear, no politician or a political party in Kyrgyzstan has an impeccable image. But the broad political discourse is fast-paced, informed and argumentative. Every political faction and private citizen are free to express their views in public. In addition to the international donor-funded NGO community of the 1990s and 2000s, new decentralised networks of self-reliant activists came together to demand clean government. The habit to hold political views without fear of the state has withstood previous attempts to centralise power by both Akayev and Bakiyev.

Today, Kyrgyzstan faces a critical junction in the country’s political future. Two large political coalitions – reformist and pro-establishment political parties – are clashing, while Jeenbekov agreed to resign after a new parliamentary election is held. The outcome of the new election - if held in a more transparent and orderly way - could be a parliamentary system more robust than before as it evolves to meet the current crisis.

Regardless of the results, previous political regime changes in Kyrgyzstan have shown how a resilient society is growing in complexity of organisation and resistance to counter the impudence of those in power. Political competition is intensifying. The more chaotic and unstable the country seems at the top, the stronger and more united the public becomes. The Kyrgyz people have not given up. Many are still willing to fight for their entitled civic freedoms and for a better, freer political system.

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