For the third time in 15 years, a sizeable portion of the inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan’s capital are in the streets, demanding revolutionary political change.
Protesters have stormed government buildings in Bishkek, released jailed former political leaders, and successfully agitated for the annulment of the results of parliamentary elections (which were held on 4 October). They are currently agitating for the resignation of president Soronbay Jeenbekov, and various groups are jockeying over short and medium-term political arrangements.
How did we get here, what is likely to follow and what are the local and international repercussions?
The immediate trigger for protests was the announcement of election results. Fifteen parties participated but only four, all more or less loyal to the current president, were said to have achieved the necessary 7% of votes to enter the next parliament, ensuring that for the first time in its 29-year history, there would be no real opposition voices in the legislature.
The elections themselves were of dubious legitimacy, marred by clear cases of fraud (though it is difficult to tell the extent) and extensive vote buying. In fact, what happened was an example of a pattern that has become depressingly similar in many former Soviet states. In an attempt to ensure that they can hold the levers of power, government authorities interfere with an election. However, instead of doing so subtly, gently putting their thumbs on the scale to ensure, say, that they retain sufficient but not suffocating control, their operatives take a sledgehammer to the process, ensuring that it is perceived to be wholly illegitimate.
In this instance, the response to the sledgehammering was extremely rapid, with all of the eleven parties who had been shut out of parliament calling on their followers to protest on the evening of 5 October on the city’s main square. Again, in what has become a familiar pattern, the regime decided to hunker down rather than engage in negotiations, calling well-equipped riot police into the streets to confront the protesters.
More at stake than elections
These protests were not only about elections, however. Rather, they are taking place against a background of latent popular anger at the incompetent response of the government to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be sure, the pandemic presented enormous problems to governments all over the world, but the response in Kyrgyzstan was particularly ineffective. Although the government imposed a fairly comprehensive nationwide lockdown relatively early on (in mid-March), they completely failed to use the time bought by the quarantine to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of disease which followed the country’s re-opening. Additionally, having received a fair amount of support from outside donors, they used most of it to pay the salaries of a massively bloated state apparatus, leaving under-appreciated medical professionals to fend for themselves.
Indeed, the health-care system of Bishkek was saved from total collapse only by the action of local volunteers, who stepped in to feed and equip local medics during the summer, while the government took a long vacation. At the same time, the almost two-month lockdown dealt a devastating blow to what was already a weak economy, pushing much of the population to the brink of starvation. The situation was further exacerbated by the drying up of remittances from migrant workers in Russia (which in most years are equal to around 1/3 of the country’s GDP) and the return to the country of thousands of these now unemployed labor migrants. Naturally, it was not particularly difficult to convince a fair number of the un- and underemployed to sell their votes for anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 soms (approximately $12-$24). But just because they sold their votes did not satisfy these people, and many of them have joined the ranks of the protesters.
These are not normal circumstances
Under more normal circumstances, one might have expected that the protests would either peter out or be put down relatively quickly. After all, as opposed to Belarus, where all eyes were on President Lukashenko himself and where the opposition, almost by accident, galvanised around a single opponent, in Kyrgyzstan there is no unified political opposition. There is no obvious charismatic leader of the protests, and the immediate figures being protested against (the leaders of the loyalist government parties) are strawman figures for shadowy, almost invisible figures who are pulling strings from a distance (in particular the much hated Raimbek Matraimov, a former customs official who has somehow managed to amass a billion-dollar fortune and is widely seen as the government’s paymaster).
Furthermore, as President Jeenbekov, a former Russian teacher, has generally been happy to toe a pro-Moscow line, one might expect that he would be able to call in support from his Russian patrons when the going gets tough. However, these are not normal circumstances. As noted, the government and the president are widely despised, particularly in the capital, and they were curiously passive in their response to this crisis of their own making. Perhaps recalling what happened to previous presidents who allowed the security services to shoot protesters and paid the price by being forced to flee the country, the president claims not to have authorised the riot police to use lethal force nor to engage in mass arrests or violence.
Events in Bishkek on 6 October. Source: Kloop
But hesitance only emboldened the protesters, who stormed a number of government buildings and freed a number of former political leaders who had been imprisoned by the Jeenbekov regime after trials of dubious legitimacy. The return of these figures, many of whom played roles in installing the Jeenbekov regime and/or unsuccessfully led the country in the past appears sure to complicate the short-term political situation, as they vie with new figures to bring the country under control. Finally, with Russia facing significant crises in Belarus, in Armenia, in Ukraine, at home in Khabarovsk, and with the West in the wake of the clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to poison opposition leader Alexey Navalny, it is simply not clear whether Moscow has the bandwidth to prop up another clownishly incompetent and unpopular regime.
Scenarios for how this can play out
In sum, there is a reasonable chance that events in Kyrgyzstan will run their course without too much outside interference. There are a number of ways the situation could play out.
1) The current regime could attempt to make a comeback. The president has, as of now, not resigned and is apparently still in the country. Taking advantage of divisions that have appeared between the forces that led the protests and various old-guard politicians, President Jeenbekov could put himself forward as a peacemaker and oversee the transition to new parliamentary elections (to which he has already agreed). It is not clear, however, whether he continues to command any legitimacy and whether he has a team that could bring about such a transition even if he proposed to lead it.
2) A second possibility, and what seems to be happening now, is that the experienced politicians who have been out of power (in some cases in prison, in others in exile, or simply licking their wounds at home) will attempt to swoop in and assert leadership over what was originally a youth-led protest movement. Certainly, there are legitimate fears of anarchy at the moment, and the terrible economy and pandemic mean that a power vacuum right now is particularly problematic. As a result, the appearance of familiar faces would reassure many citizens as well as neighboring states. However, given that the previous two revolutions were ultimately hijacked by political figures who simply shuffled the personnel deck and ultimately failed to make significant change, there is going to be a lot of resistance to such an outcome.
3) A third possibility is that young people, who make up a very large percentage of the Kyrgyz population and have, at least in the capital, been emboldened by their success, will simply refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the older generation of politicians and will push hard for major political change. Given that most have little name recognition, if they are smart, they will agree to a relatively short transition period led by “elders” but demand real reforms to the system by which political power in the country is divvied up (particularly regarding financial transparency from political parties and candidates). Given that outside forces appear incapable for the moment of intervening to prop up the existing corrupt order, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kyrgyzstan to create a viable democratic political system. The presence of a completely new and much younger generation of leaders, many educated at the American University of Central Asia, gives some hope that it will, but there are enormous hurdles to overcome and no guarantees that they can succeed where their elders failed.
The international repercussions
Most obviously, the latest Kyrgyz revolution is a disaster for Vladimir Putin’s Soviet restoration project. It was supposed to be heralded by the so-called Eurasian Economic Union, led by Russia and also including for the moment Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. The Union has been on shaky economic legs for some time, and hopes that other former Soviet republics might join have not materialised. Now, three member-states are engulfed by crises that Russia seems incapable of solving.
Protests in Belarus have been ongoing since August and no clear end to the stalemate between President Lukashenko, widely recognised to have stolen the elections there, and the opposition is in sight. However, it is hard to believe that the so-far well-behaved but unsuccessful Belarusian protesters have not been watching events in Kyrgyzstan with keen interest.
Armenia is engaged in almost a full-scale war with its neighbour Azerbaijan. Thus far it has not received any meaningful military help from its ally. This is despite very vocal, if so far largely symbolic, support from Turkey to Azerbaijan, something of a competitor to Russia for influence in the area.
And now Kyrgyzstan is out of control; particularly worrying for the Kremlin must be that the parliamentary election winners, now widely perceived as illegitimate political actors, were those parties that supported ever-closer integration with Russia. No matter what the outcome of the Kyrgyz protests, it is hard to see closer ties with the former colonial power on the agenda in Bishkek.
Meanwhile, the Chinese, who are playing the long game, watching Russian influence in Central Asia slowly diminish while patiently waiting to pick up the pieces, are probably delighted, but remain silent. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China plays the leading role, has noted the issues in Kyrgyzstan, a member-state, and pledged to remain out of the country’s internal affairs. But given Kyrgyzstan’s massive sovereign debt to China, it is hard to believe that some long-term geopolitical concessions will not eventually be on the table.
Kyrgyzstan’s immediate neighbors have so far said little, but one can guess that the more or less autocratic regimes in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are rooting for a return to some sort of status quo rather than for the success of a youth-led democratizing process – and so will quietly do what they can to ensure the failure of real reform.
Finally, for more distant players, like the EU and the US, Kyrgyzstan is far away and mostly irrelevant. Of course, from their perspective it would be nice to have a true vibrant democracy in the middle of Central Asia. Yet,they also recognize that their potential influence on the situaton is quite small and will therefore limit themselves to platitudes about the importance of democratic choice in Kyrgyzstan without doing much to make it happen.