Native son: the rise of Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov

As the rise of Kyrgyzstan’s new nationalist leader shows, “traditional” norms and symbols can be effectively revived and deployed for very modern aims.

Aksana Ismailbekova
28 January 2021, 1.45pm
28 January 2020: Sadyr Japarov at his presidential inauguration
Image: President of Kyrgyzstan

Gulmira, a university instructor in Kyrgyzstan’s largest southern city, Osh, has been disaffected with the country’s politics for years.

“For a long time, the government has been unable to solve the problems of local business people because of organised criminal groups in Osh,” she complained when we spoke over the phone.

In January, Gulmira voted for Sadyr Japarov in the country’s presidential election, which the former convict turned interim PM and president won in a landslide, securing almost 80% of the vote.

In the wake of Kyrgyzstan’s highly contested parliamentary election last October, many observers have asked: how can Japarov, a nationalist politician who was sprung from prison during the chaos, be so popular despite his complete disregard for the rule of law and the constitution?

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He has in the past incited supporters to harass and threaten his opponents, as well as a frontal attack on the country’s constitution in order to secure a return to presidentialism.

In 2008-2010, Japarov was in charge of Kyrgyzstan’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, before turning to campaigning to nationalise the country’s gigantic Kumtor gold mine. At a 2013 Kumtor rally, supporters of Japarov imprisoned the regional governor in a car during the events, and Japarov left the country in the aftermath. On his return to Kyrgyzstan in 2017, he was sent to prison for 11.5 years on kidnapping charges over the incident.

But to understand Japarov’s meteoric rise to power, it is crucial that we look at the informal social and cultural ties that symbolically link the head of state and ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan.

October 2020: Sadyr Japarov giving a speech during street protests in the aftermath of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections | Image: YouTube / Bishkek 2020

Indeed, Japarov’s team and affiliated media, as well as the new president himself, have skillfully deployed “traditional” symbols of kinship and leadership that resonate with Kyrgyz society, in order to mobilise people for the all-too modern objective of winning presidential power.

Japarov’s kinship ties, genealogies and “popular story” as a man of the people have been consistently spread by his team and friendly media, including on social media platforms, reaching a large part of the population inside Kyrgyzstan, as well as among migrant workers working outside the country.

“Japarov suffered greatly from legal injustice as well as from the loss of his father, mother and a son,” as Gulmira put it. “He is the long-awaited son of Kyrgyzstan who will fight against the corrupt elites.”

Deploying genealogies, winning presidencies

During the presidential election campaign, Japarov and his supporters used genealogies and kinship networks to support his claim to leadership.

In Kyrgyzstan, genealogies are orally transmitted traditions, steeped in myth and passed on from a generation to the next, defining one’s membership to different groups and, as a result, their claims to social, political, and economic advantage including via patronage networks.

For example, as part of Japarov’s claim to legitimacy and leadership, Kyias Moldokasymov – a local historian, scholar and journalist – claimed in December 2020 that new archival material revealed that Japarov is a direct descendant of the khans, a title historically given to rulers and military leaders in Central Asia.

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In a Facebook post, Moldokasymov went even further, stating that Japarov’s unique ancestors could be traced back up to 17 generations. This lineage included his great-grandfather Birnazar, a judge in the 1890s who commanded great authority in society for his role in settling disputes and administering justice.

The obvious subtext to these assertions is that there can be little doubt that Japarov’s claim to leadership is legitimate. Yet since they are transmitted orally, genealogies can often be tampered with by different actors who may add, remove or temporarily forget part of the story for different purposes.

Clearly, a genealogy’s flexible structure makes it suited to adaptation in line with the practical realities of the present, such as a presidential election.

Of Native sons and suffering

During the campaign, Japarov visited his native Issyk Kul province, where, despite the ongoing pandemic, he organised a mass gathering with actors disguised as Kyrgyzstan’s “Seven Sages”, or “Jeti ake”. These are ancestors, spiritual leaders and folk philosophers described in local historical accounts as the people who “stood at the origins of the territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan in the 20th century, and inspired and guided the best sons of the land of Issyk-Kul.”

Screen Shot 2021-01-28 at 12.10.14.png
In December 2020, Sadyr Japarov's campaign trail also took him to a Jeti Ake ceremony | Image: Facebook / Sadyr Japarov

When I talked to Salamat, who is also from Issyk Kul, he told me that the province’s “elders also blessed Japarov and told him to work honourably and keep his word, as well as not to repeat the mistakes of previous presidents”. He added that “otherwise, Japarov might disgrace not only his ancestors, but also his children’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren”.

Receiving the blessing of the Jeti ake and the elders of Issyk Kul was a powerful symbolic act that bolstered Japarov’s claim to the presidency and can go some way to explain his show of strength in his region, where he received about 94% of the votes.

Here, the implicit understanding is that, in his role as Kyrgyzstan’s “native son”, Japarov would be the people’s representative inside the formal institutions of state power, fighting the corrupt elites in the name of the people. Equally, the honour of representing the people – and the shame that would ensue from breaking their trust – are meant to work as a powerful control mechanism on the “native son”.

“When Japarov was in prison, he lost his parents and his son. He comes from the people. He himself has known injustice”

Japarov has also been particularly shrewd in changing his “traditional” “hats” in order to suit the specificity of the context and gather consensus.

When he visited southern Kyrgyzstan in December as part of his election campaign, he identified his destiny with the political mission of Iskhak Razzakov, a respected Soviet statesman and first secretary of the Communist Party of Kirghizia, as Kyrgyzstan was known during Soviet rule. As Razzakov was known for his honesty, clean government, justice, and the development of the economy, education, and culture, that is the message that Japarov wanted to pass on to potential voters.

Writing on Facebook from a museum dedicated to Razzakov, Japarov promised that if elected, he would “work honestly for the good of the motherland”.

December 2020: Sadyr Japarov at a museum dedicated to Ishak Razzakov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Kirghizia during the 1950s | Source: Facebook / Sadyr Japarov

In the run up to the elections and since, Japarov-friendly media have emphasised the new president’s previous humanitarian activities, such as building mosques, repairing bridges and helping orphanages, as well as his emotional videos about his own personal suffering from the death of his father, mother, and son, who died while Japarov was in prison.

Japarov’s own history of suffering resonates in Kyrgyz society, as clear in the words of Gulmira, the university teacher in Osh. Other informants concur. “When Japarov was in prison, he lost his parents and his son. He comes from the people. He himself has known injustice,” Osh bazaar traders Chinar and Artur told me. “We had to feed 120 parliamentarians, instead it is better to feed only one person,” they conclude, referring to Japarov himself and the presidential system he is trying to install against a deeply unpopular parliament.

Clearly, there is a popular respect for a leader’s experience of personal suffering, as it is believed to give them insight into people’s real lives. As Ilich (pseudonym), a farmer from Naryn region, put it in a WhatsApp conversation: “The judicial system works for rich people and deputies and protects their businesses. The law does not protect poor Kyrgyz, everyone knows this. There is no justice in the corrupt legal system of Kyrgyzstan. [Former president] Jeenbekov was asleep for three years. Japarov is the only one who openly addressed the corrupt judicial system in Kyrgyzstan.”

As a construction worker in Bishkek told me: “Japarov always uses social media to be closer to people, and in this way he listens to his people, asking for their opinions and hearing their voices. He respects people's concerns and needs.”

“The judicial system works for rich people and deputies and protects their businesses. The law does not protect poor Kyrgyz, everyone knows this”

Kyrgyzstan has experienced a number of popular and deeply angry movements against power – whether the 2005 revolution that turfed out Askar Akayev to the 2010 revolution that expelled Kurmanbek Bakiyev, or the recent removal of president Sooronbay Jeenbekov under pressure from “the street” in October.

This time around, the mobilisation of “traditional” symbolism for modern aims by Japarov’s team and friendly media appears to have been particularly effective due to popular disaffection with the status quo of corruption and injustice.

“We have entrusted the presidency to a very ‘controversial’ candidate this time,” one informant told me. “We’ve had an academic [Akayev], an engineer [Bakiyev], a teacher [Jeenbekov], a businessman [Almazbek Atambayev], but they could not fight against corruption. Perhaps only this kind of ‘controversial’ candidate will solve our problems.”

But if Japarov the “native son” can so rapidly become an attractive alternative in Kyrgyzstan’s search for change, his fall may well be as meteoric as his rise.

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This weekend, Kyrgyzstan goes to the polls in a high-stakes joint election and referendum that will decide the future of democracy in the country.

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