Cultural and ideological polarisation is increasingly becoming an important issue, plaguing political life in many countries - including the world’s most advanced democracies. In Kyrgyzstan, this problem has been growing over a long period of time.
Recent events show further polarisation across various segments of Kyrgyz society. The recent assassination of a Chinese businessman in Istanbul with alleged connections to top Kyrgyz officials revealed growing cleavages within Kyrgyz society. These events demonstrate the absence of a constructive dialogue which could bridge the divide between different social groups. Political forces in Kyrgyzstan increasingly foster polarisation with a view to instrumentalising these divisions for their own benefits. In turn, this is reinforced by conspiracy theories and fake news, and complemented by cyber-attacks against investigative journalists.
These cleavages have been recently exacerbated by the murder of Chinese businessman Aierken Saimaiti in Istanbul, who apparently had strong connections to former president Almazbek Atambayev and current president Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as well as Raim Matraimov, an allegedly central figure in a large-scale money-laundering case. The latter has triggered hot debates on the political division between Kyrgyzstan’s southern and northern regions.
This money-laundering scheme was exposed in a joint investigation by media outlets Azattyk, the Kyrgyz Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Kloop, with the assistance of international investigative consortium OCCRP. A key witness for the investigation, Saimaiti provided crucial documented evidence on the alleged money-laundering scheme to Azattyk before being killed in an Istanbul cafe on 10 November.
According to the article’s claims, approximately 700 million USD dollars – in a country with an annual budget of slightly more than two billion USD in 2018 – had been illegally transferred out of Kyrgyzstan as part of this corruption scheme. Raim Matraimov, the former deputy chairman of the State Customs Service - popularly known as “Raim-million” for his alleged wealth - immediately denied all accusations. On 19 December 2019, in an interview with Asia News, Matraimov stated that media outlets were campaigning to discredit him.
President Jeenbekov had already been under pressure to investigate Matraimov, but had dodged the issue, arguing that there was no direct evidence implicating the powerful politician in corruption schemes. However, the scandal surrounding the joint investigation has left the president with no choice but to take action. An anti-corruption demonstration under the slogan “ReAction”, organised by activists in Bishkek on 25 November, was attended by 2,000 protesters, who demanded the Kyrgyz authorities take measures against large-scale corruption. The Kyrgyz authorities have now opened a formal investigation into the allegations, but popular blogger Aftandil Jorobekov, one of the demonstration’s organisers, was also arrested and charged with sparking “interregional hatred” via his website. He was released from detention after several freedom of speech activists organised a picket in front of the detention centre where he was held.
On 12 December, it became known that Raiymbek Matraimov and his family had filed a lawsuit against 24.kg, Kloop, Azattyk and journalist Ali Toktakunov, demanding that the media outlets pay 60 million soms (860,000 USD) in damages. Ali Toktakunov, a journalist with Azattyk, was in direct contact with Saimaiti throughout the investigation and officially presented the investigation’s findings to the public. 24.kg is a popular news outlet that reprinted the investigation findings. A Bishkek district court seized the media’s bank accounts without notifying the defendants, before Matraimov’s lawyers filed a new motion to cancel the account seizure.
These serious accusations of corruption and money-laundering against Matraimov have divided opinions across various political and social segments of Kyrgyz society. While many demand that Matraimov be prosecuted, others argue that the anti-corruption investigation is merely a plot hatched by western security services. These opinions, based on conspiracy theories, suggest that this plot is aimed to discredit incumbent president Jeenbekov, referring to Azattyk’s affiliation with RFE/RL,which is funded by US Congress.
Discussions on local social media suggest that Kyrgyzstan’s north-south divide is the main driver behind these diverging opinions.
The political cleavage between Kyrgyzstan’s northern and southern regions emerged during the Soviet period, but gained particular prominence under the latter part of president Akayev’s rule after independence, and especially during president Bakiyev’s regime (2005-2010).
After the largely bloodless March 2005 Tulip Revolution, which removed Akayev from power, this regional cleavage deepened. President Bakiyev’s clan built active patronage networks in the south of the country, from which Bakiyev hailed, and the political administration based in Bishkek, the country’s capital located in the north, generating acute grievances among political elites in the northern regions. This regional cleavage somewhat lost its salience after April 2010, when Bakiyev was overthrown by political protests. But it was re-awakened under former president Atambayev, who handed his presidency to a hand-picked successor, the incumbent Jeenbekov.
After a rift between Atambayev and Jeenbekov emerged not long after the latter assumed the presidential office in 2017, Atambayev attempted to use the regional card to leverage his political influence. Appealing mostly to his northern constituencies, Atambayev increasingly criticised Jeenbekov, often using derogatory terms such as “kokandtsy” and “kolkhozniki” (farmers and peasants), a clear reference to Jeenbekov’s southern social origins.
Given the country’s long history of regionalism, Atambayev’s self-serving anti-southern discourse has revived regional cleavages. His polarising strategy sparked anti-southern sentiments among residents in the more developed north, as evidenced in discussions on social networks. Social media users from Kyrgyzstan’s northern regions, emboldened by the former president’s divisive attacks in media, have posted offensive comments that question the authenticity of the ethnic identity of southern Kyrgyz. The content of these insulting comments connects southerners to “Kokand” - the khanate that conquered and controlled Kyrgyz tribes in the 19th century and which is generally regarded by local historians as a symbol of foreign, corrupt and treacherous rule.
Atambayev’s accusations of treachery, corruption, weak literacy and clan-oriented politics against Jeenbekov and his southern supporters have created fertile ground for the re-emergence of southern grievances, which build on Kyrgyzstan’s long history of unequal regional development. This has led to the mobilisation of the southern constituency in support of President Jeenbekov, producing a situation when at least some in his constituency start taking the side of the president and other high-profile figures from southern Kyrgyzstan - including Raim Matraimov - from the point of view of “southern” solidarity.
Amid growing pressures to fight corruption, President Jeenbekov’s clear reluctance to investigate the money-laundering schemes acted as a signal to his supporters to protect Matraimov. On social media and in pro-government newspapers, they have attacked the anti-corruption investigation, characterising it as a falsification funded by Atambayev to undermine Jeenbekov’s legitimacy, as well as a western-orchestrated trap that threatens Kyrgyzstan’s national security.
More recent developments demonstrate the increasing potential for new social polarisation. Around 1,000 anti-corruption activists gathered for a second demonstration in front of the White House - the seat of government - on 18 December. The participants of the demonstration, called “ReAction 2.0”, demanded an end to persecution of the media and for measures to be taken to fight corruption. At the same time and place, counter-protests were organised by conservative nationalist group Kyrk Choro (Forty Knights).
As the 24.kg media outlet reports, a group of young men wearing Kyrgyz traditional white hats representing Kyrk Choro tried to provoke the participants of the ReAction 2.0 protest. The situation supposedly would have escalated had it not been for police intervention, who separated the two groups. One of the videos circulated in social networks shows a leader of Kyrk Choro, Zamirbek Kochorbayev, intervening in the emerging confrontation and stating that his group has similar anti-corruption claims with the ReAction 2.0 protest. He denied that Kyrk Choro supported Raim Matraimov. However, in one interview, Kyrk Choro leader Zamirbek Kochorbaev blamed the efforts of “third forces” that were supposedly aiming to destroy Kyrgyz culture and traditions, emphasising that some participants among ReAction 2.0 were actively involved in those efforts. This was a reference to the recent Femminale art exhibition and the 8 March feminist march in Bishkek.
The appearance of Kyrk Choro can be considered an indicator of growing polarisation between liberal and conservative groups, especially in view of the unprecedented level of sophisticated propaganda attacks against anti-corruption activists. Edited videos and images targeting anti-corruption activists emerged on social media several days before the “ReAction 2.0” demonstration, stating that the latter was organised by LGBT groups and western agents. The pictures of some anti-corruption activists were placed next to images and video-footages of sexually-explicit gay scenes and images of LGBT activists. In other images taken from the demonstration, several participants were randomly picked out as “western agents”.
The supposed aim of these attacks was to activate yet another societal cleavage - between conservative and liberal groups - in order to shift attention away from the anti-corruption discourse. The attacks skillfully build on recent controversies surrounding the Femminale exhibition and the 8 March march mentioned above. These events caused outrage among conservative groups.
This high-profile case of corruption exposed by investigative journalists is losing traction in the public realm due to Kyrgyzstan’s regional tension. Raim Matraimov is gaining public sympathy from his southern supporters. Several high-profile politicians from the south, such as Kamchybek Tashiyev and Bakyt Torobayev, have publicly supported Matraimov, calling him “a decent, ordinary guy”.
Although Kyrgyzstan’s uneven regional development has been smoothed over in recent years by remittances sent by labour migrants from Russia, the country’s regional cleavage grows under the influence of top-down manipulative politics. Recent developments show that political elites instrumentally foster polarisation by strategically activating those social cleavages to their benefit.