Less than a week ago, residents of Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, took to the streets to protest the conduct and results of parliamentary elections. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov went into hiding, but later announced that he was willing to annul the results of the elections and step down as the country’s leader.
What ensued was a power vacuum and a free-for-all among a dizzying array of political groupings - some established and some seemingly assembled on the fly. At duelling meetings held in various points across the capital, various groups put forward candidates for the position of interim prime minister, and coalitions rose and fell quickly.
By 8 October, two main groups had emerged from the political fog to seize control of the situation. One, drawn from among the main youth-led and Bishkek-based parties, supported the candidacy of Omurbek Babanov, a relatively young businessman, former PM, and former presidential candidate, who was to be seconded by Tilek Toktogaziev. a charismatic 29-year-old. The other group was led by Sadyr Japarov, a bare-knuckle nationalist politician who until a few days ago was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping a regional governor during a protest in 2013.
When the protests had just begun, I laid out three possible scenarios for further development:
1) The current regime could attempt to make a comeback. 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.
2) Experienced politicians who have been out of power (some in prison, others in exile or simply licking their wounds at home) would 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 make any power vacuum particularly problematic. As a result, the appearance of familiar faces would reassure many citizens as well as neighbouring states.
3) Young people, who make up a large percentage of the Kyrgyz population and have been emboldened by their success, would refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the older generation of politicians and push hard for major political change. Given that most have little name recognition, if they are smart, they might 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.
As the dust settles, what we see happening today appears to be a combination of scenarios one and two. On 9 October, some supporters of Japarov attacked a rally organised by Babanov and took the upper hand. At this point the president (who has been a miserable leader but is undoubtedly a wily politician) put his thumb on the scale and declared martial law, essentially locking in Japarov’s triumph. On 10 October, Jeenbekov organised a dubiously valid meeting of the existing parliament at his residence outside of the capital, where Japarov was chosen to be PM.
In the short term, we can expect that President Jeenbekov will cut a deal that will allow him to walk back his offer to resign - although Japarov has publicly claimed the president has promised to go forward with a resignation.
While undoubtedly seriously weakened politically by the events of the past few days, the president will likely remain to serve out the remainder of his six-year term. Japarov will attempt to consolidate his power, most likely cutting deals with the main political forces, including the interests of various criminal and quasi-criminal groups as well as legitimate and semi-legitimate business interests that depend on them. Although the Central Election Commission and the president have announced that the parliamentary election results are annulled, Japarov may try to annul the annulment, as the parliament elected on 4 October would likely be willing to support his candidacy. If he cannot pull this off, he will try to delay new elections for as long as possible in order to consolidate his support and build a party or group of parties explicitly willing to support him. We can also expect that Japarov will move to arrest or otherwise neutralise those political forces that came into the streets to make the revolution that brought him to power. It is also possible, however, that he will overplay his hand and fail to consolidate support, leaving the field open to other experienced players.
How Japarov will actually govern is unclear. As I noted in my previous article, even before the elections the country was in a state of economic collapse. Clearly, the events of the past few days have not helped improve the situation. Japarov has been on the run or in prison for most of the past eight years and does not have a team prepared to take over the day-to-day operations of government, nor does his temperament lead one to believe that he will be interested in handling the intricacies of governing. For now, we can expect him to retain most of the existing ministers and concentrate on hounding his perceived enemies and ensuring his longer-term position. His instincts are populist and nationalist, which means one can expect sallies against the Chinese, against the educated elites in the north of the country, and potentially against Uzbeks (who make up some 13% of the population of Kyrgyzstan and are the only available minority to attack).
Wither the protestors?
The clear losers in all of this manoeuvring are the young and more or less progressive inhabitants of Bishkek who made the initial revolution.
It is, of course, a truism that revolutions eat their children, but they don’t usually do it quite so quickly. Still, this could have been predicted. While it is undoubtedly the case that the parliamentary elections were significantly tainted by fraud, even in a free and fair election the parties representing the urban and educated younger generations of the capital would barely have crossed the 7% threshold to enter parliament. And although they were able to call supporters into the streets to protest, they had no plan of action for the events that followed (and they themselves were probably surprised at how quickly the government’s initial collapse occurred). Most important, they were not willing to resort to the level of violence that is perfectly normal for Japarov and his followers, and youthful exuberance and idealism have not proved sufficient to overcome the entrenched interests of existing political forces.
Where the original protestors go from here is an open question. Assuming that Japarov does not resort to mass arrests (which is not at all beyond the realm of possibility), they have two clear paths.
The first would be to do the hard work of politics in an unforgiving environment. This would mean licking their wounds and beginning to build a real political apparatus, attempting to enter the new parliament as a clear voice of opposition, challenging for power at the level of the capital city (where they would have a fair chance of success), and keeping their eye on the future while trying to hold Japarov’s government to account.
The second would be to give up and exit the political arena, either focusing on their personal lives and careers or looking for ways to leave the country. That would be a real tragedy for Kyrgyzstan. Regardless of who comes out on top in the short term, it is clear that those forces that have led the country for most of the last 29 years are not up to the task.