Kyrgyzstan’s Looming Death Spiral: President Japarov and the future of Central Asia
Although at first glance the Central Asian region appears stable, the cracks in this facade have become increasingly clear. While the world watches the Taliban storm into Kabul, the region’s former beacon of democracy is also in peril, embracing an autocratic path in the form of their new nationalist president. Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Japarov rose to power in a wave of populist street violence in October 2020, pledging to curb corruption, rectify the country’s chronic economic problems, and create a society that would reflect traditional Kyrgyz values while still accommodating minorities. As part of this effort, during the first half of 2021, Japarov reformed the constitution to give himself immensely increased power while diminishing the role of parliament. Despite this, though, he has so far been unable to deliver on his promises, confronting an economy and healthcare system that was already in tatters before COVID-19, uncertain support from Kyrgyzstan’s long-time patron Russia, the looming threat of large-scale civil unrest, unresolved border issues with neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and expanding Chinese interest. Reporting from Bishkek, Christopher Schwartz explains the dubious legitimacy surrounding Japarov’s presidency and what may be looming ahead for Kyrgyzstan.
Allegations of vote-rigging in Kyrgyzstan’s October 2020 parliamentary elections plunged the country into yet another violent cycle of post-electoral chaos and ignited the nation’s fourth national uprising since gaining independence in 1991. Within 10 days, the protests swiftly led to the resignation of the president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. At the time, Japarov – a politician from the era of disgraced former president Kurmanbek Bakiev and associated with the nationalist Ata-Jurt party – was serving a 11-and-a-half-year prison sentence for kidnapping a provincial governor. During the unrest in October, he was freed from prison by supporters euphemistically known as “sportsmen”, men trained semi-professionally in martial arts who, Schwartz tells The Red Line, “are on retainer with organised crime groups to serve as bodyguards”. Japarov swiftly maneuvered himself into first the position of acting prime minister, then acting president, all in an act of “dubious constitutionality” according to Schwartz.
"Japarov represents dire de-stabilisation through his co-opting of the political system, radical foreign policy, and nationalistic approach to economics"
In a hastily conducted dual presidential election and constitutional referendum held in January 2021, Japarov secured nearly 80% of votes formally cementing his hold on power. The referendum held in tandem saw 79% of the electorate opt to amend the constitution to substantially increase the presidency’s powers. While at first glance this appeared to have given Japarov a mandate, Schwartz points out that merely 37.7% of eligible voters participated in the vote. This figure was not far above the 30% threshold required for the results to be legally binding. Schwartz describes the constitutional changes as reinstating a “Bakiyev-era style of government with hyper corruption, the mafia-isation of the state and the general return to a more brutal form of predatory policy.”
According to Schwartz, Japarov’s rise threatens to destabilise an already fragile Kyrgyzstan. Whereas before the country was ruled by an elite who generally subscribed to the ideology of Eurasianism – the belief that post-Soviet states more or less form a cultural bloc and should work together – Japarov is an unabashed Kyrgyz nationalist. As a result, his policies, ranging from economics to diplomacy, reflect a more radicalised perception of Kyrgyzstan’s national self-interest. Although time will tell whether this break with Eurasianism will benefit the country in the long run. The de-stabilisation it has wrought, however, was already evident in how the new government mishandled the long-running problem of demarcating the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, resulting in renewed violence in late April.
The confrontation began when Tajikistan installed CCTV cameras to monitor a water filtration site situated on the Tajik exclave of Vorukh, which is some 20 kilometres inside Krygyz territory and is an historical oddity left behind from the Soviet era. Local Krygyz residents objected to the cameras, and the ensuing dispute escalated to stone-throwing from both sides, then into a full-blown armed conflict. According to Schwartz, tensions in the region regularly run high due to “a lot of back-and-forth disputes with a lot of bad faith actions on both sides”, and so little was required to ignite the conflict. However, it was Japarov’s “lack of skill in governance, lack of a coherent strategy and his improvisational style of politics” that caused the situation at Vorukh to spiral and forced the evacuation of more than 58,000 civilians.
In analysing the problems Japarov has faced in his first six months of presidency, Schwartz highlights that the three key mistakes he has made are political self-sabotage, regional destabilisation, and the jeopardising of Kyrgyzstan’s economic security by being aggressive with both local and international business interests.
For example, Japarov attempted to pass responsibility for the Vorukh crisis to his national security head and long-time political ally, Kamchybek Tashiev. Tashiev is an even more firebrand populist than Japarov, and while the latter has his base in the country’s northern regions, the former has his base in the south. This has limited the growth of Japarov’s support base, turning away those who are loyal to Tashiev.
"The Kyrgyz government is rapidly degrading, and another crisis like Vorukh is all it would take for an insurgency to launch in the country"
The new government has also been on the anti-corruption warpath, locking up political rivals and critics. However, Japarov has been selective with respect to punishment, having been willing to release prisoners on condition of “repayment” of stolen revenues to state authorities. He has also been cracking down on civil society organisations, many of which investigate corruption.
Nowhere is Japarov’s radical policy shifts more evident than in his momentous decision to nationalise the Kumtor gold mine. Previously owned and administered by Canadian company Centerra Gold Inc, Kyrgyzstan lacks the expertise, technology and means to actually run the lucrative gold mine, which according to EBRD comprises almost 10% of the country’s GDP and until the nationalisation was its largest private employer. Failing to keep it fully operational would be disastrous for Kyrgyzstan’s economy, which the UN esimates has already suffered an estimated 25% downturn in critical remittance inflows, and an unemployment rate of 21% due to COVID-19.
Japarov’s decision on Kumtor may have placed him between a rock and a hard place, as he will need to find partners capable of managing the gold mine on behalf of Kyrgyzstan. The most likely candidates are Russia and China. Although Russia recently agreed to invest in Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest gold mine Jerooy, Moscow seems wary of Bishkek’s instability. As for China, Beijing has both the capacity to run it and a keen interest in doing so, as gold and rare earth elements found in gold mines are key for their high-end manufacturing industry. However, according to Schwartz, Japarov was “swept into power on a form of nationalism that is intrinsically Sino-phobic”, thereby making any partnership with China a political nightmare for him.
Looking abroad, his nationalistic foreign policy could also threaten the fundamentals of Kyrgyzstan’s geopolitical position. The country’s small population, weak infrastructure, and diminishing energy resources has historically made a strong relationship with Russia absolutely key. Kyrgyzstan is also reliant on Russian military support, as well as remittances from Kyrgyz workers in Russia, which comprise 30% of the country’s GDP. Japarov’s rise to power, according to Schwartz, has unsettled Russia because it upends the Eurasianist status quo in the region.
This is well illustrated by Putin’s response to the Vorukh crisis, which saw him immediately invite Tajikistan’s President to Victory Day celebrations in Moscow to reaffirm his pledge of support for the country, while conversely waiting two weeks to meet with Japarov.
As for Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors, “even though there is a good case to be made that Tajikistan was the aggressor (in Vorukh),” Schwartz explains, “generally speaking, opinion went against Kyrgyzstan in the region” because of Japarov’s disastrous mishandling of the crisis. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China may all be concerned that Kyrgyzstan “is in some kind of death spiral”.
With unemployment rates sky high, many entrepreneurs locked up due to allegations of political dissent, and remittances in a precarious position because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nationalisation of Kumtor threatens yet another rope that the Kyrgyz economy may have used to pull itself up. Going forward, Japarov’s government will likely have to turn to campaigns of disinformation and censorship in order to paper over the contradictions between reality and nationalist rhetoric. Indeed, Kyrgyz parliament has just passed a counter-disinformation law that many see as a tool for censorship.
Japarov’s mandate is shaky at best, and his political security relies on costly, finite systems of coercion and patronage networks. Schwartz assesses that there is widespread concern that the government is “rapidly degrading”, and that another crisis like Vorukh is all it would take to launch another revolt, this time against Japarov. Faced with the impotence of the military to defend Kyrgyz territory in the April conflict, civilians organised their own militias, thereby demonstrating a capacity not only for street protest, but for more serious armed confrontation. For this reason, the extensive powers Japarov has secured for himself “will not matter” in the event of an insurrection, and will likely prove to be mere theatre, serving only to “satisfy a symbolic need on the part of his constituency”.
"There is widespread concern that the government is rapidly degrading, and that another crisis like Vorukh is all it would take to launch another revolt"
When the Soviet Union fell apart in the nineties, most of the newly formed Central Asian states continued down the path of authoritarianism. The formerly communist regimes simply changed their name and flags whilst preserving iron-fisted rule. The Kyrgyz bucked this trend, successfully turning to a form of democracy and electing a technocrat physicist to see them through the difficult post-Soviet years. Thirty years later, Japorov’s rise stands in direct opposition to the history that Kyrgyz people are so proud of, with his forceful seizure of power mirroring the all too familiar grim situations in the region. The question on everyone's mind now is whether Japarov’s brute-force nationalism can hold out against countervailing forces, both geopolitically and internally. Will his control over the media and militant supporters keep him alive under the pressure? Will Kyrgyzstan reclaim its mantle as the most successful democracy in the Central Asian region, or will it mirror the chaos unfolding just to the South in Afghanistan?
Written by Daniela Žuvela
Edited by Owen Swift