Colleen Wood on the Political Crisis in Kyrgyzstan

Colleen Wood is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Her research on social movements and identity in Central Asia is funded by the National Science Foundation. She writes about Central Asian politics and society for The Diplomat.
Tallan Donine CMC '21 interviewed Ms. Collen Wood on October 12, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ms. Colleen Wood

Since the interview on October 12, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan continued to devolve. Parliament held an extraordinary session to elect a new speaker and confirmed Sadyr Japarov’s role as prime minister the next day. Despite Speaker Isayev’s statement that President Jeenbekov should stay in his position for the sake of stability, both Jeenbekov and Isayev tendered their resignations on October 15, leaving Japarov to rule the country. It remains unclear whether new parliamentary elections will be organized. - Colleen Wood

Protesting against allegations of electoral fraud, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis took to the streets of the nation's capital calling for the resignation of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Aside from the elections that triggered the protests, are there other causes for the crisis at hand? 

There are two proximate causes. First is the way the government handled its COVID response. Some scholars have said the response has been weak and that the government could have done much more. That said, given state capacity in Kyrgyzstan, the government has at least been transparent about the fact that it is struggling to respond. Nonetheless, in surveys and public opinion polls, people have expressed disappointment in the government’s handling of the crisis, both in the harsh lockdown measures imposed from March through May, but also in the lack of protective care for doctors, its attempts to silence doctors who spoke out about poor conditions in hospitals, and the lack of economic support. A third of Kyrgyzstan's economy is tied to remittances from Russia and with remittances at a standstill, an economic collapse is looming. 

The second cause is corruption, which is bigger than President Jeenbekov and his administration. Last winter, journalists released a series of investigative reports that named specific people at the top of the corruption pyramid. The reports named the criminal groups and criminal families, including the powerful Matraimov family, entrenched in the state’s political parties and ministries. The reports also put numbers on the extent of smuggling and embezzlement in the state. The developments catalyzed a response to the frustration that had long been present among Kyrgyzstanis. Many of the same names appeared in the elections last week. Hence, people were upset about the brazen cheating in the elections but also these deeper societal problems.

The fast-paced changes sweeping Kyrgyzstan have been narrowly deemed intra-national developments, lacking any geopolitical dimensions. Is this characterization adequate? With the historic connection and proximity to both Russia and China, how is this the case?

In a recent article Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and I wrote for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, we argue that a lot more can be learned about the causes of instability and the possible paths forward in Kyrgyzstan by looking at the domestic institutions and domestic political actors rather than rushing to consider how Russia might be involved. Russia undoubtedly wants a stable and predictable Kyrgyzstan, but it does not necessarily care who is running the country. Kyrgyzstan is supposedly a dear ally and partner of Russia, but when President Jeenbekov went to visit Moscow a few weeks before the election, Putin called him by the wrong name. The way Russia treats Central Asia is kind of patronizing. For analysts to rush to think about this crisis in terms of what Russia thinks and how it will react falls into the same trap. 

In terms of economics, over the last several years, a handful of protests took place among Kyrgyzstanis frustrated with China's Belt and Road Initiative. People are upset that the government is becoming indebted to China, selling out opportunities for economic investment to Chinese companies, and that the government is not giving local workers the job opportunities instead. However, these frustrations are unrelated to the crisis at hand. 

In your Foreign Policy article “Is This the Beginning of Kyrgyzstan’s Next Revolution?,” you note that progressive Kyrgyzstanis are calling for “lustration,” referring to the exclusion of politicians from the old regime from holding office. Are there any opposition figures who are new to the Kyrgyzstani political scene who might contend for the presidency or for other positions opened by the wave of resignations?

The presidency is not up for grabs and Jeenbekov is still in power. What happens next is uncertain, but it looks like he is going to make it through this crisis. If another election is held, it will only be for the parliament. President Jeenbekov announced that he was willing to resign once the parliament chose a new prime minister and speaker, which may have happened already. People contest whether the apparent selection of a new prime minister was done through legal channels or procedures. Now major figures are coming forward saying that President Jeenbekov does not need to step down and that the situation would be made worse if he did.  

In terms of other figures who might seek positions, we saw a few young politicians from the Ata-Meken party, which is one of the larger and older opposition parties, come forward. Tilek Toktogaziev, a thirty-year-old activist and member of this party, threw his hat in the ring for prime minister against Sadyr Japarov, who appears to have already been selected. Elvira Surabaldiyeva, also with the Ata-Meken party, pushed for transparency throughout the nomination procedure from which journalists had been excluded. Now, a handful of parliamentarians are challenging the legality of the process through which the new prime minister, Japarov, was essentially appointed. Meanwhile, Aida Kasymaliyeva, a member of President Jeenbekov’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, is claiming that she should be the speaker of parliament and therefore get to decide who should serve as prime minister. 

Many of the young activists are hesitant to call themselves political figures. They are happy to engage in social activism and to make specific policy demands, but they frame their efforts as apolitical. They do not want to get involved in dirty politics. This has made it really hard for these young voices to play the game because if they refuse to call themselves a party, then they cannot serve in parliament. One big change witnessed in this election compared to previous ones was the rise of the Reforma opposition party and its placement on the ballot. Reforma was founded this past summer; it crowdfunded the deposit needed to run in the elections, using its base support of progressives largely on Twitter. Even though it performed badly in the election, the fact that there is now a group of young people willing to call themselves a political party is a big step for the opposition.

What reforms do the opposition parties propose? Are they uniting, aligning their strategic interests ahead of the new election?

Right now the groups that call themselves activists or civil movements rather than parties are demanding lustration and asking for procedures to be carried out in accordance with legal frameworks. They want transparency in the way that the new prime minister is chosen and they want the new election to follow constitutional provisions. For the opposition, the constitution represents a hope that if everyone plays by the rules of the game, there will be no problems moving forward. If the old voices are removed, then the new voices can come in with people who are not tainted and who do not owe anyone for their positions. The young people want to feel in charge of their future; they recognize the potential of Kyrgyzstan, but it is being squandered by poor schooling and the appeal of better opportunities abroad. 

It is difficult for the many opposition parties to unite and align their strategic interests. It is unclear right now whether there is going to be a new parliamentary election. If there is, it is also unclear what the rules are going to be for merging parties. The rules are set up so that the party presents its candidate list in accordance with specific quotas, such as a certain number of women and ethnic minorities. After the list is submitted and approved, the parties can swap out people. So, the opposition parties might present their formal candidate lists and then at the last minute swap them out to unite around one party. The problem then becomes deciding which candidates will fall under their party. That stubbornness is going to be hard to overcome and the fact that it has yet to happen is evidence of the difficulty. 

What connection does the current situation have to the popular revolutions of 2005 and 2010? 

The main thread that connects these movements is the deep-seated frustration with corruption and the perception that leaders and their families are deeply embedded in the Kyrgyz political and economic system. In 2005, the protests were in direct response to unfair parliamentary elections, an exact mirror to what happened last week. In 2010, the protests initially started over the falling price of beans, and people were upset about their economic prospects. At the same time, the government could not keep the lights on and people were mad about the skyrocketing price of electricity and heat. 

Similar to 2005, elites co-opted the moment. Last Monday, the protests were genuine and people were united in their frustrations. However, by the next day, suddenly many people had broken out of jail and one of them had positioned himself to become prime minister. This was followed by infighting among pro-government parties regarding the future of the state. Hence, there is a sense that elites took this moment of mass frustration and used it for their own opportunistic ends. 

Do you think the crisis facing President Jeenbekov will induce lasting change? 

There are a few worrisome features that might point against lasting change. First, as I mentioned earlier, how quickly elites co-opted the moment for their own opportunism might show that it is still business as usual. Second, the lack of transparency both in the Central Elections Commission deciding to annul the results and with the process of deciding whether there will be new elections is worrying. Also, the lack of transparency by which a new prime minister was selected is problematic, alongside the present debate as to how parliamentarians should decide a new prime minister. The fact that a lot of this has been happening behind closed doors and that the people who wrote the procedure have a deeply vested interest in a certain outcome make it difficult to understand what is happening. Third, Jeenbekov’s decision to bring in the army to enforce the curfew under the state of emergency imposed over the weekend reflects badly. 

At the same time, there are features of the crisis that inspire confidence. First is how quickly people mobilized last Monday, alongside the high level of organization and coordinated messaging regarding grievances. The young people who organized the protests recorded events live on Instagram and Facebook, which made the protests accessible to those who live in the more rural areas of the country. There is a deep sense of civic unity in that the protesters were not willing to be riled up over regional divides. There is also a strong determination and resilience among these citizens who have lived through two and a half revolutions in fifteen years. They want a stable and functioning government that works, but they do not want a third revolution. Even if the same party stays in power and nothing changes structurally, the content of the demands and the strategy developed has changed in such ways that could create lasting change.


Tallan Donine CMC '21Student Journalist, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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