Is This the Beginning of Kyrgyzstan’s Next Revolution?

The Central Asian state is the latest post-Soviet republic jolted by an electoral crisis. But the ongoing protests are driven by internal dynamics, not international ones.

People protesting the results of the parliamentary vote gather by a bonfire in front of the seized main government building, known as the White House, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Oct. 6.
People protesting the results of the parliamentary vote gather by a bonfire in front of the seized main government building, known as the White House, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Oct. 6. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, the day after Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections, around 20,000 people gathered in the capital, Bishkek, angered by reports of widespread vote-buying and registration fraud. Just four of the 16 parties competing in elections secured seats in the next parliament, and the proximity of the winning parties to current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov further heightened tensions.

By dawn on Tuesday, after hours of clashes with security forces that left 590 people injured and one dead, protesters had taken over the executive building in central Bishkek, stopping to brew tea between kicking in portraits of elected officials and setting fire to the fourth floor.

Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission announced that it had annulled the parliamentary elections on Tuesday morning, creating a power vacuum: Whoever steps in will set the timeline and tone of new elections. This is not Kyrgyzstan’s first revolutionary experience—uprisings in 2005 and 2010 ushered in new governments—but this time appears different, standing out in its potential for meaningful reform.

Why are people protesting?

Kyrgyzstan’s political landscape is highly fragmented, with most political parties serving as vehicles for powerful people’s interests. Of the more than 250 registered parties in Kyrgyzstan, 16 competed in Sunday’s election for 120 seats. With electoral rules dictating that parties must clear a 7 percent threshold, only four parties—representing just 65 percent of overall turnout—secured seats.

The parties that fared best in the election—Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan—are new, but both have close ties to the current government. Jeenbekov, in power since 2017, was hand-picked to succeed President Almazbek Atambayev. Under his rule, the government has passed several controversial bills targeting freedom of speech and association. Jeenbekov fell out with Atambayev in early 2019, leading to the splintering of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK).

With the SDPK not competing in this year’s race, elected politicians “changed shoes,” a local idiom meaning to switch parties, rather than bow out. Many major SDPK figures, including the president’s younger brother, Asylbek Jeenbekov, flocked to Birimdik. Mekenim Kyrgyzstan was founded in 2015 and is bankrolled by Raimbek Matraimov, a former customs official who was implicated in a major corruption scandal last November.

Both Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan resorted to fraudulent measures to turn out votes on Sunday. Domestic observers recorded irregularities at polling stations across the country. The Central Election Commission received complaints of unknown individuals taking voter identification lists, people collecting cash in exchange for proof they had voted for a certain party, and minibuses carting people to cast their vote at strategic polling stations.

Following the announcement of the official results, crowds of protesters began to gather in the capital on Monday to decry the cheating. By nightfall, police and security forces struggled to control the crowds, resorting to pepper spray and rubber bullets. Videos show small teams of police running away from swarms of protesters.

When the sun rose on Tuesday, protesters still occupied the White House, Kyrgyzstan’s executive office. Throughout the day, reports emerged of candidates and their supporters taking over other critical buildings in Bishkek, including the airport and State Registration Service, as well as state-owned mines in other regions of the country.

Who is in charge?

It’s not exactly clear who is running the government at the moment. Jeenbekov issued a video statement on Tuesday underlining the importance of stability, but his whereabouts have not been confirmed. Rumors that the president had left Bishkek buzzed on social media throughout the day. Several hours later, the election commission announced it had annulled the results.

It didn’t take long for politicians to take it upon themselves to fill the power vacuum left by Jeenbekov’s weak statement. On Tuesday afternoon, a self-appointed extralegal Coordinating Council, made up of representatives from 13 parties, claimed “full responsibility for overcoming the current situation.” The men on the Coordinating Council are all veterans of Kyrgyz politics, prompting younger citizens to organize a counter-rally in the capital on Tuesday afternoon.

Lustrationa term that means “to ceremonially purify” in Latin and has been used recently in Eastern European countries to describe the process of dismissing and blocking people with experience in previous regimes from holding office—is the central demand of progressive Kyrgyzstanis, who don’t see any possibility for meaningful reform if new leadership is selected from the pool of politicians who have played musical chairs in government positions for the last two decades.

Meanwhile, the previous parliament broke into two factions over the task of electing a new speaker and prime minister. With their usual meeting place still occupied by protesters, they hunkered down in a movie theater and hotel to deliberate but struggled to reach the required quorum to choose new leadership.

The “hotel faction,” made up of politicians from Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, picked Sadyr Japarov, a former opposition lawmaker, as the interim prime minister. Because journalists were not allowed inside, it is unclear whether the selection process was legal. Just 24 hours earlier, Japarov was in jail, serving an 11-year sentence for kidnapping a regional governor during 2013 protests calling to nationalize a gold mine. Protesters released him after taking over the prison during clashes on Monday.

Is this a revolution? 

If a change in government follows, this would not be Kyrgyzstan’s first revolution. The country experienced forceful leadership changes in 2005 and 2010 due to large protests, both centered around the public’s frustration with corruption and the entrenchment of the presidents’ families in Kyrgyzstan’s politics and economy.

In 2005, large-scale protests broke out following accusations of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections—in which then-President Askar Akayev’s son and daughter were both running. The process of replacing Akayev fell entirely on elites, and the interim government pushed Kurmanbek Bakiyev through as prime minister and acting president.

Bakiyev won easily in elections later that year, but by 2010, corruption scandals and power shortages marred his legitimacy. Spontaneous protests in response to heating and electricity costs eventually reached the capital. In April, security forces opened fire on protesters and violence escalated, leaving at least 85 people dead. Bakiyev fled the country, and opposition leaders announced they had formed an interim government with Roza Otunbayeva at the helm.

Otunbayeva, previously the minister of foreign affairs, oversaw the creation of a new constitution, with new rules meant to ensure a balance of executive power between the president and parliament to avoid any need for more revolutions. Otunbayeva’s passing power to Almazbek Atambayev, who was elected in October 2010, was the first peaceful transition of power in Central Asia’s history.

There are important differences between Kyrgyzstan’s earlier revolutions and the current power struggle.

First, telecommunications technology has developed significantly since 2010. Internet access has grown from 16 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in 2019, and the proliferation of mobile data makes it easier to organize collective action and share updates. On Monday, users posted advice for those detained and where to find food, water, and milk left by neighbors. The next day, journalists and protesters livestreamed rallies across the country, and Bishkek residents organized “druzhiny,” voluntary citizen patrols, to protect stores and homes from looting.

Second, Kyrgyzstani citizens are more practiced in voicing specific grievances to the state. Kyrgyzstan has more liberal rules on expression than its neighbors, and protests are common. But in the past, they have expressed broad discontent with few specific demands for change. Young people involved in politics this cycle have a specific policy platform, and, importantly, voice it through formal party structures.

If this younger generation of activists and leaders digs their heels in and refuses to recognize an interim government founded through backdoor deals, they have a chance to shape viable democratic institutions.

Will this affect regional geopolitics?

With protests over disputed presidential election results in Belarus now entering their second month, it’s understandable to try to make sense of recent developments in Kyrgyzstan through a wider regional lens. But framing the elections and their backlash in purely geopolitical terms is misplaced. The uprising is driven by internal dynamics, not international ones, and looking to Russia or other post-Soviet states draws attention away from relevant local actors and issues.

As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and host to a Russian military base, Kyrgyzstan is a strategic partner for Russia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Tuesday calling for a quick, legal resolution of the crisis. While Russia is interested in Kyrgyzstan’s stability, it’s a stretch to say that President Vladimir Putin has much of a say—or a preference—for who leads the country. He called president Jeenbekov by the wrong name at a meeting last week.

Realistically, there is little chance of Kyrgyzstan’s domestic instability spilling over into neighboring countries. In the meantime, keep an eye on intranational politics. Kyrgyzstan’s north-south divide remains its strongest social and political cleavage, and the return of the hardcore nationalist Melis Myrzakmatov—who was mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city during the violent pogroms that followed the last revolution—is a worrisome development.

No doubt, these are tense and uncertain times, but the resilience of Kyrgyzstan’s citizens and the determination of its activists to create a free society offer hope for a better future.

Colleen Wood is a Ph.D candidate at Columbia University, where she researches identity and citizenship in Central Asia. Twitter: @colleenwood_

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