Political opponents face suppression and detention under new Kyrgyzstan president

In Kyrgyzstan, under the authority of a new president, political opponents have been arrested and detained at an alarming rate since the start of the year. Elected to the presidency in January, Sadyr Japarov previously served as Prime Minister last year amid protests that erupted in the wake of the country’s parliamentary election results. A week before he was appointed prime minister, he was serving an 11-year sentence for the kidnapping of a political rival.

The October election results had no opposition members slated to join the new parliament for the first time in Kyrgyzstan’s democratic history. These results were labeled by demonstrators as fraudulent and evidence of sweeping government corruption. Opposition parties encouraged their members to protest, and thousands of people poured into the streets in the capital Bishkek. Over 1,200 people were injured and one death was recorded during street clashes with police. Tear gas, stun grenades, and water canons were deployed by security forces to disperse crowds. Protesters stormed government buildings and freed former political leaders who had been jailed, one of whom was Sadyr Japarov. Within a week, he was appointed as the new prime minister. Demonstrators demanded a new vote and the resignation of then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who is pro-Russian.

As a small, post-Soviet state bordering China, Kyrgyzstan is of geopolitical importance to Russia, and the relationship of the two states has been close since the fall of the USSR. Russia operates a military base in Kyrgyzstan, Russian is a state language in Kyrgyzstan, and many Kyrgyz laborers migrate to Russia in search of jobs. Past Kyrgyz presidents have made Moscow their first out of state visit, to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladamir Putin has denounced “external pressures” on Kyrgyzstan as “unacceptable.” Putin has implied the West’s involvement in the popular protest movements that have occurred in the past year in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Moldova.

Japarov is a nationalist; his first act as prime minister was to add ethnic information to national ID cards. This move was supposed to rectify a court decision that the national constitution supports the right to displaying one’s ethnicity. However, given the country’s Soviet history and over 80 ethnicities living in Kyrgyzstan, this is a sensitive issue with many minorities fearing this may lead to discrimination. 

However, Japarov also pledged to maintain a close relationship with Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s “strategic partner,” as he has called it. Economic migration between the two states has been of increasing importance as Kyrgyzstan has felt the economic shock of the global pandemic. As of 2020, Kyrgyzstan has an unemployment rate of almost 7%, and there has been a contraction of the nation’s GDP by around 5%. 

After more than a week of protests, President Jeenbekov formally resigned on October 15, the third president to do so following a pattern of popular uprisings since 2005. He said in a statement: “I do not want to go down in Kyrgyzstan’s history as a president who shed blood and shot at his own citizens.” As Prime Minister, Japarov insisted upon the removal of Jeenbekov from office and Japarov’s supporters marched on Jeenbekov’s residence with the support of the military. The speaker of parliament took over as interim head of state, but many of Japarov’s supporters pushed for him to take over as president.

On January 11, a new vote was counted and Japarov was elected president in a landslide. Japarov was recorded winning 79% of votes cast. In a victory speech, he promised to run a government free of corruption, saying: “We will not repeat the mistakes of the previous government.” In addition to the presidential vote, a referendum was passed to restructure the government from a parliamentary model to a presidential form. On January 28, he was officially sworn in as president.

The United States commended Kyrgyzstan on the January presidential elections and supported The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ findings that the election was held peacefully. However, the mission did find that there was unequal financial and administrative support for one candidate. An American embassy press release stated, “Recent events in the United States serve as a reminder that democracy is always a work in progress requiring constant vigilance and a commitment to strong, independent democratic institutions.”

President Japarov has since led a wave of arrests of political opponents and former enemies. Among them are Abdil Segizbayev, national security chief at the time of Japarov’s arrest in 2017, and Kursan Asanov, former acting interior minister during the October unrest. Observers are beginning to fear a return to the cycle of revenge politics that has marred Kyrgyzstan for years. This is compounded by the fact that the presidency has newly strengthened powers from the passed referendum.

Medet Tiulegenov, a professor at the American University of Central Asia, told Eurasianet three motivations for going after political figures in this way: “One of them is revenge, personal resentment. The second is to eliminate competition. The third motive may be the guise of fighting corruption, because many cases involve abuse of authority and corruption. This can become the fulfillment of campaign promises to combat corruption.”

In February, parliament approved a new streamlined government that cut the number of ministries in half. Ministries were merged, such as the finance and economy ministries, or removed altogether. President Japarov has advocated for this move, claiming that it will be a more effective government and will reduce corruption and poor spending, which has plagued the country for years. Kyrgyzstan is one of the smallest countries in Central Asia with only 7 million people and a small economy so when $1 billion goes missing or is spent unwisely, it’s noticeable. 

President Japarov has also appointed government officials who either remained in power through the October unrest or have supported him. Formerly serving five years chairing the Accounts Chamber, Ulugbek Maripov has been appointed to lead this new government as prime minister. Additionally, President Japarov stated his goals for his first 100 days in office, including plans to address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle the country’s energy issues. Kyrgyzstan has seen power and heating failures in the past few years as a result of aging equipment and facilities in desperate need of replacement,

Japarov catapulted into the presidency and is making moves to silence his opponents. There is certainly a fear that recent changes may quickly descend into another wave of authoritarianism that would be damaging for Kyrgyzstan’s people, civil rights, and democracy. NGOs and civil society will remain on watch as President Japarov settles into the presidency and continues government and economic reform. 

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