It would be understandable if one lost the plot in observing Kyrgyz politics since the October 2020 parliamentary election kicked off a change of government. As 2022 looms on the horizon, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has the system of government he wanted — a presidential system — and a newly elected, pared-down parliament will finally begin work this week. To sort through what the past year has yielded, what challenges the Kyrgyz government has to get serious about managing, and what the neighbors may be thinking, The Diplomat spoke to Dr. Aijan Sharshenova, a postdoctoral research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of Dr. Aijan Sharshenova and do not reflect the official policy or position of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.
Kyrgyzstan has had a year full of elections. What conclusions do you think can be drawn from the results of those elections, primarily the presidential election in January, the constitutional referendum in April, and the recent parliamentary election?
Indeed, Kyrgyzstan has held six elections and referendums in a little more than a year: a parliamentary election in October 2020, a presidential election and a constitutional referendum in January 2021, local council elections and one more constitutional referendum in April 2021, and local council elections in July 2021. I would draw several conclusions.
First, the current leadership is not interested in holding free and fair elections or referendums. There are two reasons to say that. The head of the Central Election Commission [Nurjan] Shaildabekova was kept in her position and oversaw all of the elections and referendums since the epic-level failure at the parliamentary election of October 2020, which led to yet another change of government in the country. If a professional who has failed at such a scale manages to keep her job, the motivation behind such decision is rather political. In addition, each election and referendum gets increasingly complex without sufficient time for the public to get acquainted with the format of the electoral process and the substance of the political issues that people are voting for or against. One might think that this is also a deliberate complication: As the old saying goes, “Muddy waters makes it easy to catch fish.”
A second conclusion relates to the consistently low voter turnout: Central Asia observers could probably feel the so-called “voter fatigue,” a kind of apathetic behavior on the side of electorate, who are asked to decide on various policy matters far too often. However, this could be a combination of factors, such as disenfranchisement (a complex social issue), electoral absenteeism (a protest behavior), and lack of clarity about the electoral process. Unless there are robust sociological studies devoted to this phenomenon, I would not say it was a pure voter fatigue. In other words, electoral behavior in 2020-2021 might hold a lot of insights into deeper, more structural issues of the Kyrgyz politics.
Arguably, Sadyr Japarov now has the government he asked for: a presidential system with a diminished parliament, his allies in key positions. What are the benefits and risks of the new system?
While it is difficult to forecast what the benefits and risks of the new system would be, it is possible to say that the benefits are probably short term and the risks are long term. The key benefit is probably Japarov’s emotional well-being as he is unlikely to face much (constructive or not) criticism in his immediate work environment. However, this temporary all-approving bubble of the political system holds very serious risks both for Japarov’s presidency and for the country.
First, without constructive criticism it is impossible to develop anything in any meaningful way. The best of us require some sort of external pressure to continue improving our work.
Second, this safe bubble creates a dangerous illusion that all is well in the country, while a lot of issues go unaddressed. This could lead to the “Let them eat cake” tone-deafness, which only fuels public resentment. You must have seen many times where public resentment gets us in Kyrgyzstan.
Third, even a powerless parliament is a safe and controlled platform to talk through differences in opinions. If this platform is taken away, the differences in opinions will spill over onto streets. Again, you might be aware how resolute our streets are: They make kings as often as they break kings. The current spread of political powers are not just Japarov vs. urban liberals, there are many more socio-political groups, whose voices need to be heard and taken into consideration.
What are the most acute challenges Japarov’s government faces now?
The most obvious and urgent is probably getting the country through the winter. Winters are always harsh in Kyrgyzstan, and not because of the weather conditions. Energy shortages, high coal prices, increasing food and fuel prices, along with the usual levels of unemployment and lack of access to such basic necessities as clean water, education, and health care, will certainly put Japarov’s (real or perceived) public popularity to a test.
A second challenge would be to listen and to address the public’s woes. Japarov, as a true populist leader, rose to popularity having criticized previous governments for not addressing public needs. Now he is in power and he has acquired more power and control over every aspect (even the appointment of village heads) than any other president in the history of the independent Kyrgyzstan. Japarov cannot continue asking the public to be patient and to wait while he seems to be living the dream of wearing designer clothes and flying private jets to hang out with the world leaders. This creates really bad optics. He did a good job feeling and tapping into the public mood before, but he does not seem to hear and see it now.
A third challenge would be to manage the diverse and vocal set of explicit political forces and the hidden behind-the-curtain business and other actors. I do not think Japarov is sponsored by foreign governments, as some political scientists might claim. I do believe he has the backing of a group of both domestic and foreign business and other forces. How he can keep up his public promises while fulfilling the expectations and demands of this quite powerful interest group is a genuinely difficult challenge.
How has political instability in Kyrgyzstan been perceived by its neighbors in Central Asia? What about larger international partners like China and Russia?
International partners and neighbors must be quite confused. I certainly cannot speak on their behalf, but they might be losing the plot of Kyrgyz politics as each domestic development brings a whole new set of political actors and issues.
The current leadership is certainly different from all previous presidents and elites in Kyrgyzstan, and they are different from the leadership of our neighbors. Japarov is no match for the old post-Soviet elites or Putin-era autocrats in the region. They will all deal with Japarov as their positions require, but the way Japarov came to power and his background have certainly undermined Kyrgyzstan’s position. It is clear that he is yet to make powerful friends and this is a weakness for a small country like Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan’s violent breach of Kyrgyzstan’s borders earlier this year was a clear sign of this domestic weakness. The regional organizations’ and the regional powers’ responses (or lack thereof) added insult to this powerful injury.
A lot has to be done to bring Kyrgyzstan back to where it stood before in the regional politics, and I am not sure the current leadership pays this issue the attention it requires.
In what ways are Kyrgyz politics and political culture influenced by Russia?
This is a tough one! Honestly, the ways Russia advertently and inadvertently influences Kyrgyz politics and political culture are so many I am not sure where to start. Most obviously, we speak the Russian language – to a lesser extent than before, but certainly more than any other foreign language. Kyrgyz politicians prefer to hire Russian experts in communications and political technologies: partly because it is safer (Kyrgyzstan is small and it is difficult to keep anything secret), and partly because Russian specialists have tested their skills elsewhere. Higher education, and to a large extent school education too, are still very similar to Russian counterparts. The news we watch, the entertainment products we enjoy – all come from Russia and shape the way we see the world.
This is not to say that Kyrgyzstan is a copy of Russia. But there are a lot of ways Russia influences Kyrgyzstan, often without even realizing it.