Sadyr Japarov: Blazing hot or a friction burn?

  • + From prisoner to acting president in less than a month. 
  • + Nationalist rhetoric and international alliances are unsustainable. 
  • + Controversial arrests and changes to the constitution reveal intentions. 

Why is Sadyr Japarov’s heat level blazing? 

Answer: He’s getting exactly what he wants – domestic and foreign support. 

Less than a month ago Sadyr Japarov was serving an 11-year sentence for the kidnapping of a political opponent. Today he is both, the acting president and Prime minister of Kyrgyzstan.   

On October 4th, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections. Protests erupted in the capital following allegations of fraud and voter intimidation. In order to prevent tensions, the Central Election Commission cancelled the results and called for a rerun of the polls. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov called for several opposition parties that did not reach the threshold in the elections to calm their supporters. The streets refused to listen and stormed many government buildings, including the pretrial detention center of the State Committee for National Security where high-level inmates were being held. 

After two weeks of chaos on the streets of Kyrgyzstan, the President and the Prime Minister both resigned. Deputy speaker, Mirlan Bakirov (from the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party) swiftly proposed Japarov for the position; at an emergency session of the parliament held in a hotel, he was voted Prime Minister. Yet, now, many of the deputies who voted for Japarov claim they were forced to do so. In addition, under the constitution, the presidential role should have gone to the parliament speaker who refused to take the place as acting president in favor of, yet again, Japarov.

While many consider this a victory for democracy, others remain alert; the rapid succession of events seems to signal something different. There’s a growing fear that the democracy Kyrgyzstan’s worked so hard to uphold may now again be in danger, especially as they begin to clearly see Russian and local powerful influences may have contributed more to Japarov’s rise than the general public would like to believe.

Who is changing Japarov’s temperature? 

Answer: Putin, Xi Jinping, public opinion, and the threat of revolution. 

“Nobody can tell how it’s possible that Zhaparov jumped from a place of detention immediately to the highest echelons of power” expressed Asel Doolotkeldieva, a Kyrgyz academic. Domestically there is a myriad of factors that come into play. From party fragmentation to unseen forces, the domestic sphere aligned at the right moment for Japarov to rise to power. 

The last elections were meant to be a fresh start in Kyrgyzstan’s politics. New parties with new faces offered a different path for the Kyrgyz people especially as established politicians carried the baggage of alleged corruption, involvement with local criminal networks and elitism. However, the four main parties that were elected to parliament belonged to the old politicians. The primary reason why people took to the streets was to protest alleged fraud, which to the public was apparent even before politicians spoke out. The scramble for power that ensued proved to test the strength of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy.

Japarov was not the only freed prisoner with aspirations. Former President Atambayev devised a tactical pact with former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, who had previously run against him. Coalitions within the opposition parties began to fragment as the alliance between the former politicians proved to be more divisive than anything. The lack of partisanship may be a consequence of the uprisings the country has seen in the past 15 years as people are getting used to leaders achieving political goals through violent means; in the face of uncertainty, politicians seek to protect themselves.

Ultimately, they turned to Japarov, who lacked the baggage of the old generation of politicians and had the capacity to control the public. Now the parliament continues to go along with his plans despite taking on both the roles of president and prime minister, his intention to change the constitution and his failure of fulfilling promises. 

On an international level, the situation is quite different. Putin’s influence in Kyrgyzstan is undeniable. This is not new since it goes back to the Soviet era. However, Putin needs the country to remain stable in order to preserve his scope of influence. Many thought Putin would use a Russian military base in order to justify intervention but with the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict not too far, the country cannot afford another conflict among allies. Instead, Putin opted for softer measures. Mainly, he cut off financial assistance to see if it would pressure former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to end the protest. Since 2005, Putin has forgiven more than $700 of Kyrgyzstan debt and recently granted the country $100 million. 

While Jeebekov struggled with the protests, Japarov consolidated both parliamentary and public support, although his methods may not have been the most democratic. Nevertheless, Putin set aside the differences in ideologies in favor of a consolidated nation and sent Dmitry Kozak, his chief of staff, to meet with both the former president and recently ousted Jarapov. Jeenbekov resigned two days later. 

Putin does not seem to be worried about the ideological differences between him and Japarov and will continue to be Kyrgyzstan’s biggest, political, military and economic ally. But this is not due to a blind trust; Japarov has made it a point during his short rule to assure his Russian allies that Kyrgyz loyalty lies with them and he is looking to strengthen the already existing ties despite his nationalist rhetoric. 

Xi Jinping, while considered by many a key player due to its geographical proximity and Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence, remains conspicuously absent from the ordeal. Nevertheless, with a debt amounting to $US1.8 billion, Japarov needs to cater towards Chinese interest or he risks losing one of the pillars of the Kyrgyz economy.

What is driving Japarov? 

Answer: The upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan. 

Japarov has wasted no time as acting president. He named new officials, arrested suspected high leaders in notorious crime organizations, and is overseeing both parliamentary and presidential elections. Now he is expressing interest in pursuing constitutional reforms that would allow him to run in the presidential elections he is overseeing. 

To maintain momentum and secure his position, Japarov is fulfilling old promises, especially regarding corruption. But as the dust begins to settle, people are noticing inconsistencies in his plans. 

Once in power, Japarov arrested Rayimbek Matraimov and other high-profile figures in organized crime, but Matraimov was released hours after his initial detainment, casting doubts over the motive behind the arrests. Japarov has not made any moves towards other high-profile subjects. Coupled with promises of economic amnesty for the return of stolen budget money and the legislative and electoral reformations, his moves indicate that he is partially fulfilling his promises to cover his back while leaving significant gaps in the government’s ability to fight corruption.

Besides that, many of his moves threaten to uncover situations where he could be implicated, as in the case of Matraimov (otherwise known as the kingmaker of Kyrgyzstan) who sponsors the Mekenim party that put Japarov in power.  However, the Matraimovs are more than just a family. They are well known for their wealth, their influence and infiltrating decision-making bodies. While Japarov knows that by intervening in the business of the Matraimovs, he may uncover the secrets of everyone around him, he risks burying himself.

Japarov also owes part of his career to his nationalism and, especially, his devout support for the nationalization of gold mines in order to give back “stolen” wealth back to the Kyrgyz people. And presently it is still part of what some supporters grasped on to after he was released from prison.  Now, finally in power, he declined the chance to nationalize the Kumtor gold mine unconvincingly claiming that “there is no gold left” although according to the World Bank, it generates up to 10% of the GDP.

However, Japarov’s silent partner Xi Jinping may be a reason for the strange move or lack thereof. China owns gold mines and facilities in Kyrgyzstan, and many have been experiencing an increase in protests and violent attacks. If Jarapov manages to contain the public outrage and maintain Chinese investments, they could solidify Xi Jinping as a trading partner and investor.

This regulated nationalism goes along with Japarov’s promises to Moscow and Beijing. Kyrgyzstan is in no position to reject Russian aid or Chinese investments. However, an even more pressing issue is that the current shape of the country’s foreign affairs lies in the memory of the inter-revolution president who tried to reject Russian influence and ended in economic despair and a country engulfed in protests. 

Despite the many actions he has taken and the criticism he faces, last week, Japarov proved that he still had enough support within the legislative branch to delay the parliamentary elections until December 20th. This came after the constitutional referendum that would allow him to change the rules of the presidential elections in January. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: A dangerous growing trend in shortcuts to power threatens yet another democracy.

Democracy in Kyrgyzstan is dwindling and the party system seems uncertain of its future. After three revolutions in fifteen years, people remain blind to the damage they are doing to their own institutions. They continue to see the revolutions as a sign of a healthy democracy, despite the disastrous outcomes of the previous two. In reality, these revolutions are merely the symptom of a much bigger problem.

The trend of politicians taking shortcuts to power is spreading and we have yet to experience the aftermath but the real problem lies with the means of obtaining power. The Kyrgyz population once again sees the benefits of violent means to achieve political goals, but they don’t stop to wonder what this is doing to their institutions and how they are aiding those who seek disruption as a means to consolidate power. 

This also leaves a gap in national security to be filled by whoever desires it. In this case, Putin is using the chaos to strengthen their grip on Kyrgyzstan and Xi Jinping is not too far behind. 

While this may appear irrelevant for the West, for now, Japarov’s plans seem to point to a less than democratic Kyrgyzstan in the future. And coupled with the rising trend in similar situations that are happening across the world, things point to a less than democratic future.