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Protests in Bishkek on October 6, 2020.

Consider it a ‘sub-coup’ Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov answers key questions about the political turmoil in Bishkek

Source: Meduza
Protests in Bishkek on October 6, 2020.
Protests in Bishkek on October 6, 2020.
Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections on October 4. According to the official results, parties close to President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, his family members, and other powerful officials were the only ones that made it into the parliament. On October 5, opposition demonstrators took to the streets and were violently dispersed by riot police. Nevertheless, overnight on October 5–6, protesters managed to seize several key government buildings, including the so-called “White House,” which includes the Parliament and the offices of the presidential administration. In response, election officials invalidated the contested voting results and Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov resigned from office. That said, the current president hasn’t given up power. To answer the biggest questions about what’s happening in Kyrgyzstan, “Meduza” turns to political scientist and Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov.

Was anyone expecting these protests? What are some of the latest developments in Kyrgyzstan?

For me personally such developments in Bishkek were unexpected. [But] the situation in Kyrgyzstan is changing rather quickly. The authorities and those who opposed them step on the same rake every time — bloody clashes arise as a result, which could culminate in a coup. This “rake” is underestimation, a misunderstanding of the nature of what is happening in the country, an inability to analyze and predict the course of events even one and a half steps ahead. Everything that happens in Kyrgyzstan happens because of the stupidity of politicians and the authorities, [it’s] exclusively domestic in nature. There’s no influence from Moscow or Beijing.

The current president [Sooronbay Jeenbekov] is the fifth president of Kyrgyzstan. It so happens that the rise to power of a Kyrgyzstani president is always associated with some other paradigm shift in the republic, which is essentially divided into two parts: the south and north. There are representatives of the south and the north [in the government] — they don’t like to talk about this in Kyrgyzstan, but it’s always the case. The current president is considered a representative of the southern clans.

Jeenbekov has been running the country for only three year. The country is very poor, there are no opportunities for obtaining new investments and paying off debts — Bishkek is bogged down in a big pit of debt, most of which is owed to China. The country is in a very difficult situation — especially after confronting the pandemic. Covid played a big role — Kyrgyzstan is one of those countries where internal political turmoil is linked to the consequences of the fight against covid.

Why did the election results anger opposition protesters?

The [recent] parliament elections, the results of which caused such a turbulent upsurge, where the first during President Jeenbekov’s presidency. He’s a fairly balanced politician, he hoped that by declaring himself at arms length from certain political parties, he would be able to ensure a fair count of the votes. But, unfortunately, for some reason he didn’t take into account that the people in the country can’t help but see the party led by his younger brother [Asylbek Jeenbekov] as under [his] control. As it turned out, this party [“Birimdik”] exploited significant administrative resources, despite its formal separation from the president. 

The second party [“Menekim Kyrgyzstan”] was headed by a figure well-known in the country — the former deputy head of the customs service, Raim Matraimov. It’s no secret that he made a huge fortune thanks to a corruption scheme at the country’s borders. He wasn’t convicted and, moreover, he was given the opportunity to establish a party, which, thanks to a large amount of money by the country’s standards, managed to buy hundreds of thousands of votes. The small sums that people received were enough to partially pay off their debts or pay for housing and utilities. The idea of political responsibility isn’t close [to the people] for obvious reasons — the country is very poor.

These two parties received the maximum number of votes. If the elections were considered valid, then the southern clan would have had an absolute majority in the parliament. This couldn’t [do anything] but anger those who didn’t cross the parliamentary threshold — and they [were the ones who] urged people to take to the streets. Exploiting administrative resources, underestimating what allowing corrupt officials into the race would lead to, and the irresponsible behavior of protest leaders led to chaos and disorder. 

Can we call what’s happening a revolution or a coup?

What happened during the night could be considered a sub-coup. The real problem is that the protesters don’t have a political leader who can express the general opinion. Today, the party leaders are young people, whose names [mean] nothing — their responsibility and experience also played a role in what happened. 

Events involving the overthrow of the [current] president could be considered a coup. The authorities have turned out to be powerless when facing pressure from the street; facing the crowd’s commitment to freeing the former president, prime minister, and deputies from prison; [and] before the security forces going over to the side of the people. Of course, there are elements of a coup. But the president hasn’t given up power at the moment. 

Arkady Dubnov

Many people are comparing events in Kyrgyzstan to the protests Belarus. Is this a fair comparison?

I think the protests in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus can’t be compared — it’s like [comparing] apples to oranges. Ukraine’s former president Leonid Kuchma had such a book, Ukraine is Not Russia. So I’ll say: Kyrgyzstan is not Belarus. The people are completely different.

Election campaigning in Kyrgyzstan can include one of the political parties marching around the country on horseback. It’s perfectly normal there, since the Kyrgyz learn to ride horses from childhood. If such a march took place in the forests of Belarus, everyone would come to the conclusion that foreigners had arrived, who wanted to change the situation in the country using their whips.

The Kyrgyz are more “heated” — they have a different temperament. Showdowns, including political ones, take place between men. Protesters and law enforcement can hash things out, so that’s why such excess occurs. In Belarus, the protests are more peaceful. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, taking children to a protest is a big risk — it’s a sign of irresponsible parenting.

Could the president salvage the situation or will he be forced out?

If the president manages to consolidate the power structures with the help of his entourage [he could salvage the situation]. But we are seeing a situation of deep crisis. An attempt to take control over the events in the country is being undertaken by informal, former leaders, security officials, and well-known politicians. Some of them wield authority. But I don’t see the government being ready to cooperate with them.

There is another attempt to reestablish some kind of balance — the establishment of a kind of coordination council, which was founded by former prime ministers, such as Omurbek Babanov. But so far I don’t see any readiness [on the part of] the president to get in touch with them in order to stabilize the situation. Obviously he’s afraid of losing real power and the clan balance changing, [and] not in his favor.

Jeenbekov has seriously undermined his influence and his ability to control the course of the events. Does this mean that he should leave now? I doubt it, because otherwise this will lead to chaos and, in the absence of other legal authority structures, a complete loss of control over the situation in the country — there’s no parliament, the government isn’t organized. The president must take into account what happened and accept his share of the responsibility. And try to correct these mistakes — to find compromises with those who oppose him or are dissatisfied with him.

Interview by Ani Oganesyan 

Translation by Eilish Hart

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