From prison to the presidency The incredible journey of Kyrgyzstan’s new acting head of state and the political crisis still ahead
On October 15, Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned Kyrgyzstan’s presidency, bowing to pressure from the country’s new prime minister, Sadyr Japarov, who became the country’s acting president before the end of the day. Just 24 hours earlier, after meeting privately with Japarov, Jeenbekov said he’d step down only after Kyrgyzstan held new parliamentary elections, but his resolve collapsed almost immediately. Leaving office, he said resigning was necessary to prevent violent clashes between opposition protesters and law enforcement. Reporting from Bishkek, Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov explains what comes next for Kyrgyzstan and why the president had to choose between resignation and blood in the streets, becoming the country’s third leader forced from office early by mass protests.
President Sooronbay Jeenbekov says he faced the “inevitable loss of life” after protests exploded across Bishkek, following Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections on October 4. According to the official results, two pro-government political parties won most of the legislature’s seats: “Unity” (which is closely affiliated with Jeenbekov’s family) and “My Homeland Kyrgyzstan” (a political party with ties to the influential Matraimov clan. A dozen different opposition parties failed to win any representation in the Parliament.
A former deputy chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s State Customs Service, Raiymbek Matraimov and his brothers are now widely synonymous in the country with corruption and organized crime. According to investigative journalists, the family oversees a massive illegal operation that smuggles goods manufactured in China’s Xinjiang region through Kyrgyzstan to members of the Eurasian Economic Union, mostly to Russia. At least one informant who told reporters about the Matraimovs’ corruption and money-laundering schemes has been murdered while seeking asylum in Turkey. Several of the Matraimov brothers have been forced to resign from public office due to scandals and criminal investigations.
The Matraimovs’ alleged vote-buying and apparent cooperation with the pro-presidential party “Unity” was an important catalyst for the protests that following the parliamentary elections.
Things moved quickly in Bishkek after the official election results were announced on October 5. Demonstrators flooded the capital’s streets and occupied several government buildings — including the House of Parliament and the president’s own office — despite a brutal response from police officers.
Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission responded by invalidating the voting results, which led to Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov’s resignation. Without a quorum (and apparently facing threats from the president), members of Parliament then replaced Boronov with Sadyr Japarov — the founder of the “Patriot” party whom protesters had freed from prison just hours earlier. Sooronbay Jeenbekov called the events an attempted coup and declared a state of emergency in Bishkek on October 9, imposing a curfew and deploying the army to the city. He also disputed Japarov’s status as prime minister.
On October 14, however, the Parliament confirmed Japarov as prime minister. That same day, he addressed a crowd outside the House of Government and promised to seek President Jeenbekov’s resignation. Despite the restrictions in place, hundreds of Japarov supporters joined the demonstration, encountering no resistance from the police or military.
A local programmer named Sanzhar told Meduza that the sudden disappearance of law enforcement in Bishkek was frightening. “I don’t even drive through the city in my car right now because there were incidents a few days ago when they stopped cars and made off with them,” he said, referring to Japarov’s supporters. Such misgivings about the protesters, however, didn’t mean the public was rooting for President Jeenbekov. When police and the army effectively abandoned the capital for several days, volunteers in reflective vests calling themselves “Our Bishkek” started an independent campaign to patrol the streets in order to deter rioters. The group also reported incidents happening around the city using a Telegram channel.
Some in Kyrgyzstan’s news media have also had problems with Japarov’s supporters. The local branch of the Russian state news agency Sputnik, which uncharacteristically enjoys a reputation for objective journalism in the country, says unknown persons tried to pressure the outlet into reporting on demonstrations in favor of Japarov. According to Bolot Temirov, the investigative journalist behind the project Factcheck, there’s been no pressure on Kyrgyzstan’s news media to cover the protests in a certain way, but he’s said publicly that Japarov’s rise to power means just another crook in office.
Out of the big house and into the hot seat
Most of the politicians released from prison by demonstrators on October 5, including former President Almazbek Atambayev, have since been apprehended and returned to state custody. But not Sadyr Japarov.
Freed from an 11-year sentence behind bars, Japarov triumphantly assumed the role of prime minister before claiming the presidency itself late on October 15. While lawyers disputed the Parliament’s first two votes on Japarov’s appointment as prime minister (on October 6 and 10), even his critics accept the legality of a third vote by the legislature on October 14.
In a headline on October 10, The New York Times called Japarov a “convicted kidnapper,” referring to allegations that he took a governor hostage in 2013 during riots demanding the nationalization of the “Kumtor” gold mine. The charges and conviction, however, are widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan as politically motivated.
Sadyr Japarov owes much of his political prominence to populist slogans about nationalizing gold mining in the Issyk-Kul region — specifically the Kumtor project managed by “Centerra Gold Inc.,” a Canadian company that’s responsible for most of the Kyrgyzstani government’s foreign exchange earnings. Today, however, Japarov is far more cautious about discussing such initiatives.
Japarov also embraces some nationalist rhetoric, like adding an ethnicity section to Kyrgyzstani passports, which has won supporters in the country’s south, where many people who identify as Kyrgyz (the country’s titular people) are often at odds with the local Uzbek population. At the same time, Japarov and his closest associates have stressed that ethnicity information on passports should be provided only voluntarily, also arguing that civic identity should trump both ethnic tribalism and regional divisions (southern Kyrgyzstan is largely agrarian, while the north is more industrial and urbanized).
Those attracted to Japarov’s populism say his past conflicts with the nation’s elites are what they like about him. Japarov gained significant credibility among ordinary Kyrgyzstanis for standing up to state officials involved in the gold-mining industry and he became a sympathetic public figure after he was imprisoned for this activism. While behind bars, Japarov’s parents died and he was not allowed to attend their funeral. At one point while in prison, he was even shivved by another inmate.
The day Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned the presidency, opposition protesters assembled outside the government building in Bishkek where he was holding negotiations with Sadyr Japarov. The crowd was mostly young men from the city’s outskirts and from more remote areas across the country. Dressed in tracksuits and medical masks or sporting the thick beards and shaved mustaches popular among some Islamic fundamentalists, the demonstrators chanted Japarov’s first name loudly and aggressively. Local reporters even tried to dissuade Meduza’s correspondent from approaching the scene, fearing that the demonstrators might turn violent. Many residents in Bishkek told Meduza that they consider the Japarov supporters pouring into the city to be little better than gang members.
For all their intimidating enthusiasm, Japarov’s supporters never, in fact, lifted a finger against Meduza’s correspondent. After the news broke about Jeenbekov’s resignation, the crowd returned to the House of Government, where Japarov delivered a speech, explaining that he was now Kyrgyzstan’s head of state, following Parliament Speaker Kanat Isaev’s decision to decline the presidency.
A provisional government
President Sooronbay Jeenbekov stepped down to avoid bloodshed, he says, but his resignation doesn’t resolve Kyrgyzstan’s political crisis. Ikender Kakeev, an attorney at the Legal Clinic Adilet Public Foundation, told Meduza that the nation’s laws on transferring executive power aren’t clear when prime ministers and parliamentary speakers begin resigning or start getting replaced.
Currently, Sadyr Japarov serves as both acting president and prime minister of Kyrgyzstan. The country will likely hold new presidential and parliamentary elections before late December, however, and the law prohibits the acting head of state from participating in snap elections. In other words, if Japarov were to resign as acting president (so he could run for the office outright), the job would fall to the speaker of the Parliament, who’s already declined the role.
Before Kyrgyzstan can call new elections, the Supreme Court needs to uphold the Central Election Commission’s decision to invalidate this month’s voting results. Once that’s done, the country can stage simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. Campaigning will probably begin in the next few days, as soon as the Supreme Court renders its decision about the invalidated October results and state officials announce the next elections.
Meanwhile, in Russia
Russian diplomats in Bishkek told Meduza that Moscow has yet to make up its mind about Jeenbekov stepping down so suddenly. Speaking to reporters about events in Kyrgyzstan, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to weigh the resignation according to any “emotional criteria,” arguing that stabilizing the country and restoring the rule of law are all that matter.
While Russia is waiting for the situation in Kyrgyzstan to stabilize, Moscow has suspended all financial assistance to Bishkek. According to Sputnik’s local news bureau, the Kremlin cut off the money after the Kyrgyzstani authorities violated an agreement mediated just days earlier by Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s deputy chief of staff. Russian officials aren’t disclosing the nature of the deal with Bishkek, but sources told Sputnik that Jeenbekov had promised to delay his resignation until after holding new parliamentary elections and scheduling another presidential race to choose his successor.
In 2019, Russia provided Kyrgyzstan with $30 million in foreign aid. This August, the Russian-controlled Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development agreed to loan Kyrgyzstan $100 million.
A source in the Kyrgyzstani government told Meduza that the foreign money that’s currently being withheld is the previously allocated tranche of the Eurasian Fund’s loan. Meduza’s source said he was unaware of any halt in direct foreign aid from Russia, however.
Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock