Home / Articles / Event Report on the Situation in Kyrgyzstan and Its Implications
The following is a report summarizing an event on recent developments in Kyrgyzstan, featuring: Max Hess, Venera Djumaeva, and Niva Yau.
On October 4, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections. Four political parties received enough vote to garner seats in the parliament. Of those four, three were closely aligned with then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The results of the election sparked outrage against the government and saw thousands take to the streets of Bishkek. Within a couple of weeks, President Jeenbekov resigned, with Sadyr Japarov serving as acting president. Japarov has been trying to form a viable governmental apparatus between now and parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December and January, respectively.
How Did We Get Here?
Kyrgyzstan has been quite unstable since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Including the Tulip Revolution in 2005, Kyrgyzstan has seen turnover of leadership three times in the last 15 years. This time, the population’s discontent with the government’s corruption and handling of the COVID-19 crisis was the buildup to the eruption of unrest, claimed Venera Djumaeva. Corruption, especially that concerning Raimbek Matraimov, has been a problem for the Kyrgyz government for many years now and has disenchanted the country from infrastructure investments from the Chinese to build a railroad from China through Kyrgyzstan and onto Uzbekistan. As for COVID-19, the country has struggled mightily to combat the virus, and Djumaeva believes the official numbers of those succumbing to the virus released by the government are extremely low compared to the reality on the ground.
At the beginning of October, now-acting President Sadyr Japarov was in prison. He had been detained for kidnapping a Kyrgyz regional governor a few years ago and was sentenced to 10+ years in prison. While in prison, Japarov remained politically active (he had served in various roles in previous Kyrgyz presidential administrations) and was building an army of supporters through social media, added Djumaeva. His supporters are drawn to his nationalistic positions—particularly about nationalizing the large Kumtor gold mine—and catchy slogans, and they are keen to back him. After being released from prison by his supporters, Japarov was named prime minister on October 14 and then president when Jeenbekov resigned.
The Situation Now
Japarov’s position now is as an interim president and is not eligible to run for president in January according to the Kyrgyz constitution. Likely wanting to run in January, Japarov has not stepped down, nor has he changed the constitution. In the meantime, he has been acting like a normal president. He has been attempting to consolidate power amongst different political groups; he also has created a reform commission, set out a budget plan, and fostered foreign relations. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese have investment interests in Kyrgyzstan and are therefore concerned about the country’s stability and corruption. Niva Yau believes that Japarov will likely not anger the Chinese by explicitly expressing support for any movements in Xinjiang, even though his parents hail from the region. China also owns a large chunk of Kyrgyzstan’s debt; Japarov will probably have to ask for a reprieve on it soon. China’s wish to build a railway to Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan is held up at the moment by Matraimov as he controls a significant amount of the transportation infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan. Yau opined that Japarov could stand up to Matraimov, and if so, the Chinese railroad project can move forward. However, it is still unclear what the Japarov administration’s relationship with organized crime figures in the country will look like. Yet, China has recently showed some reservations in its relationship with Kyrgyzstan. Yau explained that China will not need Kyrgyzstan if the unrest continues and is more than happy to develop further its strategic partnerships with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. China is interested in developing its influence in the Caspian Sea region vis-à-vis Russia, and Kyrgyzstan might find itself on the outside looking in if the unrest continues. The Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan guaranteed the Chinese that the country will become stable and that Beijing and Bishkek can work together, but the country remains unstable.
As far for the Kremlin, the situation is not a high priority at the moment. It is worth noting that nobody from the Kremlin has used the words “color revolution” yet. Moscow has suspended any financial assistance it was giving Bishkek, but will likely not intervene. In fact, Moscow has been known to take advantage of unrest in the past with Kyrgyzstan. In 2010, when then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted, Gazprom took over many gas networks in the country, Max Hess explained. Hess also went on to say that Moscow, while aware of Japarov’s nationalistic intentions, is not at threat of losing any influence or seeing its geopolitical position regressing. Moscow might even be able to strengthen its position by being a willing partner in the gold mine’s sale. The only danger for Moscow is if the situation becomes more unstable over the coming weeks with elections on the horizon and its in-country assets become threatened. At that point, we might see the term “color revolution” thrown around.
In the eyes of another major geopolitical player, the United States, there is even less priority given to the situation. Washington is preoccupied with events in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as, COVID-19 and a presidential election two weeks away. The U.S. Embassy has only sent out a few press statements. Hess believes that the Trump administration’s “America First” policy is abandoning the Kyrgyz and making the situation worse, calling it “a sad reality.” The gold mine is of significant interest to Washington, though, but everything else going on in Bishkek is not garnering much of any attention.
Because Japarov cannot run in the upcoming presidential election, he must make a decision on what to do with his power or the constitution. Hess said that Japarov will find a way that will allow him to run, whether it is stepping down or altering the constitution. Regardless, in his position as interim president, Japarov, Djumaeva says, needs to develop diplomatic relations with other countries. While Japarov has worked in previous administrations before, he is not an experienced politician, which means it will take time for him to develop diplomatic skills. Djumaeva believes that he needs to be able to convince other countries that he can be an effective diplomatic leader. The situation is not completely resolved in Kyrgyzstan and will require close monitoring between now and the elections later this year and early next year.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.