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Russia, China, Kazakhstan Hesitate To Assess Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Political Experiment’

Protesters gather during an October 7, 2020 rally on Bishkek's central square of Ala-Too and demand the impeachment of Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Protesters gather during an October 7, 2020 rally on Bishkek's central square of Ala-Too and demand the impeachment of Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

As protesters returned to the streets in Kyrgyzstan on October 7, regional players Russia, Kazakhstan, and China found themselves scrambling for answers to the question of who now rules this democratic Central Asian country. Meanwhile, in Belarus, where protesters for nearly two months have been campaigning unsuccessfully for fresh presidential elections, some view Kyrgyzstan as an example to consider.

Most outside observers, however, appear to be waiting for the political situation to settle.

After one group of parliamentary deputies on October 6 recognized a new prime minister, opposition politician Sadyr Japarov, and a Coordination Council of opposition parties named a new interior minister and security affairs chief, rival opposition members on October 7 sprang into action with their own council and nominee for prime minister as well as protests for “new” leadership. They declared they would not recognize Japarov’s government.

Kyrgyzstan now contains at least six such Coordinating Councils, according to Ordo (The Horde) party leader Mirbek Miyarov, a member of the new People’s Coordination Council, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

Amidst the chaos, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, whose impeachment protesters now demand, urged the different groups on October 7 “to return to the field of law.”

Following the country’s October 4 parliamentary elections, protesters on the night of October 5-October 6 took over the building that contains Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration, government cabinet, and parliament, prompting the Central Election Commission to annul the preliminary vote results. President Jeenbekov's exact whereabouts in the capital, Bishkek, are unclear.

It took Russia, which maintains a large air base in the country and holds hundreds of millions of dollars in direct investment there, more than a day to respond.

“We’re in contact with all the participants, with all the sides of this conflict,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an October 7 interview on the state-run Rossia-24 TV channel to mark his birthday. He did not specify the identities of those “participants.”

Expressing an interest in a “peaceful” resolution of the crisis, Putin added that “after the normalization of the domestic political situation, we’ll continue the realization of all our plans with Kyrgyzstan,” particularly those related to the two countries’ joint membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

For now, Moscow, like much of the outside world, appears taken aback by the unexpected turn of events after Kyrgyzstan’s October 4 parliamentary elections, commented Russian political analyst Arkady Dubnov.

“[B]ased on the general picture of the reactions, I understand that the Kremlin is confused,” said Dubnov. “It’s confused also because [the situation] is unsteady. These shaky gates of the White House, that’s the model of shaky power,” he said, referring to the gates outside Kyrgyz government headquarters that protesters broke down before storming the building.

Dubnov termed the uprising “an incomplete overthrow [of the government], which has all the grounds to shift into a full-fledged coup d’etat.”

For Russia, that puts much at risk.

Putin did not touch on the more strategic bond between the two states – Russia’s air base in the northern city of Kant, which houses Russian air-and-missile defense systems and essentially controls Central Asian air space, according to one assessment. Moscow holds a lease on the facility until 2027.

Ahead of the October 4 vote, President Jeenbekov reassured President Putin that the government wants to expand Kyrgyzstan’s ties with Russia. He warned that unidentified “forces” are "trying [to encroach] on the sovereignty of Kyrgyzstan" and are "driving a wedge into our allied relations and strategic partnership" with Russia, reported.

"Of course, we won't let them [do] this. Nothing will work for them. Because Russia's support is the main thing for us. It's very important."

And, potentially, also for Jeenbekov’s brother, Asylbek, a member of the pro-government Birimdik (Unity) party, whose leader has advised reconsidering Kyrgyz independence and returning to some form of a closer relationship with Russia.

Amidst allegations of vote fraud, the annulled preliminary election results gave Birimdik and the pro-government Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) each roughly a quarter of the October 4 vote.

Protesters do not appear to have a unified position on Kyrgyzstan’s ties with Russia, but some before the election rallied against Birimdik’s apparent integration proposal.

That disapproval continued at the October 5 protests near the White House.

“If we don’t unite today, this [Kyrgyz] flag will fall tomorrow under the feet of Russia or China,” one protester warned Bishkek demonstrators, Media Zona Central Asia reported. “I want to live freely in a free Kyrgyzstan and transfer it like this to its children.”

China, Kyrgyzstan’s eastern neighbor, also has much at stake in the country. In 2019, the Kyrgyz government owed Chinese banks $1.7 billion, more than 40 percent of its entire foreign debt.

Much of its ability to pay off those debts stems from gold mining, but intruders also have overrun some foreign-owned mining operations since October 5, including the Chinese-operated Ishtamberdi mine in western Kyrgyzstan, bneIntelliNews reported, citing Kyrgyz media.

Officially, China, like other states, has called for “dialogue” between “all parties” to arrive at a “peaceful solution” of the Kyrgyz crisis.

In what could be interpreted as a hint to Beijing’s regional rival, Russia, or Western powers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stressed on October 7 that it opposes “foreign interference” in the country’s domestic affairs, and supports policies “to safeguard its independence and sovereignty,” the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN reported.

Right now, however, no clear sign exists that any of these players are eager to get publicly involved in the political dilemma.

Calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, the U.S. embassy in Bishkek on October 7 described Kyrgyzstan’s protests and the takeover of government headquarters as “a reflection of internal political dynamics, not external ones.”

“We call on all of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors and international partners to refrain from violating its sovereignty during this delicate moment in its national history,” an official statement posted on the embassy’s website read.

Kyrgyzstan’s influential northern neighbor, energy-rich Kazakhstan, also has no desire to meddle, commented one Kazakh analyst.

“It’s understandable that Kazakhstan will not get involved there in any way because it itself will not understand what’s going on there,” said political analyst Dosym Satpaev, director of the Kazakhstan Risk Assessment Group. “It seems to me that the same situation is being observed in Russia.”

Aside from Kyrgyzstan, ongoing election protests in Belarus have put Kazakh officials on guard, Satpaev said, and they “naturally” fear that Kazakhstan’s 2021 parliamentary elections could also spark a “wave of protesting.” A similar fear hit the authoritarian Kazakh government during Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution, which removed President Askar Akaev from power.

However, Satpaev added, the unease this time has more to do with the economic and healthcare stresses that Kazakhstan, which has Central Asia’s highest COVID-19 death rate (1,746 as of October 7, 2020), has experienced amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of this is not a very favorable background for holding any elections,” he said.

Nur-Sultan does not appear to have yet issued an official comment on the unrest in Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, Belarus, the other source of Kazakhstan’s concerns, has remained relatively silent about the Kyrgyz response to allegations of election fraud. The official news agency BelTA reported on October 7 that Alyaksandr Lukashenka had discussed Kyrgyzstan with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an October 6 phone call, but did not share the details.

One of the self-exiled leaders of Belarus’ own Coordination Council of government opponents, however, sees cause for reflection.

“Actually, in one day, they managed to change political power in Kyrgyzstan,” commented Paval Latushka, a former Belarusian ambassador and culture minister. “I think that very many Belarusians are looking at this and are surprised. They’re probably thinking about this.”

Belarusian analyst Artem Shraibman, however, sees clear distinctions between the two countries’ protests.

By contrast with Kyrgyzstan, whose White House has featured prominently in each of the three post-election uprisings since 2005, Belarus’ government headquarters, which also houses parliament and the Central Election Commission, “hasn’t been interesting to anyone for many years,” Shraibman observed on his Telegram channel.

The violence displayed in storming the Kyrgyz White House is another key distinction from Belarusian demonstrators, he added. Overall, several hundred people were wounded and at least one person died during Kyrgyzstan's October 5-6 clashes between protesters and police.

“The temptation to return to shooting and the seizure of buildings again, or to continue the violence after the triumph of the revolution, is poison for sustainable democratization,” Shraibman argued. “In fact, Kyrgyzstan is a good example [of this].”

Kazakh analyst Satpaev, though, sees a larger role for Kyrgyzstan. The country, he wrote on Telegram, is “a political laboratory that constantly conducts some kind of political experiments …”

The results may be “unpredictable, contradictory,” but also “interesting,” he said, because “everything in this small Central Asian republic is done for the first time in Central Asia.”