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Searching For The Identity Of Kyrgyzstan's New 'National Leader'

Kyrgyz Prime Minister and Acting President Sadyr Japarov addresses parliament on October 16, 2020.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister and Acting President Sadyr Japarov addresses parliament on October 16, 2020.

A popular U.S. saying holds that life begins at 40, but for newly installed Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov, who now also serves as Kyrgyzstan’s acting president, it appears to have begun at 51. The potential results of Japarov’s hold on power leave Kyrgyz observers divided, though.

The dramatic changeover in the nationalist politician’s life began on October 6, when protesters against Kyrgyzstan’s October 4 parliamentary election results released him from the maximum-security Bishkek prison where he had been serving 11 years and 6 months since 2017 for allegedly kidnapping a former governor.

Within just over a week, Japarov, a native of Kyrgyzstan’s northern Issyk-Kul region and former parliamentary member, had been elected prime minister by Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, pending fresh parliamentary elections possibly slotted for December. Following President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s October 15 resignation, he has become Kyrgyzstan’s acting president as well after Parliamentary Speaker Kanat Isaev refused the post. Kyrgyzstan intends to hold presidential elections in January, but the law does not allow an acting president to run for president.

On October 19, though, Japarov indicated that he would not necessarily let that stop him from campaigning for the post. Amendments to Kyrgyz election law, currently under discussion in parliament, could remove the restriction on an acting president running for the office, he pointed out to Russia’s state-run Rossia-24 TV channel. If the amendments are adopted, “I will go for it,” he said, RFE/RL reported.

“From what I can gather, I can see that Sadyr Japarov is consolidating all the power in his hands, essentially because his path to power has been very difficult …” Shirin Aitmatova, a former parliamentary deputy who now heads the Umut (Hope) 2020 anti-corruption organization, commented on October 18 in RFE/RL’s Majlis podcast. “Therefore, you can see in his decisions that he trusts basically no one except those who stand by him throughout these ordeals.”

In many ways, street support led to Japarov’s rapid ascent to power. His supporters have long argued that he was imprisoned on politically motivated charges, brought against him for serving as a commissioner in Krygzystan’s anti-corruption agency under ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Social media played a key role in mobilizing these government critics this fall, an investigation by the British non-profit news site Open Democracy found. With 117,000 members, the prime minister’s public group on Facebook ranks as the platform’s largest destination for Kyrgyz politics.

His past as a campaigner for the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, a key component of the Central Asian country’s industrial revenue, and his denunciations of state corruption have led many Kyrgyz to see him as a sort of folk hero – despite his conviction on charges of kidnapping the ex-governor, Emilbek Kaptagaev, of the Karakol region that contains Kumtor.

During the recent parliamentary campaign, his party, Mekenchil (Patriotic), played on that image, using populist slogans that called for power to go to the people and for thieves to go to prison. Mekenchil promised to slash the number of bureaucrats and to fight corruption whole-heartedly, particularly in the Kyrgyz customs service.

Already, the State Committee of National Security, now headed by Mekenchil leader Kamchybek Tashiev, has started to pursue that mission, it announced on October 17. The State Committee, known as UKMK, has found evidence linking 40 people to corruption supposedly conceived by the customs service’s former deputy head, Raimbek Matraimov.

A 2019 investigation by RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kyrgyz news outlet Kloop found Matraimov involved in an international scheme to launder hundreds of millions of dollars. His family supported a party, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan), that won roughly a quarter of the vote in the annulled October 4 parliamentary elections.

Matraimov was detained on October 20 and taken to the UKMK in connection with its investigation into corruption in the customs service, the State Committee's press office announced.

But despite the new prime minister’s anti-corruption pledges, some voters interviewed by Current Time on the streets of Bishkek on October 16 nonetheless expressed strong misgivings about Japarov’s meteoric rise to political office.

A single person both running the government and acting as chief of state makes for “total chaos,” objected one middle-aged man who identified himself as a jurist. “Not a single country in the world has this situation,” he said.

A young woman agreed that one person should not hold all power, but added that she did not expect any “major, global changes” from a new prime minister and president after Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

One man, though, heartily approved of Japarov’s dual role and the break with Kyrgyzstan’s past government: “He’ll work normally. There’ll be lustration and everything, and everything will be fine.”

Japarov, though, has stated that he wants to emphasize skills over political ties in deciding on which officials should stay in the government. Some previous ministers remain in office, including Justice Minister Marat Jamankulov and State Committee for Defense Chairman Erlis Terdikbakaev.

“There should be a state approach” to government service, Japarov told reporters on October 16. “This is not a private office.”

The prime minister has replaced two-thirds of the 22-member cabinet of ministers he took over from his predecessor, Kubatbek Boronov.

Some questions, though, surround a few of Japarov’s new appointees.

In 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Ravshan Sabirov, a fellow member of Mekenchil, was sentenced to 5 years in prison for taking bribes to arrange foreign adoptions during his 2011-2012 stint as minister for social protection. Sabirov denied the charges against him and was released in a 2014 prisoner amnesty. ​

The new UKMK chairman, 52-year-old Kamchyek Tashiev, head of Japarov’s Mekenchil party, was accused of abuse of power in state contracts when he served as emergency situations minister about a decade ago. Though he denied wrongdoing, Tashiev was fired, but was never charged in court. ​

In 2012, Tashiev and Japarov, then members of the former Ata-Jurt party, were both charged with attempting a coup d’etat after they climbed over the fence surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s government headquarters during a rally to nationalize the Kumtor mine. They were released for time served in detention.

Tashiev, who has referred to Japarov as his “close friend,” claims that seeing Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic minorities as equal or “superior” to the country’s ethnic Kyrgyz majority would lead to the state’s collapse.

Citing some of the muscle power that showed up at street protests in Japarov’s favor, others have speculated that the prime minister also has allied himself with organized crime circles.

Political strategist Medet Tyulegenov believes that Japarov has “genuine popular support,” including from the regions, but cautioned that the “organized part” of this support “raises concerns.”

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Aida Kasymalieva, who supported both Japarov and ex-President Jeenbekov, has alleged that “organized crime groups” at the protests threatened her.

But one of Japarov’s supporters, Mekenchil member Melis Aspekov, rejects such theories, stating that he saw no such individuals in the demonstrations.

“There’re no bandits. He’s not connected with any bandits or with major oligarchs, corrupt people,” Aspekov emphasized. “Ordinary people are coming out” to support Japarov, who is now “our national leader,” he added.

He advised looking beyond Sabirov’s brush with bribery accusations to focus on other members of the cabinet: “[T]here are a lot of young fellows there, spotless. The people love them.”

Aspekov did not specify names. High expectations, however, appear to exist among Kyrgyz voters for the new education minister, Almazbek Beshenaliev, who has taught at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and School of Education in the United States.

A degree of street popularity, however, may not be enough to ensure Japarov a smooth course until the December 20 parliamentary elections, noted one Kyrgyz political strategist.

With Kyrgyzstan’s unemployment predicted to soar to 21 percent of the working population and the economy to tank by 10 percent under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an August 2020 study by the United Nations Development Programme, Asian Development Bank, and the Kyrgyz Economic Policy Research Institute, holding responsibility “for all the branches of power” could prove “very complicated,” commented Edil Osmobetov.

“It’s one thing when you’re making a speech from a podium or at some rally there. It’s a different matter when it’s the real economy,” said Osmobetov.

The new government does not appear yet to have developed a detailed economic recovery plan.

But Mekenchil member Aspekov cautioned patience in assessing the new prime minister’s performance. “We need to give time to Sadyr Japarov now,” he said.