Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Oct 26, 2020
Kyrgyzstan on the brink

President of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbai Jeenbekov added further uncertainty to the rapidly deteriorating situation after the Parliamentary Elections held on 04 October, by tendering his own resignation on 15 October. While announcing his resignation on the presidential website, Jeenbekov said, "For me, peace in Kyrgyzstan, the integrity of the country, the unity of our people and tranquility in society are above all. There is nothing dearer to me than the life of each of my compatriots. I'm not holding on to power. I do not want to remain in the history of Kyrgyzstan as the President who shed blood and shot at his own citizens. Therefore, I've decided to resign."

A history of coups

Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to coups. In fact Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country to have undergone violent changes of power since the region gained independence in 1991. The first change occurred in 2005 through what came to be known as the Tulip Revolution. The second happened in 2010 through the Kyrgyz Revolution. This is the third such event in the last 15 years.

In 2005, the then President Askar Akayev, who had assumed power as a compromise candidate in 1991 after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was evicted from power following demonstrations against a rigged election. Akayev was forced to flee first to Kazakhstan and then to Russia where he currently lives.

The second coup took place in 2010 when President Kurnambek Bakiyev who had assumed office after Akayev was forced out, faced large scale demonstrations against rising prices, corruption and increase in energy tariffs. Bakiyev had also apparently lost support of the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev because of his failure to take action against the American base in the country. Violent protests took place leading to deaths of 80 people and injuries to several hundred. He fled first to Kazakhstan and then to Minsk, Belarus where he currently lives. Roza Otunbayeva, a highly respected politician, took over as the interim President to bring the situation under control and arrange elections for the post of the President.

Almazbek Atambayev won the election and ruled for one term of six years as stipulated in the new Constitution. He was replaced in Nov 2017, through a largely free and fair election, by his protégé Sooronbai Jeenbekov. Although Atambayev had toiled tirelessly for Jeenbekov’s victory, the two soon fell out on account of action taken by Jeenbekov against some supporters and confidantes of Atambayev on charges of corruption. Atambayev himself was put into prison for 11 years in August 2019 on charges of corruption and ordering the release of a convicted criminal in 2013. Jeenbekov could survive in his position for a little less than 3 years.

Chronology of events

Elections to the 120 seats in the Parliament took place on 4 October. During the election, many parties were accused of buying votes. Several journalists also reported that they were harassed or attacked. Pro-Jeenbekov Unity Party received the maximum number of votes and captured 46 seats in the Parliament. Overall, supporters of President Jeenbekov managed to win 100 out of the 120 seats.

Following the election, Bishkek’s streets dissolved into chaos as protesters stormed prisons, freeing a number of high-profile inmates, including former MP Sadyr Japarov and former President Almazbek Atambayev. On 5 October, 1,000 people assembled in the main centre of Bishkek, capital of the country. This number swelled to more than 5,000 by the evening. They demonstrated against rigging and vote buying by political parties.

Protests continued throughout 6 October resulting in one death and around 590 injuries. 12 parties signed a memorandum urging the government to annul the elections and hold new ones. Following continued protests and worsening law and order, results of the election were annulled by the Central Election Commission on 6 October. The Prime Minister and parliament speaker along with several mayors and governors tendered their resignations.

The parliament announced opposition figure Sadyr Japarov of the nationalist Patriotic Party as acting Prime Minister on 11 October. Japarov had been serving a prison sentence till he was freed by protesters on 5 October. Jeenbekov first vetoed the nomination on 12 October, but later accepted it after parliament voted to confirm him on 13 October. Jeenbekov promulgated a one-week emergency from 12 Oct to restore peace and calm. The move eased tensions in the city, where residents had feared a wave of looting.

On 15 October, President Jeenbekov announced his resignation to prevent further bloodshed. Prime Minister Japarov was installed as interim President by the parliament until new elections are held. This is in spite of the provision in the Kyrgyz Constitution that the next person in line of succession would be the speaker of the parliament. Speaker Isaev who had assumed office on 13 October stated that he was not interested in the position.

The dust has temporarily settled on Bishkek’s streets and the political upheaval that followed Kyrgyzstan’s disputed parliamentary election has quietened down somewhat. But uncertainty still looms large.

The way forward

The man of the moment is Sadyr Japarov, the acting President and Prime Minister. Most observers of Kyrgyz politics believe that the appointment of a low-ranking, convicted politician to the top position has been orchestrated by forces working behind the scenes. Only time will bring them to the fore.

Zhaparov was elected to Parliament in 2005 as a supporter of former President Bakiev who was overthrown in the revolution in 2010. Japarov continued his political career and over the years staunchly supported the nationalisation of the country’s gold mines and accused the management company, Centerra Gold, a Canadian company, of environmental violations and corruption. This won him huge popularity among his fellow countrymen. In 2013 he was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for taking a provincial governor hostage during a protest against the local Kumtor goldmine project. Japarov’s appeal to the masses appears to be based on his nationalistic zeal and the promise to give back to the people the privatised gold mines, the “stolen” national wealth. According to some political commentators, the idea that natural wealth should belong to the people is extremely popular among ordinary citizens.

Under the Kyrgyz constitution, presidential elections are to be held within three months of the termination of the preceding president; the electoral commission has not set the date as yet. It appears possible that Japarov may run for a full term if the country amends its constitution. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution currently bars caretaker Presidents from running in the elections they oversee. This is why the former interim President Roza Otunbayeva who took over after Bakayev fled the country in 2010, and who was immensely popular, did not contest the elections in 2011. Amending the constitution to allow Japarov to run might require holding a referendum before the presidential election.

Soon after assuming office, Japarov named his closest ally Tashiyev as head of state security and published a long-term program hinting that he planned to be more than a temporary leader. As Prime Minister and acting head of state, Japarov must now also oversee a rerun of the 4 October election which was annulled on 6 October.


Instability in Kyrgyzstan does not augur well either for itself or for the region. Kyrgyzstan is the only semi-democratic country in the region and frequent changes of government through violent protests and demonstrations have not set a good example for democratic system of governance. All other countries in the region are semi-authoritarian and have witnessed continuation of same leadership for long periods. It was hoped that the new constitution of 2010 would provide stability to governance in Kyrgyzstan. That hope has unfortunately been belied. These developments will make Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors in Central Asia even more wary of democracy as they develop.

Kyrgyzstan is closely allied with Russia. Moscow, which considers Kyrgyzstan to be in its sphere of influence, had said it would be responsible for ensuring stability in the country. Developments in Kyrgyzstan are a matter of concern for Russia as it is already dealing with instability in three other ex-Soviet states: Belarus, where a disputed election has triggered protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are fighting over control of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kyrgyzstan’s relations with China although growing in economic terms are mired in stress. This is partly because of claims by China on Kyrgyz territory on account of alleged unequal treaties signed by China in the past. The harrowing treatment meted out to some ethnic Kyrgyz people in China in so called education centres, but which actually are concentration camps has angered the Kyrgyz people. Kyrgyz people are indignant at the high level of debt to China and rising number of Chinese citizens residing illegally in the country. There is the ever-growing fear of China as a world hegemon and aggressor. A suicide bomb attack took place against the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek in August, 2016. The political elite and government officials however maintain a positive attitude towards China.

Relations between India and Kyrgyzstan are strong and stable. Former Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov visited India for the swearing in of NDA-2 government at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2019. Modi visited Bishkek for the SCO Summit in June 2019. Notwithstanding the change in political dispensation in Bishkek, New Delhi will be able to maintain its vibrant relations with Kyrgyzstan.

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Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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