The October 4 parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan set off a new protracted cycle of political instability in Central Asia’s second-poorest republic. Though the impact of the ongoing crisis has so far been limited to domestic issues, it may eventually reverberate in various ways through the region and within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), of which the Kyrgyz Republic is also a member.
Out of the 16 Kyrgyzstani political parties whose applications had been pronounced compliant by the Central Election Commission ahead of the vote, only four managed to surpass the 7 percent threshold and gain seats in the single-chamber legislature. The winner of the vote, with 24.9 percent of ballots cast and 46 members of parliament (MP) out of 120, was Birimdik (Unity), founded in 2005 and relaunched in 2019. Since its reboot, this pro-presidential party had progressively drained the cadre of the now-former ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK) and swiftly became the main domestic political force. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s brother Asylbek, who chaired the parliament from 2011 to 2016, had served as an SDPK MP since 2007; but this year, his name was on Birimdik’s candidates list (Kommersant, Akipress.org, Knews.kg, October 5).
The runner-up was Mekenim (My Homeland), a political party formed in 2015 and officially registered as a national organization in 2019. It scored almost as successfully, with 24.27 percent of the popular vote and 45 MPs. The party is widely considered a family affair of the influential Matraimov clan. While Iskender Matraimov has been parliamentary deputy since 2015 (on behalf of the SPDK), his brother Raimbek, a former high-ranking customs official, has, since late 2019, been at the center of international media reporting as the key person of interest behind an alleged long-running smuggling and money laundering scheme. Raimbek Matraimov is reported to have secured informal protection from several successive administrations, including Jeenbekov’s and that of his predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev (OCCRP, June 20, 2020; 24.kg, December 25, 2019; Radio Azattyk, November 22, 2019 and December 12, 2019).
The third and fourth parties with the largest numbers of ballots in their favor were Kyrgyzstan (8.9 percent and 16 seats) and Butun (“United”) Kyrgyzstan (7.25 percent; 13 seats). The former faction had consistently leaned toward the ruling regime whereas the latter, representing southern nationalists, stood in opposition to it. The loss sustained by such other parties as Respublika, Ata Meken, Bir Bol and Zamandash drove their supporters to the streets, where they were promptly joined by Butun Kyrgyzstan’s sympathizers, unhappy with its poor showing. Massive protests in the capital, Bishkek, on October 5, saw more than 2,000 demonstrators packed in the central square near the White House, the official seat of the country’s parliament (Vesti.kg, Vb.kg, Kp.kg, October 5).
The following day, October 6, the protesters stormed the White House and similarly occupied the State Security Committee headquarters. The crowds freed former president Almazbek Atambayev and former MP Sadyr Zhaparov from custody; and they secured the resignation of the speaker of the parliament, the mayor of Bishkek and four regional governors as well as forced the annulment of the hotly contested outcome of the parliamentary elections. According to the opposition, which on the same day formed a coordination council, the elections had been rigged and funds had been distributed throughout the campaign from regime coffers to buy votes. Clashes continued into October 7, with Zhaparov declaring himself the only legitimate prime minister. To the president’s public pledge to abstain from using brute force, one group of MPs responded with the threat of impeachment (Vedomosti, RBC, Kloop.kg, October 7; Regnum, Kabar.kg, October 6).
On October 9, President Jeenbekov decreed a state of emergency, dismissed the entire cabinet headed by Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov and vowed to step down once the political situation in the country had been stabilized. On October 10, the parliament unanimously endorsed Zhaparov for prime minister after its speaker declined to inherit Boronov’s mandate as dictated by the Constitution. Jeenbekov made further changes to the law enforcement apparatus by dismissing the secretary of the National Security Council and his deputy. Meanwhile, Almazbek Atambayev was returned into custody, thus highlighting his modest residual sway over Kyrgyzstani politics following the end of his presidency in November 2017 and his incarceration in mid-2019 (Sputnik News, Delo.kg, Novosti.kg, October 10; Vb.kg, Akipress.org, October 9).
Amid accusations of illegality leveled against his elevation to the head of the government, Zhaparov replaced the minister of interior on October 11 and was officially approved in his new role by President Jeenbekov three days later. The head of state initially planned to resign his office only upon the holding of repeat parliamentary elections; however, he ended up publicly announcing his resignation on October 15. Although Kanat Issayev—as the latest speaker of the parliament, elected only on October 13—was supposed to accede to the presidency, he refused to do so, leaving the door open for Zhaparov to become president ad interim while already serving as prime minister. New elections should take place within three months (Regnum, October 15; RBC, RIA Novosti, 24.kg, informburo.kz, October 13; Radio Azattyk, 24.kg, October 11).
Despite the end of the state of emergency as of October 16 and the retreat of protesters from the streets, including the most vocal demonstrators belonging to Zhaparov’s camp, the domestic situation remains volatile. Not unlike the previous political crises of 2005 and 2010, which both led to regime change, the current turmoil is driven by domestic issues: first and foremost corruption, the years of inconsequential lip service paid to law and order, and the deep-seated fault lines running between Kyrgyzstan’s industrialized north and agricultural south. Little indication can presently be ascertained in the protesters-turned-new rulers’ rhetoric that their focus is, among other things, on a strategic review of the Kyrgyz Republic’s foreign policy choices. Equally, the present crisis has largely remained confined to the capital and can hardly be seen as posing a material threat to the security of neighbors or stability along the state borders.