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An illegitimate transfer of authority in Kyrgyzstan

Interview with Aida Alymbaeva, a Kyrgyz lecturer and opposition politician. Interview by Charles Fourmi.

December 3, 2020 - Aida Alymbaeva Charles Fourmi - Interviews

Aida Alymbaeva Photo: Private

On October 4th, Kyrgyzstan, the “Switzerland of Central Asia”, held parliamentary elections and became the “Belarus of Central Asia”. The declared results gave all pro-government parties seats in parliament. This announcement sparked outrage among opposition groups. Protesters entered the presidential office and parliament demanding a fresh vote, which led the electoral authorities to annul the results the next day. Protests continued and President Sooronbai Jeenbekov declared a state of emergency after the incumbent Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov stepped down from his position. Sadyr Japarov was then elected prime minister on October 10th in questionable circumstances. Meanwhile, protesters freed political opposition figure Almazbek Atambayev, who was serving a jail sentence for corruption. He was arrested shortly before the election of Japarov, who now seems to be ruling the country by himself. I interviewed Aida Alymbaeva, a member of the opposition Reforma party and Lecturer at the International University of Central Asia, in order to better understand the situation.

CHARLES FOURMI: Apart from the ongoing electoral situation, what are the biggest problems for Kyrgyzstan as a whole?

AIDA ALYMBAEVA: Corruption has remained a chronic problem in Kyrgyzstan for the last three decades. It has penetrated all parts of the public sector, including the judicial, law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Corruption has become an integral part of the state system. It is a survival strategy for many government figures, who often enter the public sector in order to get rich by abusing their power and embezzling state funds. Corruption coupled with strong patronal networks and neopotism have eroded the governance system in Kyrgyzstan. This led to the weak and ineffective governments that were often changed via protests. Fragmentation of the Kyrgyz society along various divides is another endemic problem. This includes regional divides (North-South), socio-economic split between center and peripheria (urban and rural areas), gap between religious and secular communities, and ethnic and clan rivalry. All these make the country more vulnerable to manipulation by the various leaders of these groups. Socio-economic problems are also persuasive. They include extensive unemployment, a high level of poverty and low quality education and health facilities. These issues are ultimately responsible for the various mass protests seen throughout the history of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

What were the main ideas underpinning the anti-government coalition? What was the group’s programme? What were its main criticisms of the current government?

Following the events of early October, several opposition parties (Bir Bol, Meken Yntymagy, Ordo, Reforma, and Zamandash) attempted to create an alliance against the self-proclaimed Prime Minister Sadyr Zhaparov, who is believed to have connections with criminal groups. He is also supported by various nationalist movements. The main goals of the opposition parties were to help new, young leaders run the country and not allow Zhaparov to become prime minister. However, anti-government alliance created following the events of early October has proved to be ad-hoc and it has failed. As a whole, Kyrgyzstan lacks positive examples of strong coalition-building among political groups. This is partly due to the easy access to penetrate political arena and electoral market and to gain power. Hence, actors feel they don’t need allies. Second, parties are often leader-oriented and personalised. They are not created along ideologies and represent weak agencies. Hence, strong coalitions fall apart like parties.

Some Western experts have said that these elections were pivotal. Why were these elections so important?

All elections held in Kyrgyzstan were important. At the same time, these elections could have allowed Jeenbekov and his regime to consolidate power for the next five years. This would have only led the country to be ruled by yet another semi-authoritarian regime not interested in reform. These elections could also help various clans. This includes the powerful southern Matraimov clan, which continues to challenge the political system through corruption. These elections also involved competition between the northern and southern elites, new and old parties and reformist and conservative-nationalist beliefs. They were important for the next path of the country.

As an observer in the run-up to the elections, how would you assess the electoral process in the media during the campaign, the debates and finally then on election day?

These elections were quite competitive and open but not fair. Parties had equal access to the national debates organised by public broadcasting companies such as OTRK and ELTR. Parties had easy access to social media and independent media resources. Despite this, pro-government parties such as Birimdik, Kyrgyzstan and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan enjoyed unlimited access to the public broadcasting companies beyond the pre-arranged national debates. They also benefited from administrative resources. Overall, thanks to the diversity of media outlets and social media, voters received alternative sources of information about parties and electoral process.

As the world focuses more on Kyrgyzstan, can you please share your perspective on what’s happening? I mean, what is actually going on in Kyrgyzstan now? How is this situation different from the 2005 Tulip Revolution or in 2010?

We are now experiencing an illegitimate transfer of authority, with Zhaparov using extortion, blackmail and pressure over parliamentary members to grab power. The problem is that he is now the only decision-maker in the country. He is both the acting president and prime minister at the same time, while parliament has been put under his full control. The main difference between the 2005 Tulip and 2010 April Revolutions is that the interim governments then were run by a group of opposition members, not one person like in the case of Zhaparov. This enables Zhaparov to distribute both political and economic resources with little opposition. This will ultimately lead the country into chaos and conflict.

Given the current situation, what are the demands of the opposition? Does the opposition agree on its position?

Unfortunately, the opposition is not united. That is the key challenge and main weakness of the current political system. The opposition is fragmented so it cannot challenge Zhaparov’s decisions and actions in any significant way. Overall, the opposition wants new parliamentary elections to take place before those for the presidency, Japarov’s exclusion from any presidential elections, and no changes to the constitution. The opposition also wants to preserve parliamentary democracy and the proportional electoral system.

Last question. Do you think that Kyrgyzstan needs support from the outside to solve this situation? Which countries are most likely to help with this?

These are internal issues for Kyrgyzstan. However, the EU and individual European countries need to put more pressure on the interim government to respect principals such as the rule of law, freedom of the press and expression, and fair and open elections.

Aida Alymbaeva is a member of the opposition Reforma party and Lecturer at the International University of Central Asia.

Charles Fourmi is an alumni of the Jagiellonian University’s Centre for European Studies.

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