Amirzhan Kosanov: ‘This is Kyrgyzstan’s democratic déjà vu’

The expert on Central Asia on the revolution in Kyrgyzstan, difficulties of the impeachment and danger of the country’s dissolution

Amirzhan Kosanov: ‘This is Kyrgyzstan’s democratic déjà vu’

Spontaneous protests in Bishkek last week unexpectedly grew into a real coup in Kyrgyzstan. Representatives of the opposition began to occupy key posts, the president disappeared for a couple of days, though by Friday he threatened to send in troops to the capital. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, political and public activist of Kazakhstan, expert specialising in political affairs across Central Asia Amirzhan Kosanov evaluated the events in Kyrgyzstan. The interlocutor of the newspaper told us about three revolutions in 15 years, the influence of the northern and southern clans, doubted the legal possibility of firing current president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and compared the protests in Bishkek and Minsk.

“A revolution with elements of coup attempts”

Mr Kosanov, how do you assess what happened in Kyrgyzstan? Is it a revolution, coup or anything else?

The times and events are so that “everything mixed at the foothill of Ala-too”, and what’s happening there doesn’t meet standard definitions. If we take a step aside of strict classification of classic political studies, there is a revolution with illustrative elements of coup attempts or democratic protests turning into mob rule and anarchy.

But all the extravagance of the situation, which at times becomes grotesque, can’t deny the main political component of the events: it is dishonest elections to Parliament. If Jeenbekov had held normal elections, if he had let legal opposition in Parliament, this wouldn’t have happened.

This is already the third change of power in the country amid mass protests in the last years. Did any dramatic changes cause the previous revolutions in 2005 and 2010 in Kyrgyzstan?

Yes, of course, these campaigns changed the political landscape and the overall situation. Presidents changed, which was a novelty for the Central Asian Region. I remember that we, Kazakhstan democrats, put our neighbours who so dramatically said goodbye to their overstaying first leaders as an example for everybody.

But as it turned out, the foundation the power rests on didn’t change in Bishkek when people did. This includes a too personified power vertical (though an aspiration for a transition for a parliamentary and presidential form of the ruling was claimed), a clan-based formation of the political elite and finally the well-known North and South factor.

If Jeenbekov had held normal elections, if he had let legal opposition in Parliament, this wouldn’t have happened

Revolutions were carried out, but the most important thing wasn’t done — so that yesterday’s democrat who came to power on the wave of popular slogans and the fight against the Dragon didn’t turn into the Dragon, an authoritarian and a reason for the next popular unrest. Unless this is done, unless there is a corresponding legal framework, the practice and tradition of zero-tolerance to the return to authoritarianism, revolutions will go on. And we will be doomed again and again to see Kyrgyzstan’s other democratic déjà vu.

Kyrgyzstan is said to have two identically influential clans that periodically get control over the city this way. Can you tell us something about northern and southern Kyrgyzstan?

Yes, you’re right. Only the lazy don’t talk about this peculiarity of Kyrgyzstan. Presidents change, members of Parliament and the government change, but only this factor that, in fact, divided one country into two halves remains unchanged.

The scariest thing is that in the situation when ordinary Kyrgyz people aren’t crazy about tribalism, this medieval obscurantism becomes a weapon in the hands of different politicos. Unfortunately, this factor still plays a role in this country’s social and political life in the 21st century.

And the approximate balance of forces and resources of the two parts of the country makes this conflict permanent and sluggish and, most terribly, unchanging. Perhaps, a new generation of managers not infected with the bacilli of precedence must come, so this facto will stop playing a defining role in the country’s life.

Youth protests took place in the centre of Bishkek on 9 October where young and educated citizens openly talked about the mistrust in the old staff that pushed the country to the edge. They talked about the necessity of introducing lustration and not only regarding the communist past, they talked about the disappointment with those who have been at the helm of the country since the declaration of independence. It is new and quite a strong signal for ruling circles of the country.

The approximate balance of forces and resources of the two parts of the country makes this conflict permanent and sluggish and, most terribly, unchanging

“Any forces, including destructive ones, could (and can) grab the power”

Some speakers in Russia say that Kyrgyzstan is one of the channels to supply drugs to Russia and allegedly the unrest and coup happened because the spheres of influence were divided. How efficient are the theories that financial groups or even criminal groups are behind such events?

Kyrgyz experts themselves talk about the influence of crime in the ongoing events. And not only about the traffic of drugs. Some form of the shadow sector is present across the post-Soviet space. And Kyrgyzstan can’t be an exception here. The problem of drug trafficking, which goes through all USSR republics and has influential patronised forces at the top of power in these countries, is a separate topic for discussion.

Many named what happened in Kyrgyzstan as the fastest revolution. Power switched to the opposition’s hands in the country almost in a day. Is it true that Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s opponents are controlling the situation in the country now?

Yes, it seems that nobody expected this: power changed overnight! As a result, there is total demoralisation of all branches of power, from the president himself. All this, in turn, frees different types of forces that would like to rock the boat in general. Any forces, including destructive ones, could (and can) grab the power that turns out to be unattended.

The president himself was allegedly unaware until 9 October, important political decisions started to be made. But the situation seems to be changing, which yesterday’s events prove.

The president of the country was out of the vision for a couple of days, it was said he could be hiding in another country, for instance, in Russia or Belarus. His press service denied these statements later. He stayed in Kyrgyzstan and isn’t intending to give somebody power. Do his opponents have a legal way of toppling the president?

According to local legislation, the president is deprived of his post only by virtue of an accusation on a serious offence filed by Parliament, which must be confirmed by the prosecutor general’s statement. As we see, the procedure is very serious and requires not only a desire and determination of the opponents but also corresponding no less serious arguments and evidence. Do Jeenbekov’s foes have enough time, possibilities and resources to initiate and complete the impeachment during such a critical and chaotic period? I highly doubt it...

Do Jeenbekov’s foes have enough time, possibilities and resources to initiate and complete the impeachment during such a critical and chaotic period? I highly doubt it...

In what conditions the launched impeachment inquiry can be recognised both inside the country and internationally? What instruments does the president have in his hands to keep the power?

Firstly, one thing is to express one’s desire to declare impeachment to the current president, another thing is to develop the initiative in reality. Moreover, Jeenbekov has already claimed he is ready to discuss this issue after the situation bounces back, the appointment of staff and completion of his mission within constitutional duties.

And then the tensions will perhaps calm down...

While the international community, as it should be, will evaluate the idea and procedure of impeachment only through the prism of constitutional provisions.

Jeenbekov said last Thursday that he didn’t accept Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov’s resignation. How should one assess this statement? Is the resignation of the head of the government illegitimate?

The authorities clearly didn’t expect such a rapid, if you like, shocking development of events. The president perhaps didn’t want to let this premier go. Everything is possible. Because not only the situation but also the balance of power around the authorities is changing. New alliances are born, yesterday’s most rabid enemies become political supporters. It isn’t excluded that secret talks are held between the parties. And the sides aren’t two, their number is bigger, hence the most unexpected decisions, including from the president himself.

Moreover, everything is happening amid a real confusion with self-appointments (people come and appoint themselves like: “Only I deserve this!”). All this would be so fun if it weren’t so sad.

The president signed an order on Friday morning that dismantles the government. Did he give up?

I don’t think. He probably decided to sacrifice the queen to win the game. Four days after the events when he almost fell out of the chronicle and the events became spontaneous and uncontrolled, it seems that he woke up and got a new lease of life. He declared a state of emergency, sent in the troops to the rebelled city and seems to be getting the reins back.

Any forces, including destructive ones, could (and can) grab the power that turns out to be unattended

“The opponents in Kyrgyzstan are consciously crossing legal borders

Many began to compare the events in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. What one should pay attention to if we try to compare these two scenarios? What peculiarities of the state set-up, groups of interests and maybe even mentality could you note?

Both Belarus and Kyrgyzstan have a common Soviet past. We all were a part of the USSR. The common symptoms of the transition from the Soviet Union to independence come from this. But it is clear that every nation has its specifics. And this influences their behaviour in such determining historic situations, without doubt.

Belarus is going against the regime of the overstaying president so openly and massively for the first time (it came to the point that Lukashenko himself publicly recognised he had overstayed in power). While our neighbours, I am sorry, have had the third revolution under the fifth president.

Demonstrators in Belarus are showing unity, the new leaders are a single front regarding key issues, they don’t provide even a small reason for force structures to apply force. While the opponents in Kyrgyzstan are consciously crossing legal borders, thus giving the authorities a reason for a harsh reaction (here Jeenbekov should be paid tribute, he didn’t use lethal means against his people). Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have unity of opposition forces, the “winners” have already separated, they are even against each other by creating parallel democratic agencies.

The opposition of Belarus got powerful support on the West, which provides it with additional forces and possibilities. As for the October revolution in Kyrgyzstan, leading countries of the West haven’t so far had a consolidated opinion (either in support of the revolutionists or reproach).

Feel the difference, so to speak.

Mr Kosanov, could you forecast how the situation will be developing? What should neighbouring countries expect from the new management of Kyrgyzstan? Will the relations of the country with Russia, Kazakhstan and others change?

It is hard to not only forecast but also comment on what’s going on: the general situation is changing so fast. The events began to seriously change just on 9 October: fights in the city centre began, shootings were heard (not from security agencies but the participants in the events).

Still, I will dare to forecast the following:

The president’s proposal for new elections will likely be accepted by those who initiated the October events. And new elections to Parliament will take place. I hope the situation ends this way.

If those who have influence on the authorities and society in this country don’t have enough political wisdom, and tensions will be running high, the country will face chaos, a civil war isn’t excluded, and we can witness the dissolution of the whole country. Nobody wants this, except for Kyrgyzstan’s bitterest enemies.

Photo: Tabyldy Kadyrbekov /
The opponents in Kyrgyzstan are consciously crossing legal borders, thus giving the authorities a reason for a harsh reaction

As for the relations with Russia and the neighbours in the region, I don’t think that those will remain at the wheel or will come instead will dramatically change geopolitical priorities. The country isn’t so self-sufficient and independent in choosing strategic partners. For this reason, despite the shift of some accents in the authors’ rhetoric, the general vector of Bishkek’s foreign policy will likely stay.

By Yevgeny Kalashnikov