How Kyrgyz put ‘populist Robin Hood’ in office

Why the new coup took place in Kyrgyzstan and what the country has come to in 15 years of uninterrupted anti-governmental unrest

How Kyrgyz put ‘populist Robin Hood’ in office
Photo: Aleksandr Natruskin /

In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, experts in Central Asia of the Institute of CIS Countries Andrey Grozin dwells on how clans in Kyrgyzstan fought between each other for power, what brought the former inmate to the president’s chair, why Lenin is still loved there and why it is the freest country in the post-Soviet space.

“One of three unsuccessful rebellions on average was successful

Mr Grozin, power has changed in Kyrgyzstan through protest campaigns for the third time already in 15 years. Are the current events a political protest because of the dissatisfaction of the opposition with the outcome of the election to the country’s Parliament or was this unrest caused by the accumulated irritation of the masses by corruption, unemployment and a low quality of life in Kyrgyzstan?

Like in any complex occurrence, these events have both cases and many other things. Power is toppled in Kyrgyzstan, in fact. But this time it surprised how fast the whole political system broke down — from a slight push. I have talked with a lot of colleagues from Kyrgyzstan these days, and they all have said without any coquetry that nobody expected such a high speed of the collapse.

Yes, the country had successful perturbations in 2005 and 2010. But it had unsuccessful ones too — by my estimates, one of three unsuccessful rebellions on average was successful. And same ex-President of the country Almazbek Atambayev conducted three investigations on groups of people who were accused of plotting a rebellion during one term of his rule in 2011-2017 (the head of Kyrgyzstan can’t rule for more than one term). By the way, new head of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov was also jailed for an attempted rebellion against Atambayev. Though Atambayev’s power was not strong, it wasn’t as shaky as it was in early October 2020.

So these Kyrgyz successful and unsuccessful rebellions, attempted coups, clashes, demonstrations, the population’s threats to the power (like “If you don’t meet our requirements, we will topple you”) brought the system to a shaky state.

No matter how much cocky the new leader of Kyrgyzstan is being now, it takes years and big resources to bring the system to a more or less doable state.

Still, what was the trigger?

I think the rebellion was the trigger this time. The case is that the elites of the Kyrgyz south whom recent President Sooronbay Jeenbekov represented, I am sorry, got brazen and decided to fix their dominion in the elections to the country’s Parliament. Jeenbekov held the elections in a way that two southern parties got 91 out of 120 seats in Parliament. It turned out that nothing left to other parties in Parliament. Those people, “leaders of the revolution” who led their people with protests to Bishkek’s main square understood they would get nothing if they acknowledged the outcome of the elections — in this case, the elites of the south will drive them out from both power and property (one thing is impossible without the other in Kyrgyz conditions) and led a revolt.

Jeenbekov held the elections in a way that two southern parties got 91 out of 120 seats in Parliament. It turned out that nothing left to other parties in Parliament

So did Jeenbekov forget that it was necessary to respect the interests of both the industrial north and agrarian south in his country, which is considered a crucial principle in Kyrgyzstan?

It is a too simplified scheme. There is a lot of people in the same south of Kyrgyzstan who would have toppled Jeenbekov if they had had such an opportunity. He had strong positions only the southern capital of Kyrgyzstan — the city of Osha, but in the second-biggest city of the south — Jalal-Abad — his positions weren’t firm, to put it frankly.

But the same applies to the Kyrgyz north now, by the way: formally new Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov comes from the north’s ancient Bugu tribe. It is the biggest northern tribe whose representatives live compactly precisely near Issyk Kul Lake. But the country’s north also has other, nobler tribes, for example, the tribe Sarybagysh ex-President Askar Akayev belonged to.

Did the fight between clans play a role?

Three large families, three clans participated in the division of power — the Jeenbekov clan, the Matraimov clan (as it is considered in Kyrgyzstan, it is a clan of big corruptors and the embodiment of evil, they are considered to control the customs), the clan of former Premier Abylgaziyev. These three families wanted to fix their influence not only executive but also legislative power through elections but overestimated their forces.

The case is that revolutions in Kyrgyzstan always take place according to one and the same scheme: when some centre of power — a person, family, tribe — vigorously monopolises what can be monopolised in the country, thus destroying the balance. A coalition is instantaneously created against such a centre that dethrones it. This happened to both Akayev and Bakiyev, this has happened to Jeenbekov too.

But Kyrgyzstan introduced one term of rule for the president, and even the party that received the biggest number of votes in the elections to Parliament couldn’t get more than a half of the seats. But as I understand, this gave the country little.

You see the way the latest elections were held — two pro-power parties got to Parliament, and it turned out to be more than a half.

“The Kyrgyz obtained independence only after Vladimir Lenin”

The difference between the legislative and legal precedents is the eternal Central Asian problem that has reached its apogee in Kyrgyzstan.

It is written in the law that everything can be good and great, and the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan adopted in 2010 lays the foundation for the parliamentary and presidential republic. Moreover, precisely Parliament appoints the government in Kyrgyzstan (apart from security officials’ appointments), distributes public money, controls financial flows of the country.

The idea of this Constitution was not to allow monopolisation of power like it was under President Bakiyev when he, his brothers and sons monopolised the whole country and began to build a kind of the Khanate of Kokand with the possibility of handing down power. But Kyrgyzstan isn’t Turkmenistan. By 2010, it already had the experience of dethroning Akayev, there were a lot of parties (now there are 250 parties, though it is mainly hobby clubs, anyway there are about 20 real parties), and Bakiyev didn’t consider that.


So the Constitution was adopted, but as we see, the street also plays a significant role in Kyrgyzstan simultaneously with law.

Kyrgyz colleagues often debate on this. Some of them say that the reason is that the Kyrgyz have never had a united state — their tribes lived separately from each other, 90% of the country is mountains, this didn’t allow the tribes to communicate between each other. The Kyrgyz’s tribes were often influenced by other neighbours, often nomadic. While the Kyrgyz obtained independence only after Vladimir Lenin (and this is why monuments to Lenin still remain in Kyrgyzstan, unlike some former USSR countries).

Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is the freest country among all post-Soviet and Asian states — one may tell off the president in the mass media, there is no suppression of dissidence like in the neighbouring states. Also, the Kyrgyz quite often say that they don’t allow any tyranny to appear in the country — this is, of course, a myth.

“The fact that Kyrgyzstan is a poor mountainous country is more important”

Did the tough situation with coronavirus in Kyrgyzstan add fuel to the fire?

Yes, Jeenbekov lost the fight against the coronavirus pandemic — there was an upsurge in the incidence in Kyrgyzstan in June and July. Though the authorities said about pneumonia cases outside the hospital, the free Kyrgyz mass media wrote that it was anyway coronavirus. More than a thousand people have died in the pandemic in Kyrgyzstan, and it is a very high percentage of deaths for quite a small country (the population of Kyrgyzstan is 6 million people). But it is sadder that a lot of doctors have died in Kyrgyzstan.

It is no surprise that two weeks before Jeenbekov’s resignation, at a meeting with Putin he began to ask the latter for the vaccine — coronavirus has seriously hit this country, and the growth of discontent among small and medium-sized businesses with the strict quarantine also influenced the October events.

Your colleagues consider not only the fight for freedom but also corruption the cause of all rebellions. Do you agree? Can it be fought in Kyrgyzstan in general?

Everybody promised to fight corruption — Japarov, Bakiyev, Kulov, Otunbayeva, while Atambayev promised many things in this respect. But a lot of people live in imports going to Kyrgyzstan — all the power elite because there is nothing to live on.

Corruption is an ancestral feature of the Kyrgyz elite, but the fact that Kyrgyzstan is a poor mountainous country is more important. The country has been at the bottom in all economic and technical parameters of the USSR republics since the 70s of the past century and has been a subsidised republic alternating the lowest position with Tajikistan.

Neither the Kyrgyz SSR nor the Tajik SSR had possibilities of existing somehow independently, without transfers from the centre — they couldn’t provide themselves either with food or energy, good staff.

Yes, there was an attempt to develop the industry in Kyrgyzstan under the communists, universities were built, but this was little and didn’t solve the problem. In the end, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan now are the poorest countries out of the five Central Asian republics of the former USSR, the biggest number of labour migrants go from there to Russia and Kazakhstan.

House of Government of Kyrgyz SSR, 1977. Photo:
There was an attempt to develop the industry in Kyrgyzstan under the communists, universities were built, but this was little and didn’t solve the problem. In the end, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan now are the poorest countries out of the five Central Asian republics of the former USSR

And when Kyrgyzstan stopped receiving aid from the allied centre, it had to survive somehow — Akayev decided to follow the road of creating an “Asian Switzerland” in Kyrgyzstan. The country adopted progressive legislation regarding the registration of parties, unions, non-governmental organisations. By the way, a considerable part of the population lives thanks to non-governmental organisations and grants — it can be grants not only on policy but also biological diversity, on clean water, on microloans for farmers.

Grants — an important part of the economy of Kyrgyzstan — are like the money earned by migrants in Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s public debt increased too — from several millions of dollars before Atambayev to several billions after him, moreover, the biggest part of the money is a debt to China’s Bank.

Why did the debt increase so much?

Atambayev tried to industrialise the country — he took out Chinese loans to build roads, modernise infrastructure. Of course, Kyrgyzstan joined the EAEU because no grants will substitute investments in the industry — grants and migrants’ transfers are just for personal consumption. Atambayev took out a big number of loans from the Chinese, and the next year, 2021, will be no fun in Kyrgyzstan because it will the peak of foreign debt repayment: if the Chinese don’t take pity on the Kyrgyz, Mr Japarov will feel blue.

Let’s talk about the new head of Kyrgyzstan — 52-year-old Sadyr Japarov. Why did this person who had never occupied posts in the country, who had served a three-year sentence and was freed by a crowd of protesters in early October chair the country? Because Omurbek Babanov — a former premier, Kyrgyzstan's richest person was Jeenbekov's serious opponents in the 2017 elections.

Babanov turned out to be a coward. He tried to go to the square, but Japarov's young athletic men arrived and dispersed both the Babanov and Atambayev fans from the square. Now about Japarov. Kyrgyzstan had a president from the north — Akayev, then it had a president from the south — Bakiyev. Then there were “mixed presidents”, and now it is considered that the pals' president has appeared. As much as the parliamentarians were persuaded to vote for granting Japarov the authority as acting president, there were anyway found several parliamentarians who are impossible to negotiate with who told the mass media what they were promised to be done if they didn't endorse the new leader. However, they quickly “shut up”, and it faded. Who is he? Nowadays it is the people's leader, a Robin Hood.

“Japarov is the worst populist

What can Kyrgyzstan and its partners expect from the “people’s hero” Sadyr Zharapov in the short term?

I think Japarov is the worst populist, moreover, an avid nationalist. Again, ordinary people like it all, and their feelings are reciprocal. It is not only the brotherhood and tribesmen but also his sincere fans, it is people who consider that Japarov is for the people, he will come and put everything in order, expel corruptors and happiness will reign across the country. The faith in Japarov in Kyrgyzstan is really widespread, and he has the biggest number of followers on social media in Kyrgyzstan — 200,000, which other politicians don’t have.

Yes, Japarov uses modern technologies and modern PR, but it is impossible to understand what foreign power Japarov is focusing on — he escaped to Russia and worked here with labour migrants, he lived in Turkey, in Europe, he hasn’t been only to America. This is why it is very hard to say who Zhaparov is, but his figure as the head of the country for Kyrgyzstan is rather bad than good.

If we look at his people he has appointed in the government (almost 70% of the government has changed), we see that they come from backwoods and have quite questionable biographies. And the worst thing is that they are all populists and promise ordinary people to solve all their problems.

So Japarov’s position isn’t simple now. One thing is when you are responsible for nothing, another thing is to rule, for instance, when the country isn’t ready for winter, while the second coronavirus wave is standing on the threshold. Japarov will find it hard because Russia refused to continue helping Kyrgyzstan with money, and the Chinese don’t want to help, Europe and the USA are also shocked at such a leader. All big countries and players don’t like this unclear figure, they consider that Japarov will create problems.

He can be effective only in case of force majeure. While arranging everyday work to ensure the government apparatus runs and houses have heat, the people don’t die in winter is a tough job for such people as Japarov. Why is it tough? The case is that he doesn’t have any public administration experience.

When can we discuss Japarov’s real managerial abilities? In a year or two?

Japarov won’t withstand a year. Though... Let’s remember Bakiyev — he seemed to be a gingerbread granddad to everybody, but then political murders of his opponents began under him. Here it can be the other way round.

Can the new leader have serious rivals who can’t be scared in the elections?

Kyrgyzstan’s elites and society are very split entities with parties, clans, tribes, regional groups, this is why Japarov can have such rivals. And even criminal in Kyrgyzstan is separate— yes, some criminal probably helped him to occupy the post as head of the country, but we can’t say for sure that Japarov is a criminal leader: there is no such official data...

Interviewed by Sergey Kochnev