Kyrgyzstan: A Country of Contradictions and Senseless “Revolutions”

In just one week, external observers’ assessment of the situation in Kyrgyzstan changed four times.

During the first day of the protests in Bishkek, most commentators did not attach any serious importance to them. The authorities prepared ahead of time for their suppression. Force was used almost immediately and in full, the police seemed to have effortlessly kept control of the situation.

However, on the second day, it suddenly became clear that key government buildings were seized by protesters, the police partially sided with them, partially declared their neutrality, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov lost control of the situation, and his political opponents were released from prison. The opposition started to share out power.

Another couple of days passed, and Sooronbay Jeenbekov was back on his horse. In Bishkek, martial law was declared, and troops entered the city at his command. The main opponent, former President Almazbek Atambayev (by the way, a former party member of Jeenbekov’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan – SDPK) was again detained, and his supporters cleared the street.

The president started to negotiate with the remaining part of the opposition (which played a major role in neutralising Atambayev’s supporters) about their entry into power.

At first, it seemed that the president is negotiating from a position of strength. Having found fault with procedural inaccuracies, he refuses to approve Sadyr Zhaparov, who was nominated by the opposition as Prime Minister (just released from prison by supporters, where he spent three of the eleven years appointed by the court for the 2013 attempt to take the Governor of the Issyk-Kul region Emilbek Kaptagayev as a hostage).

Another day passed, and the parliament again approved Sadyr Zhaparov as Prime Minister, the president resigned. Kanatbek Isayev, who became the speaker of the parliament a couple of days ago (in the wake of protests), begged the president to withdraw his resignation in order to stabilise the situation in the country, but Jeenbekov still left his post. Isaev became (under the constitution) acting president for a few hours. However, he almost immediately refused to perform the duties of the head of state, and the status of acting president passed to Sadyr Zhaparov.

It seems that the revolutionary swing has stopped and Zhaparov has defeated all opponents. But I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.

So far, he has passed only the simplest stage — the concentration of formal power in his hands in the face of a fragmented opposition and the loss of control over the situation by the president. Now this power must be legitimised and consolidated. Few people in the recent history of Kyrgyzstan have managed to do this.

For a long time, almost 15 years, Askar Akayev ruled the country. Almazbek Atambayev did not voluntarily run for a second term. The other heads of the Kyrgyz state were forced to leave their posts ahead of schedule (Bakiyev, Jeenbekov) or, as interim president Roza Otunbayeva, to hold an election for a legitimate head of state under the pressure of popular protests.

The Kyrgyz political regime can be described as the most democratic and most unstable in the former Soviet Central Asia. Compared to what is regularly happening in Bishkek and the regions of Kyrgyzstan, the authoritarian thrones of their neighbours look like a standard of stability (despite the fact that they periodically have riots on social, ethnic, and clan grounds).

It could be said that this is the legacy of a democracy that does not take root in an alien society. But I must say that the Kyrgyz presidents did not suffer from special democratic sentiments, and each sought to strengthen their personal power. However, when it seemed that the main problems were solved and the situation was stabilized in earnest and for a long time, Bishkek was suddenly covered with a rebellious street, and the next candidate for authoritarian leaders found himself in retirement or in exile.

As I have already noted in one of my previous materials, the need to maintain a balance of interests between clans plays a serious role. But, in theory, Kyrgyz democracy should help maintain this balance to a greater extent than the surrounding authoritarianism. At the same time, to a greater or lesser extent, tribal remnants are characteristic of all Central Asian states.

To the least extent — for Uzbekistan, but this does not mean that they are not there in principle.

The Kazakh Zhuz and their constituent tribes and clans represent an even more diverse and difficult to systematise picture than the Kyrgyz clans and tribes. Despite the fact that, knowing perfectly well who is related to whom and which family is historically older and belongs to the older tribe, even the inhabitants of these states themselves can never say exactly how the current political clan balance develops.

The fact is that while maintaining a strict hierarchy, which has a significant impact on personal and marital relations in the province, the clans in the capital are extremely politically plastic and easily move from one side to the other, only to then make another transition.

Almost all the republics of Central Asia, even those that put a lot of effort into 100% mono-ethnicity, have compactly living national minorities that gravitate to neighboring states and are ready, under favorable circumstances, to force pressure on the authorities. In the Fergana Valley, where the borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan converge, the mix is eerie, and the atmosphere is constantly heated.

At least in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, as in Kyrgyzstan, there are serious contradictions between the north and south of the countries. In Tajikistan, in the early 90’s, they resulted in a civil war, stopped only by the 201st Russian division, now turned into the 201st Russian military base.

By the way, unlike Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the territories of which there are no Russian military facilities, Kyrgyzstan has four of them (the 999th air base in Kant, the 954th naval weapons test base in Karakol, the 338th naval communications center, and the seismic station working in the interests of the strategic missile forces).

Everything seems to be the same as everyone else, but it is Kyrgyzstan that is a protected zone of constant coups. At the same time, it is difficult to call it an unstable state in principle. Just in terms of stability of domestic and foreign policy, it will give a head start to any neighbor (and not just a neighbor).

Under these conditions, coups have to be considered as one of the mechanisms for balancing the Kyrgyz domestic policy, returning it to a state of static equilibrium after the latest president’s distortions. These are conservative pseudo-revolutions, which would be more accurate to call counter-revolutions.

The Kyrgyz as a people were formed in the course of the interaction of different ethnic and multicultural tribes. Until now, three important components can be distinguished there: two nomadic (Turkic-Mongolian tribes) and a sedentary autochthonous population. This led to a certain dualism of the emerging state.

The sedentary population was interested in a strong central government. Nomads, when creating states, historically gravitate towards a loose tribal confederation that provides a peaceful redistribution of tribal nomads and joint protection from external threats.

This dualism has survived to this day in the confrontation between the developed Kyrgyz urban culture and the clan-dominated province. The city has traditionally been interested in a strong central government. The local bureaucracy is ready to assist at least the establishment of presidential authoritarianism, at least a rigidly centralized parliamentary republic with a strong Prime Minister at its head.

The province is interested in a less rigid and centralised structure that allows it to respond flexibly to the changing inter-clan balance and quickly restore balance.

As soon as a new president is established in power, he falls under the dominant influence of the city bureaucracy. It is its main support, and it moves each successive head of state in the direction of establishing as rigid a vertical as possible. But the clan structure of society has not been canceled.

Therefore, members of the presidential clan, as well as representatives of clans that are currently weak, receive an advantage in appointment to office. Appointments of representatives of weak clans (all Kyrgyz presidents raised their successors almost from scratch) should prevent a common clan unification against the only ruling presidential clan.

For the time being, the system works. But then the weak, who have received significant posts in power, become stronger and begin to dream of a new redistribution of bureaucratic “nomads” in their favor.

From the point of view of nomadic thinking, such a redistribution in the new conditions is fair. Circumstances have changed, I now have more people and livestock than my neighbor, which means that the land should be redistributed in my favour. But state power is not a nomad and does not lend itself to the traditional rules of redistribution. This causes an instinctive (sometimes unconscious) protest.

For example, presidents are accused of appointing their relatives to parliament and conferring scientific titles on them, but this is done by people who do the same thing, only on the floor below. In other words, they are looking for a logical justification for an instinctive protest. This may also be “unfair elections”. Not rigged, but unfair.

The authorities are not even always accused of faking something. It simply did not ensure a “fair” distribution of votes, and therefore a “fair” division of bureaucratic “nomads”.

This contradiction cannot be overcome. Nomadic thinking considers bureaucratic positions as much an element of feeding as nomadism or cattle. At the same time, bureaucratic thinking considers the same position as an element of a system that works according to certain rules, which is not entered by outsiders.

However, until now, “outsiders” have constantly and successfully invaded the Kyrgyz political system. Askar Akayev ruled Kyrgyzstan for quite a long time and successfully only because he led a country that had barely emerged from the Soviet past, which had firmly hammered into its head that it was impossible to rebel against the authorities.

The second point of support of his rule was friendly and family ties with the authoritative President of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Over time, both of these points of support weakened, and the overthrow of Akayev, like all subsequent Kyrgyz “revolutions”, took place in a matter of days and without apparent great effort.

Almazbek Atambayev tried to build an alternative democratic, close to the early Soviet, management system. He handed over the presidency to a trained successor, and he moved to the position of party leader, planning to exercise control over state power at the expense of party structures.

He committed the deepest error of mistaking the effects for the cause. In a non-ideologised, multi-party, quasi-democratic state, control of the ruling party does nothing. In the USSR, the sacredness of power was hidden in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and “putting aside a party membership card” meant simultaneously parting with a political position.

While in modern post-Soviet states, it is not the party membership card that sanctifies presidential power, but the president automatically makes to rule the party that he supports. Therefore, as soon as Atambayev tried to lead Jeenbekov from party positions, the latter first took deadly offense at him for violating the rules of the game, and then put him in prison.

Jeenbekov himself lost power as a result of a parliamentary election, during which the political balance between the center and the province was disrupted. Perhaps not the president himself, but his bureaucracy tried to get rid of provincial influence by allowing pro-presidential and pro-bureaucratic parties to enter the parliament (they even have similar names: “Kyrgyzstan”, “United Kyrgyzstan”, “Unity”, “My Motherland is Kyrgyzstan”) and weeding out all the others.

In fact, the current (not yet expired) Kyrgyz coup was not a struggle between the north and the south, or between pro-western and pro-Russian forces. This is a traditional province against a modernising center, a temporary alliance of diverse clan and political forces, and a growing central bureaucracy. Therefore, the struggle within the opposition began before a complete and unconditional victory was won.

In general, we must admit that from the point of view of creating a stable Kyrgyz state, the aspirations of the central bureaucracy are a progressive phenomenon. The president who manages (more by maneuver than by violence) to break the traditionalist opposition will go down in history as the real, not the nominal, founding father of modern Kyrgyz statehood.

By the way, this is why Russia (and other states) always support the Kyrgyz central government, easily switching from supporting the past to cooperating with the new one.

Let’s see if Sadyr Zhaparov will be able to hold on, and if so, for how long and what the results of his activities will be. So far, he, like all his predecessors, declares his intention to strengthen the central government of Kyrgyzstan, to build a strict management vertical. But for him, everything is just beginning.

In the end, new parliamentary and presidential elections must be held in a way that satisfies the main clan ambitions and restores the disturbed balance. The predecessors lost this fight. Each in their own way and each at their own time, but they lost nevertheless.

However, at least two of them still want to win back what was lost.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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