Kyrgyzstan is no Belarus: country's third revolution may hide age-old tribalistic power struggle

Kyrgyzstan is no Belarus: country's third revolution may hide age-old tribalistic power struggle
President Jeenbekov is a southerner who had a bitter falling out with his predecessor, northerner Almazbek Atambayev who was sprung from jail this week during the unrest. / Screengrab from WION.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty October 9, 2020

With various opposition groups in Kyrgyzstan claiming to have seized power following the political unrest triggered by disputes over Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary results, comparisons have sprung up between the ongoing protests in Belarus and the quick results demonstrations in the Central Asian nation have achieved.

To the untrained eye, the third Kyrgyz revolution since 2010 may appear to be part of a young nation’s ongoing struggle for democracy. But both the conditions that have allowed for Kyrgyzstan to seemingly overthrow the current leadership, headed by President Sooranbay Jeenbekov, and the political motivations behind the fast-paced uprising are far more complicated than they may seem at first.

While Bishkek is the capital, second city Osh is known as the "capital of the south" (Image: CIA World Factbook).

Pro-democracy protests mask a tribalistic political struggle between the country’s north and its south and the elites that represent both sides of the quarrel.

Political causes

“This is a conflict between two factions: the north and the south. This is how the entire elite of the country has [always] been divided,” Russian political analyst Aleksander Knyazev told Russia’s 360 news agency.

Knyazev went on to explain that the majority of the parties that cleared the 7% threshold to enter the Kyrgyz parliament were representatives of the south. The vast majority of the protesters that took over the parliament and security services buildings to form a Coordination Council and free ex-president Almazbek Atambayev and his allies were northerners, Knyazev noted.

It is possible that the vigilante groups that formed on October 6 and stormed a meeting of the parliament, disrupting its election of a new prime minister, northerner Sadyr Japarov, could have been made up of southerners. Japarov was freed from prison by protesters on the same day. Though it is also worth noting that the protester-formed Coordination Council rejected the parliament’s nomination of Japarov.

Historically, even the revolutions of 2005 and 2010 strongly contained these tribalistic tendencies. For instance, former Kyrgyz autocrat Askar Akayev, who was swept from power in 2005, drew his support-base from Kyrgyzstan’s north. The centre of power shifted to the south after the reins of control were taken over by Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Bakiyev’s demise came within five years, leading to northerner Almazbek Atambayev’s rise. His rise also brought about the formation of a parliamentary republic and a single six-year term for presidents.

Atambayev, whom Kyrgyz political analysts have previously compared to a would-be Deng Xiaoping of China and Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia, appeared to understand the intricacies of the North-South divide or at least claimed to do so. Atambayev originally supported Jeenbekov’s presidency due to this reason, as it would make sense to follow up a northern leader with a southern one to keep both Northern and Southern populations and their respective elites happy. Unfortunately, Atambayev’s desire to manage Jeenbekov’s presidential term may have backfired as Jeenbekov ultimately turned on Atambayev. This also led to a split within the Social Democratic Party (SDP), of which both Atambayev and Jeenbekov were members, and Atambayev's eventual arrest. 

Vote buying amid the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are widely seen as the main reason Jeenbekov’s allies ended up securing the majority of seats in parliament. Regardless of whether fraud was involved, the outcome overwhelmingly favoured the south and, thus, broke the balance that Atambayev once sought to maintain. The political causes that sparked the chaos, nevertheless, may not be the only grounds for inspiring thousands to rally and even flock into the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek from other regions with the express purpose of protesting. The government’s poor handling of the pandemic’s economic impacts might have had a lot to do with the matter. 

Economic causes 

Kyrgyzstan’s GDP is expected to fall by 10% due to the pandemic, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), United Nations Development Programme, and the Economic Policy Research Institute of the government. The forecasts followed a 5.3% decline recorded in the first six months of 2020. 

The same projections estimated that the ex-Soviet state’s unemployment rate will rise to 13.6% in 2020, assuming only conservative growth in labour supply. The report also noted a worst-case increase in labour supply would lead to the unemployment rate rising to 21% for those aged 18-65. These figures appeared amid lockdowns in both Kyrgyzstan and Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens engage in migrant labour. Kyrgyzstan, being among the most remittance-dependent countries, finds itself heavily reliant on the availability of work in Russia.  

It is also worth mentioning that 27% (1.6mn people) of the Kyrgyz population lives below the poverty line, according to 2018 data. COVID-19 lockdowns likely exacerbated this.

Mounting public anger at Jeenbekov’s rule amid hunger and joblessness is not a far-fetched probability. Insufficient government assistance to those affected by the lockdowns was sure to leave many feeling abondoned. One such example was demonstrated when the closure of Central Asia's largest bazaar, Dordoy, for over a month spilled over into hunger and poverty for approximately 50,000 Kyrgyz citizens.

This brings up another question: does the outcome of the third revolution look favourable for the already economically battered country? 

Foreign investment at risk

A wave of attacks on foreign-owned gold mines across the country amid the political unrest underlines a nationalistic streak, which may end up backfiring for the small nation. Gold mining stands as a primary source of foreign investment in the nation.

Kyrgyzstan is home to flagship gold mine Kumtor, operated by Centerra Gold, which is the single largest contributor to the Central Asian nation’s GDP at around a tenth of it. Kumtor’s offices were reportedly stormed by a group of 20-30 men on October 7, though Kumtor appeared to be one of the only gold mines left undisturbed by the political violence. The attacks are intertwined with long-running anger among Kyrgyz citizens that perceives foreign-owned entities as benefiting from Kyrgyzstan’s natural resources at the expense of the population and the environment.

Kyrgyzstan has also been developing the Jeruy project, expected to enter production this year with the goal of eventually reaching 5.5 tonnes of annual output. Jeruy’s gold reserves are estimated at 88 tonnes and ore mining had already started at the deposit. The Russia-owned Alliance Altyn, the operator of Jeruy project, set to be the country’s second largest gold producer, had to suspend works on the mine’s development on October 6 after intruders smashed and torched facilities at the site, the company said.

“The political upheaval increases the level of uncertainty for mining investors in Kyrgyzstan.” Florence Cahill, a senior analyst at the risk consultancy GPW, commented on an email to bne IntelliNews.

“Though the operations at Kumtor are far removed from the current unrest in Bishkek and other cities, the potential removal of Jeenbekov or other senior government officials means that there is less clarity about the future leadership’s view on foreign investment further down the line,” Cahill continued. “There was already growing resentment among segments of the local population towards foreign investors, particularly Chinese companies, which fuelled clashes between Chinese workers and locals at the Solton Sary gold deposit in 2019. A more nationalist-leaning government may seek to boost its credentials among the local population by demanding concessions from foreign mining companies, for instance through increased taxes or environmental fines—tactics used previously to put pressure on Canada’s Centerra Gold.”

Nationalism-driven threats to investment may not roll over well for the already coronavirus-weakened Kyrgyz economy going forward. 

Signs of destabilisation 

Kyrgyzstan’s political future is also uncertain. Jeebekov disappeared out of the public's view on the days of the riots, but reportedly spoke to some Kyrgyz lawmakers on October 8. He even discussed the possibility of his own impeachment amid disagreements between three main groups of protesters. Jeenbekov then followed up by declaring that he will resign once a new cabinet has been formed. Later on October 9, Jeenbekov declared a state of emergency tightening security until October 21 - this could be seen as a sign of a gamble to hold on to power, but it is also possible that he is genuinely trying to keep the situation stable while the transition process is still in full swing.

Kyrgyzstan’s continuous political uprisings have been previously ruminated on as signs of a “failed state”. The term comes loaded with geopolitical implications as it focuses on symptoms of instability. The legacy of the Soviet era has left Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s former colonial master, at the helm of ensuring order—at least, as long as the Kyrgyz leadership remains aligned with the Kremlin. 

All political factions in Kyrgyzstan have historically been loyal to Russia. The same case applies to all camps in the current political squabble. 

“Any political force that is decisive today [in Kyrgyzstan] is definitely loyal to Russia. This is an exclusively internal process, and it will not have any external significance,” Knyazev argued.

“All sides in Kyrgyzstan are broadly committed to strong ties with Russia,” Cahill commented in the email to bne IntelliNews. “The lack of a clear geopolitical angle means the Kremlin is highly unlikely to intervene publicly, just as Moscow has kept somewhat at arms’ length from the ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and Belarus mass protests. This suggests that Russia is wary of overreaching and alienating public opinion, as in Ukraine six years ago. The Kremlin will therefore be willing to allow domestic developments to play out so long as they do not threaten Moscow’s geopolitical alliances.”

This did not deter Moscow from announcing on October 8 that Kyrgyzstan has descended into chaos and that Russia has obligations under an existing security treaty to prevent the situation from totally breaking down. Russia’s interference would only make sense in the context of a brewing civil war between the north and the south. 

One potential red flag comes in the form of Melis Myrzakmatov, former mayor of the southern city Osh. Myrzakmatov returned to the city, also known as “the capital of the south”, on October 7 from Turkey, and spoke in front of thousands of supporters in the city square. In his address, he insinuated that certain interest groups were attempting to sow confusion in the country and urged the crowd to “resist forces interested in organising a civil war and dividing the country”, RFE/RL reported.

Destabilisation or not, things are looking grim for this so-called parliamentary representative democratic republic, that’s come to be known as an “island of democracy” in Central Asia’s sea of autocracies.