Protesters have captured key government buildings, including the Parliament house and the presidential office and the absconding President has accused the opposition of plotting a coup.
The story so far: Street protests erupted in Kyrgyzstan earlier this week following Sunday’s parliamentary election. The opposition blamed the votes were rigged as protesters captured several government buildings in the capital Bishkek, forcing the President, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, to flee the White House, the presidential palace, and plunging the country into chaos.
What happened in the election?
Kyrgyzstan, often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy, had seen violent anti-government protests in the past. In 2005 and 2010, sitting presidents were forced out of office in ‘Tulip’ and ‘Melon’ revolutions. The current protests began after early results of the October 4 parliamentary election were announced. Political parties in Kyrgyzstan should win at least 7% of the popular vote to enter Parliament. The results showed that only four parties managed to cross the threshold and of which, three were pro-government parties. The newly formed Birimdik (Unity) party emerged the biggest winner with 24.5% of the vote, while the Mekenim (My Homeland) Kyrgyzstan party got 23.88% and the Kyrgyzstan party 8.76%. The only opposition party that crossed the threshold was the nationalist Butun Kyrgyzstan, which won 7.13%. The remaining 12 parties received only around one-third of the ballots.
What’s behind the protests?
Even before the election, political fault lines were sharpening in Kyrgyzstan. The country’s main political party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), which had the most number of seats in the outgoing Parliament, stayed out of the election due to infighting between its founder and former President Almazbek Atambayev and the incumbent Mr. Jeenbekov. Mr. Atambayev, the one-time mentor of Mr. Jeenbekov, had clashed with the President publicly quite often after they fell out. Mr. Atambayev was jailed last year and sentenced on corruption charges. The former President’s sons had split with the SDPK and formed another party, the Social Democrats of Kyrgyzstan (SDK), a few months before the election. When most parties failed to make it to Parliament in Sunday’s election, the opposition, including the SDK, came together and launched the protests, accusing the government of vote buying. The protesters raided the prison where Mr. Atambayev was kept and freed him. They formed a Coordination Council to lead the “revolution”. The country’s Election Commission annulled the results, but the protesters continued.
Who is in charge now?
The protesters have captured key government buildings, including the Parliament house and the presidential office. President Jeenbekov’s whereabouts are unknown. In a video message from an undeclared location, he has accused the opposition of plotting a coup against his government. Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov resigned on October 5 amid the upheaval. The Mekenchil party has nominated its leader Sadyr Japarov, who was also released from prison by the protesters, to the post of Prime Minister. The Bishkek Mayor and Governors of several regions have also resigned. President Jeenbekov assumed office in November 2017. Constitutionally, he has three more years left in office. But the protesters demand that Mr. Jeenbekov resign.
Why is Kyrgyzstan important?
This landlocked Central Asian country that shares a long border with China has been key to the strategic plans of both Russia and China. Moscow sees the region as its backyard and plays hard politics to retain its influence. For China, the country, located at the centre of Eurasia, is a vital link in its Belt and Road Initiative. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping had visited Bishkek. China has built road and rail networks with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. During the early stages of the Afghan war, the U.S. had used Kyrgyzstan for refuelling and other logistical purposes. The U.S. base was shut down in 2014 by Parliament.
Where do the protests leave Russia?
Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and hosts a Russian air base. While Russia has cultivated strong ties with all political factions in Kyrgyzstan, radical political changes could throw up opportunities for its rivals. While it is to be seen whether President Jeenbekov, who is still legally in power, would be able to mobilise its authority, what’s evident is that the crisis poses an immediate foreign policy challenge to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Belarus, another country in Russia’s backyard with a pro-Moscow President, is already witnessing political turmoil after August’s Presidential election. In the South Caucasus, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet Republics, over Nagorno-Karabakh, risks dragging Russia into a conflict it doesn’t want. All three combined, Moscow’s attempts to build stronger political and economic integration with the former Soviet region are suddenly facing critical challenges.
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