From, Oct. 6, 2020, Condensed text:

On the evening of Oct. 5, the post-Soviet space got another hotspot: After dirty parliamentary elections, violent mass protests broke out in Kyrgyzstan. . . .

Why did the protests start?

Elections to the Kyrgyz parliament (Zhogorku Kenesh) took place on Oct. 4. Out of 16 parties, only four managed to make it past the 7% election threshold.

Birimdik [Unity] got 24.9% of the vote. This party supports current President Sooronbai Zheenbekov (who is not a member of any party, but his brother was elected to parliament on the [Birimdik] ticket). The party was formed just a year ago, after the collapse of the Social Democratic Party, which had backed the president. Birimdik is a center-left party that supports Eurasianism.

Shortly before the elections, party chairman Marat Amankulov created a stir with a speech where he stated that the country is “tired of sovereignty” and it’s time for it to come home – apparently he was referring to joining Russia. An initiative group even demanded that Amankulov and the entire party be disqualified from the elections because of that statement.

Mekenim Kyrgyzstan [My Homeland Kyrgyzstan] got 24.27% of the vote. It is a moderately liberal party, but just as with Birimdik, most of its candidates are former social democrats. Most importantly, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is essentially the party of the Matraimov clan – the most influential clan of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Four of the Matraimov brothers hold or have held high-ranking posts within the government. Raiymbek Matraimov, nicknamed “Million Raiym” in Kyrgyzstan, served as deputy chairman of the country’s customs service. In fall 2019, Radio Azattyk (Kyrgyzstan’s version of Radio Liberty) published the results of an investigation into Raiymbek’s involvement in large-scale corruption schemes: He helped launder about $700 billion, and personally oversaw Kyrgyzstan’s entire trade turnover with China. His three brothers are also influential politicians and officials. Iskender Matraimov is a deputy for the ruling Social Democratic Party. Until 2019, Islambek [Matraimov] served as head of internal investigations for the financial police, while Tilekbek [Matraimov] was head of the Osh Province administration, the Matraimovs’ home base.

The Kyrgyzstan Party received 8.9% of the vote. This is a moderate nationalist party that was in a coalition with the Social Democrats during the last convocation [of parliament].

Butun Kyrgyzstan [United Kyrgyzstan] got 7.25%. This is a centrist party, as well as the only party to make it into parliament that actually opposes the president. Butun Kyrgyzstan was created in 2006 and ran in elections twice, but every time, it just fell short of the election threshold. Party leaders accused electoral commissions of fraud. In the latest elections, the party list included officials and lawmakers opposed to the president, as well as a police officer who is famous for his anticorruption investigations.

Preliminary election results sparked fury among Kyrgyz citizens.

First, the election campaign was incredibly dirty. Both of the [leading] parties used administrative clout and bought votes. The Kyrgyz electoral system has a lot of flaws. According to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), three voters managed to vote a whopping 22 times on election day – naturally, in exchange for compensation from one of the parties. Ironically, the costly biometric voter identification system designed to make elections more transparent made such manipulations possible.

Second, even though three out of the four parties that made it into parliament are new, most deputies have retained their mandates by moving from the [various] collapsed parties to Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan. The previous convocation of the Zhogorku Kenesh was widely criticized for its clan-based structure, as well as for simulating democratic processes and showing strong authoritarian tendencies. According to an investigation by Kloop, a Kyrgyz online publication, most of the time deputies from both the ruling coalition and the de jure opposition factions unanimously supported even the most controversial legislation, especially if it was supported by the president.

Third, besides Butun Kyrgyzstan, not a single opposition movement made it into parliament. At the same time, the 12 parties that failed to meet the threshold got a third of all votes. One of the losers was the liberal and anticorruption Reform party, which advocated adopting a new constitution. This is the first time in Kyrgyzstan’s history that a party used crowdfunding to collect campaign contributions, raking in $67,000 – a huge sum by Kyrgyz standards. But it officially received 1.6% of the vote (32,000 votes).

Fourth, frustration with Kyrgyz leadership has been brewing in Kyrgyzstan since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the country much harder than other Central Asian states. In June, the authorities lifted the stringent quarantine introduced in March, and the infection rate started to rise almost immediately, peaking on July 22 (more than 1,100 new cases). Kyrgyzstan’s health care system found itself on the verge of collapse, and only a mass volunteer movement managed to save it. According to forecasts, the country’s economy will contract by 5.3% over the course of the year.

Fifth, popular discontent with Zheenbekov is further compounded by his conflict with his predecessor, former president Almazbek Atambayev, as well as the never-ending conflict between Kyrgyzstan’s northern and southern clans. Northerner Atambayev, who ruled the country from 2011 to 2017, was the first president who managed to strike a delicate balance between southern and northern elites. He appointed Zheenbekov, a southerner, as his successor, and the latter was elected head of Kyrgyzstan in 2017.

Atambayev wanted to remain a gray cardinal under Zheenbekov, and he managed to do so at first. However, in 2019, the new president rebelled against Atambayev. He purged the state apparatus of [Atambayev’s] people, and the former president was charged with corruption. This split the Social Democratic Party and destroyed the clan balance created by Atambayev: Southerners once again got almost complete control over the government and started to push through initiatives favorable to them. All four parties that managed to make it into parliament in these elections represent various groups of southerners.

At the same time, despite falling from grace and being charged with corruption, the ex-president remains a very popular leader, especially in the north. When Kyrgyz security forces tried to arrest [Atambayev] in August 2019, his supporters from all over the country went to his mansion and managed to hold off a siege by special forces for more than a day [see Vol. 71, No. 32, pp. 16‑17]. On June 23, Atambayev was sentenced to 11 years 2 months in prison.

What happened during the protests.

On the evening of Oct. 5, soon after the preliminary election results had been announced, several thousand protesters gathered in downtown Bishkek. They were mobilized by the parties that failed to make it into parliament, and which (despite significant differences in their views) agreed to work together to demand a second vote.

The rally quickly escalated into clashes with police, who were pelted with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Soon, some police battalions began to side with the protesters. One protester died in the clashes; by Oct. 6, the number of those injured reached 686 people.

During the night, protesters broke into the White House, which is where the parliament and the presidential administration are located. The building was soon set ablaze. Another group of protesters broke down the gates of the State Security Committee (SSC), and forced law-enforcement personnel to release ex-president Atambayev and several other oppositionists from the pretrial detention center.

By morning, protesters had seized the buildings of the Internal Affairs Ministry, the SSC and Bishkek City Hall. They appointed Republic party leader Zhooshbek Koyenaliyev as “the people’s mayor,” and announced the formation of a new government and parliament.

This could have escalated into a violent revolution, but the country’s leadership agreed to make concessions. Zheenbekov called the protests a coup (a fair [assessment], given the protesters’ intention to create a new government), but also stated that he is open to dialogue with all political forces. He forbade the police to use lethal force and demanded that the CEC carefully review all complaints made by protesters, annulling the election results if necessary. The mayor of Bishkek, the heads of four of [Kyrgyzstan’s] seven provinces, a slew of local officials and the head of the state-run TV channel all resigned. Tilekbek Matraimov also lost his post.

What happens next?

On Oct. 6, the CEC annulled the voting results, and its members even discussed the possibility of dissolving the CEC. “I believe that we have discredited ourselves in this election campaign, so the best and most correct step in this case would be [for CEC members] to resign early,” CEC member Gulnara Dzhurabayeva told Novaya gazeta. A new election date will be set in the next two weeks, with elections taking place within no more than two months.

Right now, there is anarchy in the country rather than a duality of power. Security and law-enforcement officials have sidelined themselves from the political process, and are not hindering the parties that are leading the protests. Omurbek Suvanaliyev, first deputy Security Council secretary and the second candidate from Butun Kyrgyzstan’s party list, claims that right now he has de facto control of all security agencies in the country. The official government is keeping quiet, the parliament cannot meet due to lack of a quorum, and President Zheenbekov has disappeared completely; however, his younger brother, who is one of the leaders of Birimdik, held a rally in Osh, which is near their family home.

Opposition leaders have formed a coordinating council, headed by Butun Kyrgyzstan chairman Adakhan Madumarov. The council is working on forming an interim government: It has already appointed a prime minister, a head of the SSC, an internal affairs minister, a prosecutor general and several other top officials. However, for now, they lack access to governing mechanisms. In the regions, people are destroying administrative buildings, beating officials, and seizing and plundering gold mines.

Besides the annulment of the election results and the government’s resignation (albeit temporary), another major result of the protests is the release of Atambayev, who is likely to return to politics. The authorities got scared of large-scale support for the former president and changed his measure of restraint from jail to house arrest in his forcible release case. It’s quite possible that the politician will remain free. Atambayev’s son heads the Social Democrats party, which got 2.17% in the elections. If the ex-president returns to politics, this party could serve as his political platform. . . .

“The standoff between Zheenbekov and the groups he slighted, most notably Atambayev’s group, is just one chapter in this war of all against all,” says Carnegie Moscow Center’s Central Asia expert Temur Umarov. “A parallel struggle is taking place over just about every [government] post, every lucrative [state] agency and business asset, every post of mayor and township head. This manifold struggle for power and money, compounded by anger and resentment among ordinary citizens, is what makes up the motley fabric of Kyrgyzstan’s political life.”