In Kyrgyzstan, Business Elites Buy Seats in Parliament

Today Kyrgyzstan voted in repeat elections after the previous results were cancelled due to protests. But new leader Sadyr Japarov’s promise to fix its corrupt politics masks his continuation of the neoliberal dogmas that made the ex-Soviet republic an oligarchs’ playground.

Members of a local election commission count votes as part of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary election in the village of Gornaya Mayevka, outside Bishkek, on November 28, 2021. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images)

Kyrgyzstan has had an eventful past thirteen months. Parliamentary elections on October 4, 2020, resulted in the victory of a collection of oligarchic and pro-government parties, provoking accusations of fraud and vote-buying. In the days after the ballot, protesters gathered in Bishkek, the country’s capital, and the situation soon spun out of control for the government. Demonstrators stormed the legislature, the presidential office, and several other state institutions, and freed several imprisoned politicians from detention.

As the days went on, protesters began forming groups coalescing behind various opposition figures bidding for power. Two competing factions of parliament held ad hoc sessions where each “appointed” its own prime minister. The one who emerged victorious was Sadyr Japarov, one of the politicians who had been freed from prison just days earlier. Japarov, who had been serving a sentence for supposedly kidnapping a regional governor during protests against a gold mine in 2013, was formally elected prime minister on October 14, 2020, and just a day later assumed the role of acting president when incumbent Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned.

Japarov has dominated Kyrgyz politics for the past year now, winning a presidential election in January without any serious competition, and passing through referendum a new constitution that limits the power of parliament and puts more control in the hands of the president. His sudden consolidation of power and “populist” style have drawn comparisons — from commentators in domestic left and liberal circles and international liberal media outlets — to various right-wing authoritarian world leaders, expressing concerns that he could move the country from a bourgeois electoral democracy to the authoritarian strongman system seen in Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors.

With last year’s results canceled after the protests, today, November 28, Kyrgyz citizens went to the polls for fresh parliamentary elections. With the strength of parliament limited after the new constitution was passed, these elections don’t matter as much as they did before, and pro-Japarov parties appear to have won. Yet some opposition forces also competed, including longtime reformists and some holdovers from the old oligarchic parties.

Mostly absent from the elections, however, was the socialist left, which occupies a marginal space in the Kyrgyz political sphere.

From the 2010 overthrow of right-wing president Kurmanbek Bakiyev to the 2020 protests, the country was governed by the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), a big-tent party of professionals and activists that had been prominent in the opposition under Bakiyev. Its rule did somewhat slow the pace of pro-market reforms but retained the neoliberal governing ideology that has dominated since the fall of the Soviet Union. A COVID-19 recovery package passed under the SDPK in April 2020, entitled “Towards New Economic Freedom and Development,” limited government spending, cut taxes, privatized state assets, and further liberalized markets.

Inequality is a significant issue, especially between the capital and the rest of the country. In 2018, the Kyrgyz government estimated that 97.4 percent of households in Bishkek had access to permanent sewage systems, while the overall average for the country is 37.7 percent. In 2019, 11.9 percent of the population in Bishkek lived below the national poverty line of $3.20 per day, while in some regions it was as high as 32 percent. This situation has been dramatically worsened by the pandemic, with estimates suggesting it’s now at about 30 percent nationwide. The country has also suffered from a slow recovery from the pandemic, with the World Bank projecting 2.3 percent GDP growth in 2021. Japarov has been able to tap into frustration over this inequality, and most of his initial support base came from outside the capital.

Kyrgyz politics is dominated by personalities and business interests, with explicit political programs mostly irrelevant and articulated working-class politics nonexistent. None of the parties have strong, loyal support bases. The Ata-Meken Socialist Party has been a fixture in parliament since 2010, and advocates a broadly center-left, pro-welfare stance, but, similar to its rivals, is also reliant on personality politics. In this election, Ata-Meken is allied with the smaller neoliberal Reforma party.

Outside of parliament, one of the more prominent leftist groups is KYRGSOC (short for Kyrgyz Socialists), a relatively new Marxist organization that aims to spread leftist ideas through its media and in-person organizing, including with labor unions.

KYRGSOC is critical of Sadyr Japarov, as well as the collection of liberal and oligarchic forces that oppose him, and instead seeks to rebuild Marxism as a political force in Kyrgyzstan. For them, Japarov is a continuation of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the neoliberal president who was overthrown in 2010 and of whose party Japarov was himself a member. Like Bakiyev, Japarov uses nationalist rhetoric while hollowing out the public sector and gathering power for himself.

KYRGSOC did not endorse any parties or candidates in the elections, telling Jacobin, “After the adopted constitution, parliamentary elections are no longer important; the legislature is devoid of power and essentially has merely the right to an advisory vote. The value of the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament] is now only in getting a deputy mandate to silence a competitor or secure your business.”

Oligarch Politicians

Kyrgyzstan’s rudimentary party system makes it hard to build a socialist party. Unlike many countries, it hasn’t gone through the gradual development of liberal democracy formed by the clash of competing interests — the workers against the bosses, peasants against the state, etc. Rather, the post-Soviet system has produced groupings without a clear political basis, which drives voter apathy and strengthens the effectiveness of tactics like vote-buying.

Oligarchs are directly involved in politics, either through financing political parties or directly serving in parliament themselves, as was the case of Ömürbek Babanov, the billionaire founder of the Respublika party, who was prime minister from 2011 to 2012. The winning parties in the 2020 election also had close ties to oligarchs, the most notable example being Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, backed by the wealthy Matraimov family. Growing anger at elite influence over politics helped motivate last fall’s protests and is the reason anti-corruption messages from figures like Japarov can be so persuasive to people looking for an improvement to their situation.

This class of wealthy elites was created in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, when Kyrgyzstan underwent mass privatizations. From 1992 to 1993, 33 percent of state assets were sold off, particularly in the industrial, agricultural, and service sectors. In those two years, 51 percent of public housing units, numbering more than 126,000, were privatized. Privatization continued in the 2000s under Bakiyev, who sold off state electric companies in a crooked deal to put money in the pockets of him and his allies.

The new constitution does nothing to combat elite influence in politics and may even make the problem worse. It creates thirty-six single-member districts for the parliamentary elections (the previous system was based on party lists elected through proportional representation). This change thus allows for the election of independents, also making it easier for individual oligarchs to buy themselves a seat in parliament. Voters looking for reform are susceptible to falling for candidates who make nebulous promises of change or an end to corruption, but either willingly go along with the neoliberal system or get co-opted into it.

Despite these issues, the presidential system created by the new constitution easily won the approval of voters in a referendum last January. The parliamentary system, created in 2010, failed to deliver on the promise of giving people a better say in politics. Japarov took advantage of this and the fact that parliament is widely — and correctly — perceived as corrupt to push the presidential system, with him at the helm.

KYRGSOC believes that Japarov’s presidency threatens to develop into a “bourgeois reaction” that will clamp down on civil liberties, free speech, and labor organizing. They characterize the choice between the systems as “essentially a choice between a bourgeois democracy and a bourgeois dictatorship. The expectation that a bourgeois dictatorship will ensure a better life for the working masses has no basis in fact. Nor will a bourgeois democracy provide it.”

Besides the state of the political system, prospects for the Left also depend on the state of the organized labor movement, which in Kyrgyzstan is in a formative stage. The Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan (FTUK) claims roughly 740,000 members as of 2018, and is a somewhat influential force in a country with a population of around 6.6 million. However, the FTUK has been criticized for trying to monopolize the labor movement. Earlier this year, following pressure from the International Labour Organization and domestic unions like the Mining and Metallurgical Trade Union, president Japarov vetoed a bill passed by parliament that would have established the FTUK as the only labor federation that unions could legally affiliate to, in contravention of international labor law.

Additionally, an estimated seven hundred thousand Kyrgyz citizens live as migrant laborers abroad, mostly in Russia, further compounding barriers to organizing. When such a large segment of the population is forced to live abroad and send back remittances, often in precarious conditions, working-class power is diluted.

With all this in mind, KYRGSOC is not looking to form a party any time in the near future, preferring for the moment to focus on the fundamental task of spreading Marxist ideas in the hope of laying the groundwork for a movement. Polls show a significant majority of the population believes that the fall of the Soviet Union caused more harm than good. Yet people’s connection to the early twentieth-century revolutionaries who transformed the country has been lost, and the nostalgia lacks a focused political expression.

Resource Imperialism

Some figures in Kyrgyz politics have pushed at least partial progressive measures. Japarov has been a longtime advocate for the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, the same one that he was imprisoned for protesting against in 2013. Located in the northeast of the country, in the Issyk-Kul region, Kumtor is one of the largest mines in Central Asia, supposedly accounting for up to 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP in some years. Opened in the 1990s, the mine was owned and operated by Canadian mining corporation Centerra Gold.

Earlier this year, parliament passed a law bringing Kumtor under state control, the culmination of Japarov’s oldest political promise. Opposition to Centerra’s operations was driven by multiple factors, from corruption issues to the lack of benefits for local communities, as well as environmental concerns. The company has been responsible for a series of wrongdoings catalogued by MiningWatch Canada, including years of polluting waterways and the abuse and intimidation of protesters, in coordination with the state. Over the past several months, numerous Kyrgyz politicians, including two former prime ministers, have been arrested as part of a state investigation into corruption and illegal enrichment surrounding the mine.

Centerra, which considers the takeover illegal, is now seeking penalties against the Kyrgyz government in a US court, as well as taking it to international arbitration under the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law. In September, Kyrgyzstan was barred from trading on the London gold exchange. Centerra alleges that the government is mismanaging the Kumtor mine and that production is falling.

The validity of Centerra’s claims is difficult to ascertain. What is for sure is that its management of the mine wasn’t in the interests of the Kyrgyz people. Abuse of protesters and the environment is par for the course for Canadian mining companies. From the Dominican Republic to Eritrea and almost anywhere else in the world, these companies are involved in horrific crimes, usually in conjunction with local security forces. In the rare cases that the victims get any kind of justice, compensation is usually insignificant.

All this is backed by the Canadian government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a recent Freudian slip at a talk when he said, “Canada is a major oil and gas producing company — uh, country.” He could have added mining to that, too. Over half the world’s publicly traded mining companies are listed in Canada, and the industry is a significant part of the economy. Protecting Canadian resource imperialism is a big focus of the country’s foreign policy and, unsurprisingly, attempts to stop abuse are half-hearted at best. In its last term, the Trudeau government created a corporate watchdog to monitor Canadian mining practices, the Canada Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), but rather than acting as a check on mining companies, CORE has won praise from them while receiving criticism from activists and NGOs for its lack of effectiveness.

KYRGSOC is supportive of the nationalization of Kumtor. It initially believed Japarov wouldn’t follow through with this promise, and hasn’t been enthusiastic about the context in which it was ultimately carried out. At the same time as the nationalization, the Japarov government has also been selling off state assets, including communications and energy infrastructure, under the justification that “the private sector is a more effective manager than the state.” While using the popular issue of the Kumtor mine to energize supporters, Japarov does what all good neoliberals do and promotes private ownership as the solution to state corruption and mismanagement, rather than genuinely reforming the public realm.

The Kyrgyz left faces an immense challenge in trying to change the country. But there’s no reason to be entirely pessimistic. The 2020 protests show that people are still capable of mobilizing in the streets and that politicians can be held to account by means other than the ballot box. Recent years have seen an upsurge of social unrest in countries like Lebanon and Chile, where neoliberalism has also run rampant for decades.

There is clearly discontent in Kyrgyzstan — and right now it’s being channeled into Sadyr Japarov’s promise to sweep away the old, corrupt political class. But under other conditions it could be channeled differently. The project for socialists will be to continue to organize and disseminate information at the ground level to plant the seeds of change. As the KYRGSOC manifesto concludes, “We affirm that the history of a truly free Kyrgyzstan is a socialist history. It’s time to continue it!”