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What Experts in Kyrgyzstan Think about Sadyr Zhaparov

If the current acting president leads the country, no positive reforms can be expected, analysts say.

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Sadyr Zhaparov (on the left) and now ex-president Sooronbai Zheenbekov. Author’s photo

Three days after the release Sadyr Zhaparov promised two things to his supporters in front of the government house: the incumbent president Sooronbai Zheenbekov will resign, and ex-vice chair of the customs house Raim Matraimov who became a symbol of corruption in the last few years in Kyrgyzstan will go to jail. One week later, Zheenbekov did resign, although he declared the previous day he would not do that until the repeated parliamentary election. Almost one week later, the media reported the news that seemed even more unbelievable – Raim Matraimov was detained. 

However, the house arrest of Matraimov by court order, which followed almost immediately after the detention, made many doubt Sadyr Zhaparov’s sincerity. The news that Matraimov announced his intention to cooperate with the investigation and reimburse 2 billion som (25 million dollars) to the state budget did not make it any better. In response to public perplexity, Zhaparov asked to support him to the end once people put trust in him.

Sweeping powers

The parliament approved 51-year-old Sadyr Zhaparov as prime minister on October 14, on the second attempt, when the deputies managed to secure a quorum. Two days later, after the newly elected Toraga of the Zhogorku Kenesh, Kanat Isaev, refused to act as president, although this is required by law, the powers of the acting head of state were vested in Zhaparov. The case is unprecedented in the history of Kyrgyzstan. In his message to the people the next day, Zhaparov thanked them for their trust and support and outlined the measures he intended to take in this post. The new head of state did not mention any extraordinary priorities. As a person convicted for, in his opinion, political reasons, Zhaparov spoke about the intention to restore justice in courts, about stopping the persecution of opponents of the government by law enforcement agencies, about the merciless fight against corruption, attracting investment and youth to governing the state and reducing the bureaucracy. He called the need to stabilise the economic situation in the country as a priority measure. In this regard, Zhaparov announced the beginning of “an audit of loans taken to fight COVID-19. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have main tasks that we have to solve in the coming days.”

Cholpon Dzhakupova. Author’s photo

In his speech at the ceremony of the resignation of Sooronbai Zheenbekov on October 16, the author of the current Constitution of Kyrgyzstan, Omurbek Tekebaev, noted that he felt no envy at the position of Sadyr Zhaparov and recalled that it’s only one step from love to hatred of the people who placed very high hopes on him. Cholpon Dzhakupova, the head of the Adilet Legal Clinic, also spoke about the clutch that Zhaparov is in now.

“Now he is under tremendous pressure from all sides,” Dzhakupova said. “On the one hand, the people expect a miracle from him, on the other hand, the economic situation is just awful, and thirdly, he has time limits to exercise his powers. Now he has no restrictions in his powers, he has full power, but there are time limits.”

The only question is how skilfully he can use these opportunities, Dzhakupova said. The difficulty, in her opinion, is that Zhaparov does not have a team that he could trust.

“The man was in prison, was freed and immediately sat down in the chair of the prime minister, and then the president. I think that for him it was a surprise to take such a high office. In addition to political motivation, he needs a good team,” director of Adilet legal clinic said. “New appointments raise many questions. Part of the society already has complaints. On the one hand, he needs to involve his supporters because he does not trust anyone. Or he really does not know the human capacity in civil service, etc. On the other hand, he has certain obligations to his supporters. Thirdly, he certainly must trust the people he appoints. But he doesn’t know as he was banned from politics. So, in this sense, he also has a tough situation.”

So far, Zhaparov, according to Dzhakupova, is demonstrating determination, but how far this will be brought to logical conclusion will largely depend on the staff he will appoint.

Photo courtesy of Asel Doolotkeldieva, Facebook account

“In addition to very tight deadlines, we do not know the preparedness of the Ministry of Health for the second wave of Covid-19, the number and the amount of damage of the mining facilities. Therefore, it is very difficult to say, given the existing budget deficit, what things he can do,” Doctor of Political Sciences Asel Doolotkeldieva said. “Of course, it would be very naïve to expect any reforms from him as no reforms can be carried out if no resources are available. If he can take the country through the winter and hold fair elections, it would be a great success.”

According to Doolotkeldieva, unlike Bishkek, where Zhaparov is expected to hold fair elections in the first place, the regions expect him to stabilise economy. The reasons why people supported Zhaparov, according to the expert, were in fact economic: the pandemic, lockdown, migrants who cannot return to work in Russia. In winter, all these problems will be much worse than they are now, she said.

“One of the main questions now is where to look for resources. They have already begun to address the international community, the European Union. Attempts to find external sources will continue, but foreign aid has already stopped in summer. Europe and the West suffered much from Covid-19. Therefore, I do not see how they can now significantly help Kyrgyzstan,” Asel Doolotkeldieva said. “China did not even want to postpone the payment of the debt, so it is also difficult to get help from them. Russia takes its time. It will be very difficult, there will be very few external sources of support and support will be minimum. Most likely, they will provide help only to hold elections. But it seems to me that we should not expect support of the budget and reforms this year.”

According to Doolotkeldieva, the only other source where the necessary resources can be found is the real, not stagy fight against corruption, the return of all withdrawn money from offshore accounts. It is difficult to say whether he has enough political will for this, the expert said. In response to his statement that the fight against corruption does not mean overcrowded prisons, or the permissiveness of law enforcement agencies, but understandable and enforceable laws that work the same for everyone, Dzhakupova said that the current legislation makes it possible to fight corruption in full.

“These powers were available with the previous presidents, the legislation does not limit this struggle in any way. The problem is in the staff. And in political motivation,” Dzhakupova said.

New face, old promises

Photo courtesy of Arzu Sheranova, Facebook.com account

Despite the fact that Zhaparov came to power through the demand of the protesters for new persons in the government, nothing new was heard in the address of Zhaparov to the people, Arzuu Sheranova, a candidate for Doctor of Political Sciences, said. He only listed long-standing problems. Summarising the results of the handover of power, Zhaparov, according to Sheranova, outlined a new political course or renewal in his recent interview with Al Jazeera, by which he understood the strengthening of the institution of presidency, the return to a single member constituency and the reduction of the role of parliament, as well as the introduction of a new body, Kurultai. Zhaparov assessed the experience of parliamentary system in Kyrgyzstan as hasty. According to him, the mentality and culture of the people have not yet matured. But this course of Zhaparov reminds rather a “return to the past system” than new reforms or a course of “renewal”, Sheranova said.

“Just before the early presidential and repeated parliamentary elections, the announced plans of Zhaparov, including the “high profile” arrest of Matraimov and the announcement of an economic amnesty to him, cannot but be regarded as an attempt to demonstrate Zhaparov as a strong and decisive head of state, which will give him and his team certain political bonuses before the elections. In other words, the pre-election campaign of Zhaparov’s team has already begun. The total tasks set by the government and short deadlines for their implementation based on the current realities: the political and economic crisis, budget deficit, pandemic and amid the return of migrants from the Russian Federation and other countries, sound more like election promises, and not like a specific government programme”, Sheranova said.

Chynara Temirova, Master of Public Policy at Oxford University, is even more categorical in her assessment of Zhaparov’s statements. According to her, Zhaparov is nothing more than a populist, skilfully using conflicts in society to become more popular.

“I don’t think he has any specific plans. He gained great popularity with his statements about the nationalisation of Kumtor. He said that the income from it is billions of dollars. It’s not about billions, but everyone remembered his words. When he says such things, it is alarming, attracts attention, causes anger. He recently said that there is no point in nationalising Kumtor because there is no longer any gold there. It also turned out to be not true. Recent analysis shows there is plenty of gold there. Now, when he cites some facts, I doubt them,” Chynara Temirova, an expert on public policy issues, said.

According to Temirova, Zhaparov’s promises remind of the marketing techniques that analyse the mood of people and give them what they want in a specific period of time.

“I don’t think he has a plan, a programme to reform something,” Temirova continued. “He talks only about things that are now very popular with the people. For example, people do not understand what parliamentary system is; they want to get back to the presidential form of government. Whatever discontent people might have, Zhaparov promises to do everything. He just kind of responds to the aspirations of the common people. People who understand politics and economics understand that in order to solve all these aspirations, an integrated approach is needed. These are complex decisions that are not always easy to explain to people. But populists like Zhaparov give people very easy solutions to problems.”

Aida Alymbaeva. Photo: Facebook.com

Political analyst Aida Alymbaeva shares the point of view of her colleagues, who did not notice special peculiarities of Zhaparov compared to his predecessors.

“We will not see reforms either in the security sector, or in the judicial system and in public administration in general,” Alymbaeva said. “For Zhaparov, the main thing now is to stay in power and then strengthen it. To this end, he proposed to amend the constitution. The current constitution grants enormous powers to the president, but Zhaparov wants to create a super-presidential form of government, making parliament even more amenable and possibly through the introduction of single member quotas. I think that the same thing that we saw after the previous coups will happen in Kyrgyzstan – the redistribution of property. There may be some cosmetic changes, high-profile detentions to simulate an anti-corruption campaign, but nothing more. Like what we saw recently – the detention of Matraimov. He will be forced to transfer a share of the property, that is, his funds will be redistributed, but unfortunately we will not see any prosperity, or reform of public administration under Zhaparov”.

A tandem

According to some political analysts, the tandem of Zhaparov and Tashiev, which worked harmoniously on the wave of public discontent after the October 4 parliamentary election, has a ten-year history of the two politicians together and will continue in the near future. According to Doolotkeldieva, their switching is possible if Zhaparov, for some reason, cannot run for president of the country.

“They share a lot of views, on some nationalist programmes, on constitutional amendments, it is strategically very foolish for them to become rivals now,” Doolotkeldieva said. “They are strong because they are now together, in tandem. If, for example, the constitution does not allow Zhaparov to be nominated for the presidency, Tashiev will most likely do it.”

However, the majority of political analysts agree that friendship in politics is the unattainable luxury.

“Churchill said that there are no lasting friends in politics, only lasting interests. It’s true for the time being. They had one interest, they wanted power – they got it. Now their interests, I think, will differ,” Chynara Temirova said. “In recent history, we have examples of how Atambaev and Zheenbekov quarrelled, although they seemed to be very good friends and experienced a lot together. They fought for power. I don’t think Zhaparov and Tashiev will work together so peacefully. On the one hand, Tashiev thinks that Zhaparov owes a debt to him. On the other hand, Zhaparov understands that he owes much to Tashiev, but this feeling usually does not lead to anything good. Because it is very important to be independent in politics. To promote your ideas. In the first one-two months, we will have very interesting political events with Zhaparov, Tashiev, presidential elections, we will have a constitutional reform, although many say it is unnecessary.”

Constitutional reform

The moratorium on constitutional amendments was in effect until 2020. Amendments may already be made, but “I would not recommend doing this,” Cholpon Dzhakupova said. According to her, this is not a document that can be amended to keep in with current political interests. Such attempts, according to her, can only lead to destabilisation of the situation in the country.

“Even now, we are constantly confronted with the fact that no document is perfect,” Dzhakupova said. “The current constitution went through all the mandatory procedures, there was a time for amendments, and we now face either gaps or contradictions in this document. For example, the speaker refused to exercise the powers of the president. But according to the constitution, if the president cannot fulfil his duties or in case of his resignation, the Toraga must fulfil them until the next election. Logically, he cannot refuse. There is no direct prohibition, but it is assumed. This is the problem of interpretation of the norms of the constitution.”

Meanwhile, on October 22, almost by an absolute majority of votes, the deputies of the 6th convocation overturned the CEC decision and postponed the date of the repeated parliamentary election. They promise to set the exact date before June 1, 2021. Before that, parliamentarians plan to hold a referendum on amendments to the Constitution. The question is about choosing a form of government in Kyrgyzstan – presidential or parliamentary. According to the law, only people’s representatives can initiate such amendments. Sadyr Zhaparov, who signed the bill to suspend the actions of two articles of the constitutional law, hurriedly announced that in fact the elections to the Zhogorku Kenesh will be held until March. The time was indicated “with time allowance”. The deputies explained their decision by the difficult socio-political, epidemiological situation in the country, but most importantly, by the lack of funds for the event, which will require about half a billion som of expenses. The exact date of early presidential election was determined by the CEC on Sunday, October 24 – January 10, 2021. Here, the parliamentarians decided not to deviate from law obliging to hold early presidential election no later than 3 months after the resignation of the previous president.

“The use of non-state agents of persecution to exert pressure against politicians will end on a sour note,” Dzhakupova warned. “Regardless of whether a person claims it or not, information about it leaks out. I am afraid that at such a pace, if we adopt the constitution or implement its norms under pressure, we will fall into the category of political outcasts. And this is not just undesirable for us, it is fatal for the state to be in complete isolation.”

Mistakes of Sooronbai Zheenbekov

The growing discontent with Zheenbekov as president ended up with mass violations at the October 4 parliamentary election. The method of solving problems without reacting to them, which Zheenbekov has demonstrated more than once during the three years of his presidency, here, according to respondents, served as a trigger for a joint mass protest. After the absolute inaction of the head of state in response to the facts of corruption at the customs revealed by journalists, Zheenbekov’s authority decreased even more during the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic in the country in summer, when all statements about readiness turned out to be another lie. It was then when mass calls for the impeachment of the president took place. However, no lessons were learned from this.

“Zheenbekov did not consider the importance of the pandemic,” Doolotkeldieva said. “The elections were just the outcome of all discontent. Unemployment, sources of income have disappeared, especially in villages. Since March, people have been accumulating their feelings, fair elections were their hope for a peaceful change of power, in a constitutional way. And when the last hope was taken away from them, we got what we got. Zheenbekov did not scale back his ambitions. People would have admitted it if only one ruling party won. But when three parties won, and the rest, so to speak, popular ones lost, it caused the discontent.”

“His arrogance has led to such obvious mass violations of citizens’ electoral rights,” Cholpon Dzhakupova said. “The authority always strives for violation, but some violations are so vicious and widespread that people cannot stand it. You need to know when to stop. Ideally, everything should be as it should be. But if you really cannot do otherwise and are trying to violate, there are limits. And, of course, he was indecisive. I believe that he had the opportunity until the beginning of October if he responded in a timely manner to signals from the civil sector, from the media, from participants in the electoral process. There was still an opportunity on October 3, 4, even 5, if he had reacted faster in the morning. He should have come to the negotiating table and started talking, he had the opportunity to turn back the course of history. He did not dare to do this most likely because he surrounded himself with a team of cowardly sycophants who were ready to leave.”

Personnel policy based on personal loyalty and not professionalism, according to Dzhakupova, resulted in Zheenbekov being completely alone at the “X-hour”. Lack of will in the fight against corruption, which was selective and more of a declarative nature, according to political analysts, put the lid on the fall of President Zheenbekov.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project

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