What problems does Kyrgyzstan face

Kyrgyzstan: Democracy or Chaos?

In Kyrgyzstan there is once again political chaos. After the parliamentary elections at the beginning of October 2020, the Central Asian state, which is considered the “island of democracy” in Central Asia, made headlines around the world. The images were similar to those in 2005 and 2010: nationwide protests, angry people, the storm of government buildings, looting, sometimes violence. The result was also the same: the overthrow of the president. For the third time in 15 years, the Kyrgyz head of state has been ousted by pressure from the streets.

Leonie Schiffauer holds a PhD in social anthropology and is a consultant for South, East and Central Asia at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

As a result, the question was raised in many media outlets whether one can speak of a third Kyrgyz revolution in light of recent events. This sounds like skepticism and this is entirely appropriate. Because while the “tulip revolution” of 2005 was still seen by many Western observers as a positive sign of democracy, the upheaval of 2010 was no longer so sure. And in view of the latest developments, one must finally admit that the “revolutions” in Kyrgyzstan neither bring about structural changes nor pave the way for a “better” democracy. Rather, the political overthrow has become the norm in the elitist power struggle in the country.

Regulation of democracy and market economy

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan appeared to be the only state in the region to embark on a democratic path in the 1990s. In contrast to its Central Asian neighbors, a political opposition and a civil society developed in Kyrgyzstan, freedom of expression and freedom of the press were recognized as values, and economic liberalization took place.

The first post-Soviet government under President Akayev received much praise for adhering closely to the proposals and demands of international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank in the restructuring of the system. In the opinion of the Akayev government, however, Kyrgyzstan had few other options, as it had neither raw materials nor access to foreign markets. So they wanted to achieve development through aid funds and investments from abroad. This required a rapid and radical liberalization of politics and the economy. As a result, Kyrgyzstan received the highest per capita development aid in the region, but Akayev was unable to attract large investors and initiate sustainable economic development.

In connection with the reforms, the socialist economy was shattered, the infrastructure deteriorated, and the energy supply became a problem. The production levels in agriculture and industry remained far behind those of the Soviet era and there was massive unemployment and poverty. Economic deregulation without sufficient institution building and in combination with a weak legal system allowed the administrative elite to acquire former state property and to monopolize parts of the economy.

Good contacts with people in positions of power or with political connections became extremely important at this time, e.g. when it came to questions such as land rights or loans for agriculture (Pelkmans 2005). It is still the case today that the citizens of Kyrgyzstan hope for infrastructural development for their region and access to resources through the support of "their" candidate. For those striving for political office, regional and family solidarity is central to gaining influence and mobilizing supporters (Radnitz 2006). Patronage relationships are therefore an important organizational principle of Kyrgyz politics.

Weakness of the parties, power of the president

Unlike in established democracies, the political parties in Kyrgyzstan are more formal institutions. The party system is highly fragmented (around 200 registered parties) and the parties are person-centered, often short-term associations. Parties are usually founded by the person who aspires to political office, but have neither a solid basis, nor functioning communication and coordination mechanisms and no social or ideological foundation. Accordingly, these are weak organizations that cannot develop a credible program and are built on relationships of patronage.

Due to the weak institutionalization of the parties, there is also mistrust of parliament. The reorganization into a parliamentary system after the constitutional amendment of 2010 also gives the president a lot of leeway to get his way and to make parliament docile. Despite the fact that all presidents have repeatedly asserted that they want to strengthen democracy and parliamentarism, the office remains endowed with enormous power (and accordingly also opportunities for abuse of power).

Akayev (president from 1991-2005) brought a large number of supporters to parliament, including seven of his immediate relatives (Mathijs 2005). In addition, the Akayev family controlled the most profitable companies in the country, making millions of dollars in the process. When Bakiev (president from 2005-2010) came to power, he promised a decisive fight against corruption. To this end, he set up a commission, which, however, quickly reached its practical limits as it threatened to put elites in a difficult position (Radnitz 2006). But despite his promises, Bakiyev also got his brothers and sons into important offices in record time, and his son Maksim in particular was accused of embezzling state funds in the millions (Temirkulov 2010). The inauguration of Atambayev (president from 2011-2017) in combination with the constitutional amendment, which should strengthen the parliament, gave cause for renewed hope. However, Atambayev was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2019 for several corruption cases, the main one being charged with freeing a criminal from prison during his tenure. His criminal prosecution was strongly politically motivated and the result of conflicts with his protégé Dscheenbekow (president from 2017-2020), whom he had helped to office.

The presidency in Kyrgyzstan offers a lot of power, but it is also risky. Both Akayev and Bakiyev had to flee the country as a result of the events of 2005 and 2010. Atambayev tried to organize an orderly withdrawal from office, but his plan did not work. During the recent events, he was released from prison by his supporters, but arrested again shortly afterwards. Dscheenbekov's future is still uncertain, but he has already announced his resignation. As a Kyrgyz president, one can hardly expect to remain in power until the end of the formal term of office: the overthrow of the president has become a political normal in Kyrgyzstan.

Political regionalism

Political support for the president (as well as for the parties) is not based on program, but on origin. There is a deep division in Kyrgyzstan between the north and the south of the country and the political power struggle is primarily between northern and southern elites. It is significant, for example, that the protests against Akayev, who comes from the north of Kyrgyzstan, first broke out in the south (in Jalal-Abad and Osh), while the protests against Bakiyev, who comes from the south, started in the north (Talas). In the parliamentary elections in October 2020, all four parties that managed to enter parliament were from the south - just like Dscheenbekow. This fact particularly upset the opposition parties from the north, which (as well as international observers) regard the elections as unfair and manipulated and was one of the main triggers for the recent protests in Bishkek.

There are many small groups, led by opposition politicians, civil servants, criminals and entrepreneurs who are currently mobilizing their supporters across the country and fighting for positions, access to economic goods, interests and rights - that is why the situation is so confusing. Japarov, who is expected to become the next president of Kyrgyzstan, was released from prison in the wake of the October protests and has taken the head of the state in record time. The former MP, confidante of Bakiyev's and staunch nationalist, sat for hostage-taking in connection with conflicts over the largest gold mine in the country. It is believed that he was able to prevail because he not only has the support of the north, where he comes from, but also has a tailwind from the south - thanks to his political ally Tashiyev and his role in the 2010 interethnic conflicts in southern Kyrgyzstan .

Poverty and injustice

Given the country's poverty, it is not surprising that the economic factor plays a large role in political action. Buying votes is widespread and also caused great outrage in the October 2020 elections. A connection can also be observed between economic crises, such as the explosion in gas and water prices in 2010 or the corona pandemic 2020, which have additionally fueled people's willingness to take to the streets (Matveeva 2010).

In the course of the protests in October 2020 there were also occupations and looting of gold mines and coal mines in various parts of the country, which underlines the importance of the economic factor. Little is known about the background of the insurgents, but in the last twenty years there have been repeated open disputes over these economic sectors, which are central to Kyrgyzstan. The local population complains that foreign investors are benefiting from the extraction of resources, while the regions remain empty. In addition, there is serious environmental damage and dangerous working conditions. The recent crisis was apparently taken as an opportunity to express the frustration in this regard or to secure a piece of the pie as well.

But there is also an active civil society in Kyrgyzstan that wants orderly conditions and a peaceful transfer of power. The "Drudschinniki" movement, an effective, voluntary vigilante group in Bishkek, which made it its task to counter looting and destruction as early as 2005 and 2010, is interesting here. In October 2020, they managed to organize themselves very quickly via social media to protect shops, government buildings and other public facilities. In connection with the corona pandemic, which hit Kyrgyzstan very hard, there was a significant movement of volunteers who, for example, assisted the doctors and organized ambulance transports. Civil society has the important function of providing aid where the state fails. So far, however, she does not have the power to profoundly change state structures.

What's next in Kyrgyzstan?

Presidential elections are scheduled for January 10, 2021. There are more than 60 candidates who would like to stand for election. Japarov is already the clear favorite and is campaigning by making all sorts of populist promises. Japarov also claims that he will crack down on corruption and organized crime, but due to his own past there are reasonable doubts that he will implement this. The short-term arrest of the politically influential criminal Matraimov or his announcement of an "economic amnesty" - the possibility of relieving himself by repaying illegally acquired money to the state - is interpreted by critics as a political show rather than a serious intention to fight corruption.

The draft constitutional amendment is currently being discussed very controversially in Kyrgyzstan. In essence, this would give the president more power again and give the state far-reaching opportunities for censorship. A referendum on this may also be held on January 10th. However, it is controversial whether the parliament is even legitimized to initiate a constitutional amendment after the cancellation of the election results of October 2020.


Kyrgyz democracy did not develop in an endogenous process, but was implemented in a rapid process due to external factors. In combination with rapid market liberalization, this was not a sustainable process - especially since Kyrgyzstan had no experience of its own statehood before 1991. Democratic institutions have been placed on top of existing structures, but have not replaced them. This is shown by the example of the parties, which formally exist, but are not based on content-related goals or class identities, but on personal loyalties and economic dependencies.

The three waves of protests that Kyrgyzstan has seen in the last fifteen years cannot be understood as a desire for liberal democracy in the western sense. They are the expression of a bitter power struggle between the ruling elite and the opposition elite in the absence of a functioning state and a fair distribution of resources. The uprisings can hardly be called "revolutions", since they did not bring about any structural changes. Rather, they have become part of a political normality, the character of which further undermines the democratic system and calls into question the role of elections.

Instead of complaining about the lack of democracy or drawing a paternalistic picture of Kyrgyzstan that has got stuck in the post-Soviet transition and has yet to learn "true" democracy, we should remember the extent to which the West is preaching about free markets contributed to the status quo. We should also consider how global economic liberalism offers Central Asian elites the opportunity to use tax havens for themselves or to invest in real estate in Europe. It is not only local peculiarities but also global dynamics that keep corruption and poverty in Kyrgyzstan (Heathershaw, Cooley 2017).


Heathershaw, John & Alexander Cooley 2017. Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia. Yale University Press

Matveeva, Anna 2010. Kyrgyzstan in Crisis: Permanent Revolution and the Curse of Nationalism. Crisis States Research Center, Working Paper no.79

Pelkmans, Mathijs 2005. On Transition and Revolution in Kyrgzystan. Focaal- European Journal of Anthropology 46: 147-57

Radnitz, Scott 2006. What Really Happened in Kyrgyzstan. Journal of Democracy 17 (2): 132-146

Temirkulov, Azamat 2010. Kyrgyz "Revolutions" in 2005 and 2010: Comparative Analysis of Mass Mobilization. Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity 38 (5): 589-600