Prison, Populist, President: Sadyr Japarov’s Rise to Power in Kyrgyzstan

Sadyr Japarov was officially elected as President of Kyrgyzstan on January 10, 2021, winning 80% of the vote in an election that saw a meager 40% voter turnout. Japarov’s sudden rise to the presidency is a shock to manyjust months earlier, he was serving an 11.5-year prison sentence for kidnapping. Though Japarov’s plans of extreme economic and political reform bring hope to many Kyrgyz people, the new president has begun following in the footsteps of past corrupt Kyrgyz leaders.

Japarov’s political career began in 2005 after the Tulip Revolution, which forced then-President Askay Akayev to resign and flee the country. Japarov was a supporter of the newly elected President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and headed the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption under Bakiyev from 2008 to 2010. 

In 2013, Japarov became the leader of a movement to nationalize the Kumtor gold mine. The open-pit gold mining site is owned by a Canadian mining company and is located in Japarov’s native region. Japarov accused the Canadian company of environmental violations and corruption. Japarov began to hold protests that were more radical than those of the past. At one rally, Japarov’s supporters locked a local governor, Emilbek Kaptagaev, in a car. Authorities decried this act as kidnapping, and a lawsuit followed.

After this incident, Japarov left Kyrgyzstan and spent the next three years traveling between Russia, Cyprus, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. After gaining supporters in rural and impoverished areas through his attempt to nationalize the Kumtor mine, Japarov used his travel to support Kyrgyz migrant workers ignored by the country’s government, thereby widening his base. Roughly 1 million Kyrgyz people work abroad, but they largely live in poor conditions, face harsh discrimination, and have no support from their home country. Japarov’s sudden interest and care quickly gained him many followers. 

In 2017, Japarov returned to Kyrgyzstan with the understanding that he would be immediately imprisoned. To many Kyrgyz people, this was the act of martyrdom—Japarov was a victim, just as they had been, of the corrupt, elite politicians who ran their country.

Japarov struggled psychologically during his three years in prison, having a failed suicide attempt and losing his parents and son. But he also gained an increasingly passionate group of supporters. Behind bars, Japarov penned political theories and aspirations for his country. As his writings circulated among his supporters, their dedication to him bloomed. Japarov’s political values aimed to return Kazakhstan to its roots, promote the wellbeing of its populace, and restore pride—values which aligned with the overwhelmingly underrepresented rural Kazakh people.

The Kyrgyzstan Parliamentary Elections were held on October 4, 2020. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov sought reelection, but his announcement of constitutional reform earlier in the year led to a decrease in popularity. Of the many parties running, several were accused of election fraud. Jeenbekov won the election, and within the coming days, allegations of vote-buying fueled violent protests. Protests gained control of a square in central Bishkek and seized multiple government buildings. As protesters pillaged, Sadyr Japarov’s supporters broke him and several other politicians out of prison.

Within a day, Prime Minister Kubatbek Bornov resigned, and Japarov was appointed to fill the vacancy. While many lawmakers are questioning Japarov’s legitimacy, Japarov himself claimed he was already “the legitimate prime minister” and that he had been appointed by the “parliament’s majority.” On October 15, Jeenbekov resigned as president in an attempt to quell the violence. Japarov, who was Prime Minister, declared himself acting president.

In January, an official election propelled Japarov to a landslide victory and prompted him to announce constitutional reform. The reform was supported due to the extreme trust of Japarov’s supporters. A draft of the reformed constitution decreed that the president would have the power to appoint and dismiss members of the government, chairman of state committees, and head of executive bodies. The ability to propose and approve bills consolidated this presidential authority; the president held all executive powers. 80% of voters approved this constitutional reform, likely due to the majority of voters turning out to support Japarov and believing that he will reform the constitution for the good of the people.

While many Kyrgyz people are pleased to see Japarov at the helm of their government, to many activists and lawyers, his victory can only mean harm. Japarov has already concentrated government power into his own hands at the expense of the law. Although Japarov has expressed his disdain for populists in the past, Saniya Toktogazieva, a Kyrgyz expert in constitutional law, has labeled Japarov’s tactics “the standard populistic tools that have been used by popular leaders… he plays on people’s emotion and does not back his claims with any facts.”

Kyrgyzstan had historically suffered a pattern of unrest following constitutional reform instituted by the President —as was the case in both 2005 and 2010 when national protests prompted the resignation of the presidency. Japarov’s presidency is off to an ill-fated beginning. Experts worry that Japarov’s decision of extreme constitutional reform will result in severe consequences — something a country with an unstable democracy and extreme division can not afford.

By Lorelei McCampbell