Kyrgyzstan: October Revolution, Russia, and China

Mountain road through the pass. Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is an oft-overlooked  Central Asian nation with a tumultuous political past, and currently is facing another political crisis. It is situated along the western edge of China and has significant historical and political ties to Russia. Ergo, Kyrgyzstan’s current political developments are of great interest to both China and Russia, who will both likely seek to influence outcomes.

The October Revolution

In the past 15 years, there have been two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, the Tulip Revolution (2005) and the April Revolution (2010). Now it seems a third is unfolding: the October Revolution. During both the Tulip and April Revolutions, incumbent presidents were deposed by the might of the crowd, mass looting was prevalent, and some private businesses were ‘reclaimed’ by criminal groups. Additionally, the April Revolution spurred rampant ethnic violence throughout the nation. So far, the October Revolution has entailed much of the same. 

Following parliamentary election results from October 4, mass protests erupted across the Kyrgyzstani capital of Bishkek. The results of these elections left many presuming unfair influence by the incumbent President Jeenbekov. Out of 16 parties aiming for parliamentary representation, only 4 surpassed the necessary threshold, 3 of which are closely associated with the President. On the night of October 5-6, crowds swelled and stormed the parliament building, known as the White House, leaving an estimated 700 persons injured and the government in disarray. Chaos has ensued.

Fraudulent Elections

On October 6, the Central Election Commission simply stated that the results of October 4 were void and that there would be a rerun of elections. As a result, Prime Minister Boronov and the parliamentary speaker Jumabekov stepped down (Boronov has yet to do so officially). Meanwhile, the President’s office assured the media that Jeenbekov remains in power and control, an evermore doubtful claim. Jeenbekov personally claimed that these protestors are using ‘illegal forces’ to stage a coup, and urged rival parties to have their supporters stand down. This has not occurred.

Despite efforts to stomp out insurrection, protests led to the resignation of the Mayor of Bishkek and three regional representatives (Naryn, Talas, and Issyk-Kul). Leading to self-appointed or mob-appointed leaders in many local roles across the country. October 6, also saw the creation of the Coordination Council (CC), an amalgamation of opposition parties, calling for a new government following the ‘dirtiest’ elections in the nation’s history. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) seemed to agree with the CC, stating that the results were in fact ‘tainted’, favouring establishment parties with Russian ties.

Worrisome Situation

Another of the controversial election’s ‘losers’, the Mekenchil party, has come to the fore. Early on October 6, protestors freed Sadyr Japarov, a founding member of the Mekenchil opposition party, and by the evening the parliament had proposed him as interim Prime Minister during an extraordinary session. The party denounced the CC, stating that the group sought to stray from proper legal proceedings, a sentiment reiterated by the Russian embassy.

In response to Japarov’s appointment, on October 7, the People’s Coordination Council (PCC) was founded. The PCC, with leader Maksat Mamytkanov, seek Japarov and President Jeenbekov’s disposals and adoption of a new constitution. October 8, President Jeenbekov spoke with the newly appointed speaker, Abdyldayev, via telephone to discuss returning the country to a ‘lawful’ state. While a presidential spokeswoman added that Jeenbekov’s voluntary resignation was not currently on the table. These are only the broad strokes of a constantly evolving political situation. What can be ascertained is that it is unlikely that President Jeenbekov has any real control over current developments. October 9, Jeenbekov stated that he would resign as soon as a new executive is established, suggesting the government should allow the people to choose a new cabinet. This phrasing is all unhelpfully vague, and when this new executive and cabinet appear is unclear. Jeenbekov is likely en route to exile happened to the two prior ousted presidents: Akayev in Russia and Bakiyev in Belarus.

Political upheaval is not the only concern brought on by these events, however. In the wake of clashes in 2010, some experts are worried that ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz peoples in the north and Uzbek peoples in the south were never resolved. Leading to the possibility of more ethnic violence soon as mobs install local leadership and domestic control of security falls by the wayside. Though the election results were more upsetting on a generational level (with most of the opposition candidates and support coming from the post-Soviet generation), ethnic tensions have lingered closely beneath the surface. Violence begets violence, regardless of source.

Furthermore, many have capitalized on the lack of control within Kyrgyzstan. Marauders have reportedly captured or vandalized several mines and processing plants across the country; these facilities consist of both state-run and foreignly owned enterprises. Without a legitimate head of state, it is unlikely that these facilities can be protected. Therefore, production at most mining facilities nationwide has ceased, and with it, the only industry that has consistently brought money to the impoverished nation.

Russia’s Role

Kyrgyzstan was formerly part of the Soviet Union, and since gaining its independence has remained close to Russia. Kyrgyzstan is home to a Russian air force base and Russian mining interests, and the establishment parties in Kyrgyzstan receive Russian support. With waning Russian funds to control the region and rising Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan, this could be a watershed moment for the post-Soviet space

As previously stated, the post-Soviet generation in Kyrgyzstan is largely responsible for recent upheaval and turmoil. As young people are seeking to distance themselves from the post-USSR politics they inherited and Russia, who they never knew as anything more than an ‘overbearing’ neighbour. Though this certainly has disturbed Moscow, it seems unlikely that there is anything Russia can do with an already fully booked diary. Belarus and the Armenia-Azerbaijan crisis surely have their focus and have tied up all of their regional political capital. 

That being said, there was a conversation between the State Committee for National Security and the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). This is not at all a surprising development, and likely is more indicative of Russia’s desire for stability for their own sake. Insofar as Putin will likely not be dead set on maintaining the regime itself, but rather focused on the maintenance of legitimate authority, indulgences can be bought later if need be.

China’s Chance

It is equally unlikely that China will involve itself in the nation’s politics directly, though they certainly have vested interest. Chinese officials have called for resolution of the current turmoil. Additionally, their want for the country to remain independent and free from foreign influence was expressed, more than likely a jab at possible Russian or American involvement. China has long been trying to crack open Central Asia but has been thwarted by a need for Russian consent. 

The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad, proposed over 25 years ago, has long been delayed and was beginning to move forward recently only with Russian support. Likewise, China has long been unable to utilise any route through the region to Europe, relying on Russian transport. This moment of Russian preoccupation may provide China with enough room to get its foot in the ‘Central Asian door’. Though there are no doubt heavy financial ties, with Beijing bankrolling many Central Asian projects, political clout has long rested in the hands of the Russians.

However, China may tread lighter than expected. Kyrgyzstan lies on the western edge of China’s ‘troublesome’ Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghur and other minority groups oppressed by Beijing. Alongside the Uyghur, an estimated 200,000 Kyrgyz in the region also face oppression. Kyrgyzstan has even been the site of violence that has flowed over the border from Xinjiang, forcing many to accept the reality of Beijing’s crimes unwillingly. Shared cultural and ethnic kinship with these groups in Xinjiang makes China’s actions difficult to reconcile, as nations like Kyrgyzstan hoped for Uyghur independence before a flood of Chinese investment drowned out these cries.

Conclusions and Telltales

The situation within Kyrgyzstan is fluid and nebulous, and it will stay that way until there is a widely legitimized group in power. It is unlikely that President Jeenbekov has much control at the moment, and it is extremely unclear who will rise to replace him given the fractured state of affairs. That being said to try to name his successor or the exact path the nation is on would be futile. 

The ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan should also be closely watched. If opposition groups (PCC, etc.) start to divide along north-south lines, with the city of Osh in the south being a strong indicator, there may very well be a recurrence of ethnic clashes.

Also, the control of mining facilities will likely provide a hint to which groups will gain political strength if a new government is formed. Newly ‘appointed’ local authorities who can reopen, secure, or repossess captured facilities will have secured a large bargaining chip.

Even if it was desired, Russia is likely unable to provide the resources needed to reinstall Jeenbekov. Given Putin’s commitments elsewhere, Russia’s pleas for stability and lawful proceedings seem more legitimate than usual. Despite the opposition largely garnering support from the post-Soviet, Russo-skeptic generation, Putin will not have the resources he may have prefered to address the situation.

While China will remain wary of the Kyrgyzstan-Uyghur connection, Beijing will see the vacuum of power as a chance to gain enough political clout in the region to possibly oust, or at least severely damage, Russian influence. If an ascending group or person seems to be gaining legitimacy, China will likely cosy up, doubly helped by the aforementioned Russo-skeptic tinge in the opposition.

As stated, accurate and specific predictions for the outcome of the current political upheaval cannot be faithfully given. However, the domestic north-south divide and mining control ought to be followed for indications of further developments. At the same time, Russia and China will likely continue to show more of their respective hands as the situation starts to stabilise.

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