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With Joomart Saparbaev, A New Generation Enters Kyrgyz Politics

  • Daisy Sindelar

Despite his youth, Joomart Saparbaev has already spent years building up his political credentials, serving as the leader of Ata-Meken's youth wing, polishing his English as a student in the United States, and even serving a brief jail sentence.

Despite his youth, Joomart Saparbaev has already spent years building up his political credentials, serving as the leader of Ata-Meken's youth wing, polishing his English as a student in the United States, and even serving a brief jail sentence.

BISHKEK -- According to tradition, the first session of the new Kyrgyz parliament was chaired by its oldest member, 65-year-old Tashpolot Baltabaev of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) Socialist Party.

But as lawmakers assembled for the historic first seating of the country's newly empowered Zhogorku Kenesh, many eyes were on its youngest members -- including Baltabaev's party colleague, 25-year-old Joomart Saparbaev.

In a cynical season of gray-haired power-jockeying in Kyrgyzstan, Saparbaev's prominent placement high on the Ata-Meken list was a signal that parties are looking to their younger members for new appeal.

"When I was put down as fifth on our party list, I heard a lot of crazy things from our party bosses, from different politicians from different political parties," says Saparbaev, cheerful and confident in a crisp gray suit on a recent night in Bishkek. "They said it was kind of an insane experiment to put me so high on the list. But it happened. Our party leaders understand that we need young blood, we need new ideas. We need the next generation."

Ata-Meken is not the only party to promote its younger members. Rival parties like Respublika and Ata-Jurt -- which are among the five parties to enter the new parliament -- have also sought to bring fresh faces to parliament, promoting some candidates as young as 22.

Members of the new parliament show their ID documents during the landmark first session in Bishkek.
Saparbaev, however, argues that his political credentials outweigh the rest. He is already a six-year member of Ata-Meken, the party led by Omurbek Tekebaev that is seen as the critical force behind Kyrgyzstan's shift to a parliamentary democracy.

In that time, he spent three years heading the party's youth wing, spearheading efforts to make Ata-Meken the first political party in Central Asia to join the Socialist International, a worldwide grouping of social-democratic, socialist, and labor parties.

"Sometimes they listen to me," he says of his party elders, smiling.

Taking On Bakiev

During that time, Saparbaev was also active in youth movements that successfully fought an attempt by Feliks Kulov, then the country's new prime minister, to add Kyrgyzstan to the list of countries seeking debt relief from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Such a move, Saparbaev believed, had been devastating for other impoverished countries and would have spelled certain doom for Kyrgyzstan, which was just emerging from the 2005 Tulip Revolution and the rise of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his allies like Kulov.

"We had a new government that, in trying to get into this program, was trying to rid itself of its responsibilities," he said. "I mean, why wouldn't you try to fix it yourself first? And then, if it's impossible, maybe you could do this. But not right at that moment, right after the revolution. Kulov didn't even try; he just tried to get rid of all his problems. This is how our social activities started. This is how we started fighting the Bakiev regime."

His activism grew even more determined following his country's 2007 parliamentary elections, when claims of massive vote rigging prompted Saparbaev and thousands of student activists to stage regular public protests under the slogan "I don't believe."

Saparbaev was ultimately thrown in jail, albeit briefly, for his opposition activities -- a chapter he calls "more fun than dangerous." But the adventure cemented his opposition to the Bakiev regime and his fidelity to Ata-Meken, independent Kyrgyzstan's oldest major political party and the only group that he says puts ideology before clan loyalty.

Representing Kyrgyzstan

Saparbaev, who grew up the youngest of two sons in a small village outside Bishkek, had no automatic entree into the world of Kyrgyz politics. At a time when his fellow high-school students were obsessing over "business and money," he became a self-taught political thinker, devouring Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger at his local library, before moving to the capital to study political science.

From there, he spent a formative year at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he volunteered with the Democratic Party and found himself serving as an impromptu instructor on Kyrgyz issues when the Tulip Revolution suddenly catapulted his country into U.S. media headlines. Now, he likes to think, there are a lot of people in south-central Minnesota who know more than the average American about Kyrgyzstan.

Since returning home, Saparbaev says he's had several opportunities to leave his country for good. But the young lawmaker, who is married with a 4-month-old daughter, says he's determined to stay in Kyrgyzstan and fight for the nascent parliamentary system, created in the wake of the country's latest political overhaul, the April revolt that ousted Bakiev.

"It's my ambition to create a real political system," he says. "A system that doesn't depend on only one leader."

Speaking just minutes after today's first parliament session, Saparbaev admitted to feeling slightly overwhelmed by what he called the "gigantic responsibility" of tackling the economic and political challenges ahead -- including the very basic task of keeping Kyrgyzstan's new parliamentary democracy on track despite massive resistance from fellow parliamentary parties, like Ata-Jurt and Ar-Namys, that favor a return to a presidential system.

"It's a big moment. It's not getting the mandate I'm excited about. I'm excited by what's going to happen in there," he said. "We have Ata-Jurt -- ex-Bakiev people. How are we going to work with them? The nature of parliament is to find a compromise, and I'm just so interested to find out how we're going to compromise with these guys that we were fighting against. We'll see."

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