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Qishloq Ovozi

The protesters in Bishkek may not be satisfied by the same old faces taking over, yet again.

Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of its third major political upheaval since 2005 and the same important questions have arisen: Who will the new leaders be and how will they move the country forward?

This time however, it seems the "old" ways will not work.

Many supporters of the 12 opposition parties that took part in the October 4 parliamentary elections went to the polls to vote for changes in the leadership and changes in the way the country was run.

These voters were naturally disappointed that of the 16 parties competing, three of the four parties that won seats in those elections were pro-government parties that many in Kyrgyzstan felt attained victory by buying votes and using state resources.

One thing seemed sure to the Kyrgyz people and that was there wouldn't be any positive changes coming from a parliament packed with people loyal to the president or shadowy business figures and suspected criminal groups.

Barely 24 hours after the announcement of preliminary results from the vote, angry protesters had stormed the parliament building and state television headquarters, ransacked the president's office, and freed some high-profile prisoners.

Turmoil In Kyrgyzstan After Disputed Elections
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On October 6, a group of opposition leaders met and announced the formation of a Coordination Council comprised of representatives from eight of the 16 political parties that competed in the parliamentary elections.

The leader of Butun (United) Kyrgyzstan, Adakhan Madumarov, was chosen to head the council and standing beside him in photos were familiar faces from other political parties.

In some ways, maybe too familiar.

Familiar Faces, Yet Again

In March 2005, a genuine, popular revolution swept Kyrgyzstan's first president, Askar Akaev, from power.

Akaev had been gradually concentrating power into his hands and when two of his children ran for seats in parliament in the 2005 elections and a series of obstacles were thrown in the way of other candidates, it was too much for many Kyrgyz people to endure any longer.

No opposition parties led the protests that broke out. It was all accomplished by ordinary citizens with help from civil society groups and it eventually engulfed the entire country.

Opposition leaders tried to catch up and "ride the wave," so to speak, but when March 24 came and Akaev fled the country no leader leader had emerged as a guiding force for that revolution.

But it was opposition leaders who formed a new government.

In a process that is still unclear, a handful of these leaders selected former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev to be acting prime minister and later the main presidential candidate in early elections that Bakiev easily won in June 2005.

Bakiev in turn appointed other opposition leaders and veteran politicians to key posts in government.

But it was not long before many people saw there was no real change, as Bakiev began acquiring many of the same corrupt practices as the man he had replaced.

Some people even said Kyrgyzstan had simply exchanged "A," meaning Akaev, for "B," meaning Bakiev.

Kyrgyzstan did not seem to be any better off under Bakiev than it had been doing under Akaev, and Bakiev's habit of bringing cronies and family members into government -- such as putting his then-32-year-old son Maksim in charge of the country's economy -- made people start clamoring for change.

But the people generally making the decisions were the same names and faces people in Kyrgyzstan had known for many years.

Bakiev was ousted in the revolution of April 2010. That revolution was localized and primarily took place in two northern cities -- Bishkek and Talas -- in the span of a little more than 48 hours.

Kurmanbek Bakiev was a bit too much like his predecessor as president, and was ousted the same way.
Kurmanbek Bakiev was a bit too much like his predecessor as president, and was ousted the same way.

It had been stoked by opposition figures such as Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev and Social Democratic Party leader Almazbek Atambaev, and once Bakiev fled the capital and eventually the country, Tekebaev, Atambaev, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, and some other familiar top opposition figures took control.

The constitution was amended to give Kyrgyzstan a parliamentary form of government and some progress was made toward that end, but the overall system of government stayed mostly the same.

Kyrgyzstan plodded along from 2011 to 2017, when Atambaev was president, and the country continued on that course after Sooronbai Jeenbekov was elected president in 2017.

All that time those making the decisions were, once again, mostly the same names and faces people in Kyrgyzstan had known for many years.

Kyrgyz Revolution 3.0?

October 6 was a chaotic day in Bishkek. It is apparent no one is truly in control of the situation at the moment.

But in the confusion, there is also a danger that the changes many wanted when they voted will be ignored and that the new government could return to business as usual in Kyrgyzstan.

The Coordination Council shown in photos on October 6 is virtually all men.

Most of the politicians who dominated the news on that day were men and most were older men, some of them politicians released from prison earlier that morning -- such as disgraced former President Atambaev -- more than a few of whom were convicted for having committed crimes.

The old crowd seems to be rising to the top again, and once again many of them are the same names and faces people in Kyrgyzstan have known for many years.

It is no wonder, then, that several youth groups held a gathering on October 6 where supporters called for lustration and urged the people trying to form a new government to include more young people in the decision-making process.

The Bishkek Feminists wrote on Twitter that at least half of the population is women and they should therefore have 50 percent of the posts in any new government.

Business as usual has not helped Kyrgyzstan advance, and when the dust finally settles from this recent revolution it won't help the country achieve greater things.

There are some talented young men and women in politics in Kyrgyzstan.

Now is their moment and they need to be consulted and included in decisions being made during these days that will guide Kyrgyzstan well into the future.

Supporters of opposition parties rally against the election results in Bishkek on October 5.

Vote buying and the use of administrative resources looked like the early winners in Kyrgyzstan's October 4 parliamentary elections, although it quickly became apparent it might be a temporary victory.

Officials initially signaled that preliminary figures showed only four of the 16 parties competing had reached the 7 percent threshold needed to win seats.

Two parties seen as pro-government -- Birimdik (Unity) and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) -- took 24.53 and 23.9 percent of the vote, respectively.

Though President Sooronbai Jeenbekov repeatedly said he did not favor any party in the run-up to the vote, his younger brother Asylbek's candidature for the Birimdik party suggested to some that the president might not be impartial.

There were many accusations of school directors, factory owners, landlords, and local town and village chiefs telling their employees, tenants, and fellow community members to vote for a certain party.

That's one of the most common violations in elections throughout Central Asia. Such stories were told during the first elections the five newly independent countries held in the 1990s and continue to surface with every new election. But in Kyrgyzstan, where elections are far more competitive, it can dramatically alter the results.

Vote Buying

Many of the accusations of local pressure being applied to voters ahead of these elections appeared to have Birimdik's fingerprints on them. Aside from the president's brother, the party boasts several members of the government among its candidates, some of whom were accused of putting the squeeze on local leaders.

Similarly, allegations of vote buying were made against several of the 16 parties involved in the parliamentary elections, but the party most often mentioned was Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.

Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is widely viewed inside the country as being allied with Raimbek Matraimov, a former deputy chief of the Customs Service and a reputed crime boss.

Matraimov is the subject of several in-depth reports on corruption published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Kyrgyzstan's independent Kloop media outlet, and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, and Bellingcat.

Matraimov's brother Iskender ran as a Mekenim Kyrgyzstan candidate.

There were numerous messages issued ahead of the vote urging people not to sell their votes, but these are especially hard economic times in Kyrgyzstan due to the economic downturn that accompanied the spread of the coronavirus.

Many Kyrgyz are desperate to feed their families and pay bills.

There were credible reports of cash payouts for people's votes in the weeks leading up to the elections: part of the payment up front and the remainder once the ballot was cast.

There were dozens of videos and photographs posted on social networks on election day that showed people photographing their marked ballots, seemingly as proof they had fulfilled their part of the vote-buying bargain and were eligible for the balance of their payment.

Vans and minibuses turned up outside polling stations across the country, fueling suspicions that parties were ferrying their paid voters between multiple polling stations.

Several hours before the polls were closed, lawmaker Irina Karamushkina, who was a candidate for the opposition Social Democrats, was calling for these "most cynical and dirtiest elections" to be declared illegitimate.

Besides Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, another party seen as pro-government, the Kyrgyzstan party, also appeared to have won seats, with 8.73 percent of the vote.

Initially, a lone opposition party, Butun Kyrgyzstan, was said to have met the parliamentary threshold, with 7.13 percent.

Early Protests

By the time the preliminary election results were announced in the evening on October 4, Social Democratic supporters had already started a protest rally on Bishkek's central Ala-Too Square.

Supporters of the Meken Yntymagy (Homeland Security) party and the Chong Kazat (Great Crusade) party were also demonstrating outside the headquarters of the Central Election Commission (BShK).

The Ata-Meken (Fatherland), Reforma, Respublika, Zamandash (Contemporary), Ordo (Horde), and Bir Bol (Stay Together) parties had also released statements vowing not to recognize the election results.

Even the religious-based Yyman Nuru (Ray of Faith) party cast doubt on the results.

Meanwhile, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyzstan party, both of which won seats in parliament, boldly asserted that they thought they should have received more votes.

Virtually all of the opposition parties called for rallies the day after the vote.

On October 5, more than 1,000 supporters of five parties -- Reforma, Meken Yntymagy, Chong Kazat, Yyman Nuru, and Ordo -- gathered in Bishkek, and some of the first speakers were participants in the April 2010 revolution that toppled then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Supporters of the Ata-Meken, Respublika, Bir Bol, and Zamandash parties gathered outside the Opera and Ballet Theater in the capital before marching to Ala-Too Square, where the crowd had grown to several thousand.

Thousands In Bishkek Protest Kyrgyz Election Results
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Mekenchil (Patriotic) party leader Kamchybek Tashiev soon joined the rally, too.

People chanted slogans against "thieves" in government and vowed they would not accept the election results.

There were similar demonstrations involving hundreds of people in the cities of Naryn and Talas.

All these groups are pledging to continue their rallies until the results are annulled.

Some demonstrators on Ala-Too Square set up yurts to emphasize their determination to stay until their demands were met.

The Butun Kyrgyzstan party, which was among the parties that won seats in the elections, also sided with the demonstrators and -- together with the 11 parties represented in the October 5 demonstrations -- backed a memorandum demanding that the BShK annul the results of the elections by midnight.

The group did not say what it intended to do if its demands were not met.

That leaves one to wonder whether Birimdik and Mekenim overplayed their hands. But the public anger could entangle others.

'Jeenbekov Out!'

President Jeenbekov's efforts to appear aloof from the campaign and elections could work against him.

He had pledged that administrative resources would play no role in the outcome of elections. But there are widespread accusations that such tools played a significant role in the success of his brother's party, Birimdik.

In early September, Jeenbekov responded to reports of vote buying by saying the "decision to sell one’s vote is a personal decision."

And Jeenbekov repeatedly responded to questions about vote buying by saying he had not seen any concrete evidence to support the claims -- never mind that such evidence would mean someone filing a complaint with police and risking reprisals from anyone trying to buy the votes.

It now appears that many people fear that vote buying played a key role in these elections, and there is now substantial evidence on social networks that it did take place.

As a result, critics are probably hoping that Jeenbekov’s performance as president over the past three years receives a lot more public scrutiny.

Some of the demonstrators on Bishkek's Ala-Too Square on October 5 were chanting, "Jeenbekov ketsin!" ("Out with Jeenbekov!")

Eleven of the 12 parties that initially failed to win parliamentary seats are now protesting the results. Even by the official tally so far, they account for a combined 32 percent of the vote in these elections.

Some 43 percent of eligible voters, or about 1.5 million, did not cast ballots, and many of them might also protest the election results, not to mention the almost 3 million more Kyrgyz citizens who were not registered to vote.

By midday on October 5, there were already accusations that the Central Election Commission was working to manipulate the vote count to allow another opposition party to win seats, although that threatens to make the results appear not more but less legitimate.

Many predicted that there would be cheating in these elections, but it seems no one imagined it would reach the levels that the opposition is now claiming.

Kyrgyz authorities might not have much time to propose a credible solution.

Independent Kyrgyzstan has seen two revolutions already, and many Kyrgyz might believe there are more and better reasons to be angry now than during either of those two upheavals.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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