Kyrgyzstan: Japarov, last hope or populist menace?
Even in a political scene as personality-driven as Kyrgyzstan’s, the cult of Japarov, who is standing for president this weekend, is striking.
The normally quiet and deserted streets of Keng Suu, a village in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul province, were jolted into a hubbub of commotion one morning in early November.
Residents were preparing excitedly for the arrival of their favorite son: Sadyr Japarov, a 52-year-old former convict widely expected to win the January 10 presidential election. Police were charged with keeping vehicles off the roads for the arriving motorcade. One poor soul had to plead with passersby for help pushing his car out of the way after he got into an accident.
The visitor was acclaimed with much enthused shouting and shrieking. This kind of adulation follows Japarov around everywhere, not just in his home village.
Even in a political scene as personality-driven as that of Kyrgyzstan, the cult of Japarov is striking. His admirers see him as a fresh promise.
“He is the champion of our village. Who if not him? When he was a member of parliament, he built us our stadium and did lots of other good things,” 43-year-old Nurbek Arymbayev, a Keng Suu villager, told Eurasianet while taking a break from laying water pipes near his home. “Almost all the village respects and supports him.”
Similar sentiments are voiced by backers all around the country. His detractors, meanwhile, see Japarov as a demagogic despot-in-waiting and a friend to organized crime.
The street where Arymbayev was toiling is the one where Japarov grew up. The politician’s pink, two-story family home, where his younger brother, Orozbek, still lives, stands in vivid contrast with the neighboring houses of adobe and exposed bricks.
Orozbek is the head of the local village council. He keeps a low profile but is happy to regale visitors with tales about his famous sibling – to tell them “the whole truth,” as he puts it.
Because of the nine-year gap, Orozbek remembers little about his brother’s childhood years. In any case, it was a large family – there were nine other siblings. The recollections of when Japarov first got involved in business and politics are sharper. The Issyk-Kul province has been known for decades as a breeding ground for organized crime. The fuel business, which is where Japarov made his money, was especially notorious.
“When I was young, I saw a lot of things, how difficult it was for us. There are many things I cannot talk about, but we came under pressure from [state] security bodies and others. At all times, we had a bodyguard detail that we had to organize for ourselves. We didn’t have money for armored cars, so we just draped bullet-proof vests over the car,” Orozbek said.
Japarov always carried a pistol and automatic rifle, his brother said.
“He even went to bed with them. We went around like that all the time. It was very hard,” Orozbek said.
But it was dabbling in politics that apparently drew unwanted attention from officials.
Japarov’s first foray into public life and his trademark nationalist messaging was triggered by a border delimitation dispute with Kazakhstan. During one week in 2005 recalled by Orozbek, the Japarov household played host to a string of prominent MPs and ministers for tense consultations about what was to be done with the Karkyr pastures just east of Keng Suu.
In December 2001, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Askar Akayev, had signed a border delimitation deal, ostensibly putting an end to the matter by giving Kazakhstan the land. Lawmakers in Kazakhstan would go on to ratify the deal in 2003, but amid the turmoil that culminated in Akayev’s ouster in 2005, Kyrgyz MPs did not get around to doing the same.
“We showed every inch of land to the MPs and ministers. We told them to resist ratification and we stopped it from happening,” Orozbek said.
In the post-Akayev period, Japarov graduated to the national stage, becoming a member of parliament with the Ak-Zhol party of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was elected in 2005, only to be also later overthrown, in 2010. Japarov gave up his seat after two years, though, after agreeing to become an advisor to Bakiyev.
Orozbek says this was when the fate of the Karkyr pastures finally went against their wishes.
“Until 2007, they didn’t give away Karkyr. But in 2008, the Ak-Zhol party let through the legislation. It was when Sadyr had already left the party,” he said.
This phase of Japarov’s career is one regularly held against him by his critics. By near-universal consensus, the five-year Bakiyev era was marked by unusually intense levels of corruption. Many entrepreneurs simply had their businesses snatched away from them by cronies and relatives of the president. Gangsterism flourished, journalists faced serious physical intimidation, political opponents were sidelined, jailed or murdered.
In the final two years of Bakiyev’s time in power, Japarov worked as the head of the National Corruption Prevention Agency – an almost comically pointless body.
Orozbek is defensive on this passage of his brother’s history, insisting that he, like many others, did not have a full understanding of the Bakiyev regime’s corruption. One detail weakening that case is the fact that one of Japarov’s sisters, Raikul, was in 2014 and 2015 convicted on fraud and money-laundering charges over activities she is accused of having conducted in concert with Bakiyev’s despised son, Maxim, who now lives in self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom.
Orozbek prefers instead to turn to the relatively safer ground of Kumtor.
For many years, the Japarov brand has been indissolubly tied to that of the giant Kumtor open-pit gold mine in the country’s eastern highlands.
When Ak-Zhol was swept away with Bakiyev, Japarov hopped over to the freshly formed Ata Jurt, a party that effectively tapped into the strong nationalist mood. From that perch, he spoke volubly about Kumtor, whose concession has been controlled by Canada-based companies – Cameco and later Toronto-listed Centerra Gold – since the early 1990s.
When parliament created a commission to determine the future of Kumtor in 2012, Japarov argued strongly for nationalization. Orozbek claims, although there is no evidence for this, that Japarov was offered bribes to keep quiet about the mine.
Japarov said at the time that he objected to how little Kyrgyzstan was earning from Kumtor.
“Ever since Kumtor has been operating, Kyrgyzstan has received [only] $44 million, while more than 250 tons of gold have been recovered,” he said in a speech in parliament in April 2012.
Kyrgyzaltyn, the state-owned gold mining company that is now a major shareholder in Centerra, rejected that accusation at the time, stating that Kumtor had generated $625 million in tax revenues alone. Accounting for salaries, work on developing infrastructure and procurement of basic supplies, the project had by then contributed $1.9 billion to the Kyrgyz economy, Kyrgyzaltyn stated.
Another, arguably more urgent, source of discontent was the mine’s ecological impact. In 1998, a truck carrying cyanide to the mine spilled its load into the Barskoon river, poisoning some 2,500 people. Some, including Japarov, believe the impact of that accident has been long-lasting.
Orozbek told Eurasianet that the family sought to persuade Japarov to refrain from campaigning on Kumtor, but that he pushed back.
“He told my sister [Raikul], who had a 12-year-old son with cerebral palsy: ‘All the water in the Issyk-Kul district is polluted. We even took samples from the soil, it’s a fact. Children like yours will start being born in large numbers, they will have problems with their health. We don’t know on whom to pin the sin of your child’s [illness]. But if many such children are born here, then that would be my sin,’” Orozbek said, sharing his recollection of Japarov’s words at length.
He made similar points in parliament.
“There is no state control over ecological and industrial safety at the mine, the disposal of … waste is not in compliance with environmental regulations,” Japarov said in June 2012.
Matters took a dramatic turn on October 3 that year during a protest rally outside the White House building, which then served as joint premises of parliament and the presidential administration. The protest was organized by a pair of long-time Japarov allies, the MPs Kamchybek Tashiyev and Talant Mamytov. There is some disagreement over whether Japarov was actually on the scene, although officials later insisted that he was involved. What began as a peaceful rally eventually turned rowdy, even farcical, when Tashiyev urged people in attendance to join him in scaling the White House gates.
“Genghis Khan seized power with only his 17 sons,” Tashiyev is quoted as having said by RFE/RL Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk. “Why should we wait around until there are 10,000 people here? Why should we wait until there are 20,000 people here before we seize power? That’s not right! Come on, if there are 20 people here, come with me. Let’s go and seize power.”
The authorities were unamused. The following March, a court handed Japarov, Tashiyev and Mamytov sentences of up to 18 months in prison for their antics.
But a more consequential event would occur on October 7, 2013. The word was put out for an anti-Kumtor rally to take place that day in the Issyk-Kul regional capital of Karakol. Residents of Saruu, a village 45 kilometers west from the city, mustered near their homes before going on the march.
But what started as a rally quickly degenerated into a riot as crowds descended on the regional government headquarters. The mob then went on to take regional plenipotentiary Emilbek Kaptagayev hostage for several hours inside a car. Kaptagayev would later claim that the vehicle had been doused in gasoline and that his captors had threatened to set him alight.
Kaptagayev said he was under no illusions who was the mastermind of the unrest: Japarov. Among purported evidence later provided by investigators was the fact that Kaptagayev had been held captive in a Volkswagen Vento sedan registered to a relation of Japarov’s.
Japarov himself was outside the country as that unrest was unfolding and would only return in March 2017, when he was arrested immediately upon arrival. The State Committee for National Security charged that Japarov had been in contact with rioters by mobile phone to direct their actions.
Those inclined to be skeptical about the version of events incriminating Japarov rest their arguments on the fact that 2017 saw a flurry of criminal cases opened against critics of then-outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev, who was otherwise busy preparing to hand over power to his handpicked successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. In this optic, the swiftness of the trial and the 11-and-a-half-year prison sentence handed down against Japarov in early August 2017 only served as proof that the whole case was trumped-up and that the Atambayev administration was clearing the field of political malcontents to ensure a smooth transition.
Eight people from Saruu and nearby villages were imprisoned for their involvement in the Karakol events. Tracking them down is not hard. Most locals know the men by name and will readily lead visitors to their homes.
Eurasianet met one of them, Zamir Mindubayev, as he was at work repairing his old Audi across the road from a service station.
In October 2013, Mindubayev held a position as a member of the local council. He was mainly involved in organizing youth initiatives and had put together a community soccer league. The only reason he was in Karakol, he told Eurasianet, was to keep tempers from spilling over.
“People came to us [local council deputies] and told us that we must be with them. We joined them and everything was done within the law. It still beats me how Emilbek Kaptagayev came to be taken hostage, and how the assault and the turmoil happened,” Mindubayev said, insisting that he and fellow defendants had been denied a fair trial.
As to whether Japarov was the one giving the orders, Mindubayev is doubtful. He instead blames the security services and the government of the time. Japarov deserves a shot at running the country, he told Eurasianet.
“Sadyr Japarov should become president. He has been through a lot, and if he has learned anything, he should become president,” Mindubayev said, while adding by way of warning that his fellow villagers would rise up angrier than ever should they be let down once more.
Asked about the Karakol events, veteran local activist Kamil Ruziyev is not persuaded by the suggestion that it all unfolded chaotically. Among the striking details of what happened that day was the well-organized presence of several dozen uniformly dressed men on horseback.
“It was the first time I had ever seen horseback riders assaulting police officers. To push aside [the officers] barring their way into the regional administration building, the men rode their horses right up the stairs,” Ruziyev recalled. “The horses were driven in, money was paid. To drive around horses from one place to another costs a lot of money.”
In the wilderness
Japarov avoided Kyrgyzstan for more than three years after that episode. By various accounts, he spent that period in several countries, including Turkey, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and Belarus – that last country being where Bakiyev took refuge following his overthrow in 2010. Orozbek said that Japarov had at one point traveled to Poland, where his sister, Raikul, was evading her fraud charges.
No country was as politically important as Russia, however. It is there that hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz expatriate laborers live for work. While in exile, Japarov the street politician turned his energies to the internet.
“He went online when he was abroad. He met with migrants and explained the situation to them,” Orozbek said. “He uploaded videos to YouTube and social media websites to explain what he was up to. Migrants don’t watch television. They go on the internet after work, and there they saw all the good things he was doing. They began to understand him and support him.”
This was also a time for Japarov to overhaul his reputation.
“On state television they used to say that Japarov had sold out Karkyr and they would show him in a bad light. The people didn’t understand him,” Orozbek said. “[But] it was migrants that understood him first. They would call their relatives here and tell them to watch.”
An Open Democracy article published in October offered more detail on the scale and effectiveness of Japarov’s online operation.
“Our observation of Kyrgyz-speaking social media suggests that propaganda and troll attacks against Japarov’s rivals and critics have contributed to his popularity among Kyrgyz-speaking people, largely thanks to his anti-establishment credentials burnished on social media,” the authors of the piece, Gulzat Baialieva and Joldon Kutmanaliev, concluded.
In 2017, Japarov signaled his intent to participate in that year’s presidential election. Kyrgyz community groups in Russia pledged money to fund the campaign. In March, he traveled into Kyrgyzstan overland from Kazakhstan and was met by a crowd of his supporters at the border crossing. Other followers rallied at a concert in Bishkek. If Japarov had hoped this show of public support would compel the authorities to refrain from arresting him, the gamble failed.
For his most ardent admirers, Japarov’s personal tribulations constitute an indelible appeal.
During his November visit to Keng Suu, Japarov took time to perform a public prayer in remembrance of his late father and mother. His father, Nurgozho, died in September 2017, just weeks after Japarov was convicted. Authorities rejected concerted appeals from Japarov allies for him to be permitted to attend the funeral. The same happened when his mother died two years later.
There was more tragedy in August 2019, when his eldest son, 27-year-old Dastan, died after a vehicle accident in Bishkek.
As Orozbek recalled all the years his brother spent away from his family, he asked visiting Eurasianet reporters to turn off their recording device. Orozbek said he used to be bitter over how Japarov was compelled as a result of his life choices to spend so much time away from his parents in their final years.
But Orozbek said he has since come to realize that his brother is a great man striving hard to achieve his goals.
“They don’t write poems about people like us, but there is a whole book of verse about Sadyr,” Orozbek said, before turning to one of his children and instructing them to bring down a few volumes from the loft. Some minutes later, a book titled Living Legend with Japarov’s picture on the cover was placed on the living room table. Orozbek said the poems were originally posted online.
“The burden of the people is borne by Sadyr,
Born for the people was he Sadyr.
In his search for the truth, unjustly condemned
to suffer in prison, Sadyr,” one typical verse reads.
Even though Japarov has been steadily cultivating his brand over many years, the suddenness of his ascendancy caught many unawares.
The October 4 parliamentary elections were supposed to be a snooze, with two ostensibly status quo parties taking command of the legislature. Japarov had featured on the posters of one of the smaller parties, Mekenchil, but it was uncertain ahead of the vote that it would manage to win any seats.
A protest rally held in central Bishkek on the day after the election proceeded peaceably for several hours. Lines of riot police were stationed a block away as opposition politicians delivered speeches to a crowd of many hundreds of people from a tribune on Ala-Too Square. The uneasy tension held until dark fell, when a group broke away from the main throng to mount an assault on the adjacent White House. That quickly drew in the anti-riot forces. Mayhem followed. Police quickly lost control.
By the morning, President Jeenbekov had disappeared to an unknown location. Another government appeared to have been brought down. Amid all the chaos, multiple imprisoned politicians – Japarov among them – were released. But whereas many of them were spirited away to their homes, Japarov was immediately conveyed to Ala-Too. Once there, the visibly exhausted leader was lifted onto the tribune to deliver a brief address that was largely drowned out by cheering and chants of “Sadyr President!” Japarov appeared unable to stand unaided and was propped up by his old friend Tashiyev, who was later rewarded for his loyalty by being appointed head of State Committee for National Security.
After 10 days of uncertainty and chaos, much of it caused by menacing mobs of Japarov supporters threatening to seize government buildings, and behind-the-scenes political jostling, Jeenbekov stepped down. Japarov took over as interim president, only to then shortly afterward hand over the job to his other old ally and one-time fellow defendant, Mamytov, so that he would be legally permitted to run for president.
The rapid rise of Japarov has left many spooked. In a pointed statement issued as he was trying to negotiate his way into the president’s chair, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek lamented what it described as “the attempt by organized crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections.” The rumors about Japarov’s ties to the underworld go back many years. For many observers, his coordinated and aggressive lunge for power could only have been made possible with the involvement of murky, well-resourced groups.
None of that means, however, that the popularity is not real.
Nurbek Zholomanov, a 40-year-old driver from Kichi Jargylchak, a village on the southern shores of Issyk-Kul Lake, was among those in the crowds in Bishkek on October 6 and 7.
“Here [in Kichi Jargylchak], we all support Japarov, absolutely everybody,” Zholomanov said, explaining his decision to travel to the capital. “We took food with us. We filled up gas tanks at our own expense and went. We want him to fix the country, not to enrich himself. We are not related to him. We just want what is good for the country.”
Zholomanov says he began to support Japarov as far back as 2008, because of the Kumtor issue. Kichi Jargylchak is not far from where the cyanide spill occurred.
As the driver expanded on his fondness for the politician, his colleagues crowded around to listen and offer their own remarks.
“He is the last hope and belief of the people. There is no one else we can trust,” said one of them.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.
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