Kyrgyzstan: Personalistic regime reveals cracks in the system
The petitions to the president arrive thick and fast. Children are often enlisted for maximum effect.
In January, social media influencer Saule Aitkul’s mother was killed in a traffic accident in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.
To make the tragedy worse for Aitkul, it appears as though the driver who caused the crash could go unpunished. The man has been under house arrest for two months, but there is evidence he has been flouting the terms of his detention, Aitkul told viewers of her YouTube channel.
“The culprit will go unpunished, because the enforcement of the rule of law is so weak in Kyrgyzstan,” she said.
And so, Aitkul has done what many have done successfully in the past. She addressed the president in person.
“On the advice of my lawyer, I am compelled to appeal to my subscribers, to President Sadyr Japarov, the heads of law enforcement and judicial bodies,” she said in a tearful YouTube video on March 20.
Neither Japarov nor his office have yet responded, but in Kyrgyzstan, this is far from a desperate Hail Mary pass.
Earlier this month, the social media scene was abuzz with the story of Maral Shabolotova. In a self-filmed video message, a weeping Shabolotova told the story of how she had lost her family home in the Ak-Ordo district on the fringes on Bishkek as the result of a legal dispute.
“A neighbor illegally created property deeds and the court ruled on that,” she said.
Shabolotova said she bought the plot where her home stood in 2012. But then six years later, a neighbor claimed the land belonged to her. The court ruled in the neighbor’s favor.
On March 1, after that ruling arrived, the home was demolished.
“My husband is in hospital. I have four children and I am looking at my destroyed home,” she said.
Four days after the demolition, Japarov, who is known to be an engaged user of social media, visited Ak-Ordo, one of the many suburban residential areas that have appeared around Bishkek in the past two or three decades. He chatted with local residents and canvassed their views on land ownership regulations. On the same day, he addressed Shabolotova’s plight.
“The justice system deemed this woman’s home to be illegally built and decided to demolish it,” Japarov’s spokesman, Erbol Sultanbaev, wrote on Facebook. “Due to the activities of unscrupulous people, many citizens are experiencing similar problems. President Japarov has ordered an investigation and for all those responsible to be brought to justice.”
Now, a new house is being built for Shabolotova on the same spot, all at the state’s expense.
Tamerlan Ibraimov, the head of the Bishkek-based Political and Legal Studies Center, a think tank, told Eurasianet that this custom of appealing directly to the president is a symptom of a phenomenon common across the post-Soviet space, where trust in the institutions remains weak.
“In post-Soviet countries, everything is geared toward the top of the pyramid. Whatever they say at the top goes,” Ibraimov said.
Japarov aggravated this situation further by pushing through a referendum in 2022 that once more reverted Kyrgyzstan to a hyper-presidential system.
Under that revised dispensation, parliament shrank from 120 members to 90. When MPs had their authority diluted, it only served to reduce their stature and perceived ability to act decisively in the eyes of the public.
In another change, the president in effect became head of the executive – meaning the formal post of prime minister was abolished – and he gained the authority to appoint almost all judges and heads of law enforcement agencies.
“The president stated that his office is the body that takes responsibility for all things,” Ibraimov said. “You can fix the problems of one person or one family, but you cannot fix the problems of thousands of people. This is an indicator of dysfunction in the system.”
The personalistic turn taken under Japarov is the type of trend that political scientists view with concern.
As Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietsche, and Joseph Wright wrote in a 2021 paper in the Journal of Democracy: “Greater personalism in democracies brings with it an elevated risk of political polarization, incumbent power grabs, and ultimately democratic decline and collapse.”
The petitions to Japarov nevertheless arrive thick and fast. Children are often enlisted for maximum effect.
In March 2021, a young boy from the southern region of Batken filmed a video, again addressed to Japarov, pleading for resolution of a long-standing and often violent border dispute with Tajikistan.
“Tajiks live just two meters from me. Two meters away, and it is already Tajikistan. We are afraid to live here. I am asking you to please fix the border issues,” the boy said.
Japarov was unable to fix the border, but he did later meet the boy in person to give him a handful of gifts: a tablet, a telephone and a soccer ball.
That same year, an eight-year-old boy from another part of Kyrgyzstan asked Japarov if he would build his village a new school, since the old one was not fit for teaching.
“Go on, build a school, and then the people will start to love you,” the boy, Bekbolot Turdushev, said in a video appeal.
There is no evidence that the asked-for school ever was built, but Turdushev got to meet Japarov in person. The boy later posted a photo to his Instagram account, which is no longer available, showing him hanging from the neck of a beaming Japarov. He would also go on to boast that the president had given him a laptop, money and a copy of the Koran.
As Ibraimov told Eurasianet, it is unlikely that Japarov is especially phased by this type of attention. On the contrary, it suits his man-of-the-people style.
“Like any politician, the president can use such populist things for his own purposes,” Ibraimov said. “To show that he is close to the people, and that he is effectively and quickly solving their problems.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.
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