The country’s electoral agency annulled the results of Sunday’s disputed parliamentary elections and the president offered to mediate. But it remained unclear who was in control.
Oct. 6, 2020
MOSCOW — The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan plunged into political chaos on Tuesday after opposition groups seized control of Parliament and released their imprisoned leaders in protests over parliamentary elections they called rigged.
Under mounting pressure from the protesters, the country’s Central Electoral Commission annulled the results of the Sunday vote, a day after having awarded the majority of seats to two political parties with ties to the president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Overnight, a small group of protesters broke away from the main body and tried to gain entry to the White House, the main government building that houses the Parliament and the presidential administration in Bishkek, the capital. After the police tried to disperse them, hundreds more joined in the assault and soon took control, according to photos and video footage from the scene.
On Tuesday, the streets of Bishkek were littered with burned-out cars and piles of stones, while photos emerged of the broken down gates to the White House. Inside the building, videos and photos showed broken glass and piles of debris, including government papers, with protesters wandering the offices. In the city, residents formed volunteer brigades to deter looters. One person was killed and at least 680 injured during the protests, the country’s Health Ministry said. Mr. Jeenbekov’s office said on Tuesday that he was willing to meet with the leaders of all 16 parties that had competed in the election, in an effort to ease the tensions.
But it was not clear that he was still in control of the situation, as protesters captured more government buildings, according to reports from local news websites, and started appointing their own government officials. The mayors of Bishkek, and the country’s second leading city, Osh, said they were resigning.
The opposition freed Mr. Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, who had been serving an 11-year sentence on corruption charges he had denounced as politically motivated. The opposition also freed several other incarcerated political figures, including two former prime ministers.
The convulsions in Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous landlocked former Soviet republic of 6.3 million people, represent another fracture in a region that Russia considers part of its sphere of influence. Together with the political crisis in Belarus, simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine and new hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, the problems among Russia’s neighbors seem to be spreading.
“Russia is interested in maintaining internal stability in Kyrgyzstan, its strategic partner and ally,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday in a statement aimed at calming the crisis. “We call on all political forces in this critical moment to be wise and responsible in order to preserve internal stability and safety.”
Mr. Atambayev had made the decision to close the American military facility in Kyrgyzstan, that from 2001 to 2014 supported American military operations in Afghanistan. Under Mr. Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan became a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Like Mr. Atambayev, Mr. Jeenbekov, his successor, also tried to maintain good relations with Moscow.
Political analysts attributed the Kyrgyzstan crisis partly to the longstanding political, economic and ethnic cleavage between the country’s agrarian south and more developed north. Disruptions in the fragile north-south coexistence have been a chronic source of upheaval in the country.
Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia analyst and commentary contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Jeenbekov, who is from the south, was seen as having essentially broken that coexistence. The parliamentary election results gave 100 of the body’s 120 seats to representatives from the south aligned with him.
The critics from the north accused their southern adversaries of a corrupt vote that sent the entire political system off the rails, Mr. Dubnov said. “In Kyrgyzstan, there is no opposition-government dynamics,” he said. “Instead, there is a King of the Hill game. Today you are on top, and that means you are the government.”
By nightfall, Kyrgyzstan’s government seemed to have descended into near anarchy as political factions failed to unify around a single leader. Different groups claimed to occupy the same government posts. Parliament members made a failed attempt to choose a new prime minister, frustrated partly by factions that were holding meetings in separate locations — a cinema and a hotel. Two rival politicians declared themselves to be the country’s prosecutor general, even though the official holder of that office theoretically remained on the job.
The chaos had an immediate chilling effect on the already struggling economy of the country, where an estimated third of the people live in poverty and a main source of income is remittances from citizens working abroad. Offices of businesses were raided. Banks removed cash from A.T.M.s. Political factions also tried to capture television channels, causing some to stop broadcasting.
Bordered by China but strategically aligned with Russia, Kyrgyzstan has been a focus of geopolitical rivalry between Moscow, Beijing, Washington and other players since it gained independence after the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Over the past 15 years of Kyrgyzstan’s recurrent political strife, two of its presidents have been toppled in violent revolts. In contrast to other major conflicts in the former Soviet space, however, Kyrgyzstan’s crisis appears to have no broader geopolitical element. “This mess is completely internal,” said Mr. Dubnov. “The only geopolitical dimension has to do with the economy — Kyrgyzstan is broke.”
Ivan Nechepurenko has been a reporter with the Moscow bureau since 2015, covering politics, economics, sports, and culture in Russia and the former Soviet republics. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia