Post-election protests plunge Kyrgyzstan into crisis

Post-election protests plunge Kyrgyzstan into crisis
Protesters breaking through the gates of government headquarters (REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov via Gallo Images).

Introduction

Following the parliamentary elections on 4th October 2020, a deep political crisis evolved in Kyrgyzstan, entailing serious human rights concerns. The parliamentary elections, which were marred by allegations of widespread irregularities, resulted in a landslide victory for pro-government parties, with most opposition parties left out in the cold. This prompted mass protests by opposition members and supporters in the capital Bishkek. What began as peaceful demonstrations evolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement authorities during the evening of 5th October 2020 when the latter resorted to forceful tactics after an attempt by some protesters to break through the gates of White House, the seat of the president and parliament. The clashes ended with the seizure of the White House and several other public buildings by groups of protesters in the early morning of 6th October 2020, and the unlawful releaseof previous high-profile political figures from prison.

During the post-election protests, one person died and hundreds were injured, among whom were protesters, police and ambulance staff. The exact circumstances under which law enforcement authorities resorted to force and the clashes began areunclear. Human rights groups have called for investigations into allegations of the excessive use of force by police, and the use of violence by non-state actors.

In the days which followed the post-election protests, the Central Commission for Elections and Referendums of the Kyrgyz Republic (CEC) cancelled the election results, the prime minister and other top officials stepped down, calls were made for the resignation or impeachment of the President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and parliament was left in a debilitated state. In the power vacuum that emerged, different political groups were staking claims on power and the country was thrust into insecurity and instability. Looters sought to exploit the situation and decision-makers reported being subjected to pressure by organised criminal groups. A state of emergency was declared in Bishkek.

Through a convoluted chain of events, Sadyr Japarov – a former MP who was among those freed on 5th-6th October 2020 – was endorsed to head a new government on 14th October 2020. The following day President Jeenbekov left his position, explaining that he took this step due to fears of new, bloody confrontations between protesters opposing him and law enforcement authorities. On the same day Parliament Speaker Kanat Isaev gave up the role as acting president, which he was due to assume according to the Constitution. Following this, Sadyr Japarov announced that he was taking on this role, in addition to the role of prime minister. This turn of events drew criticism from the EU and others in view of the principle of separation of powers. As of 15th October 2020, new dates for parliamentary and presidential elections had yet to be set, and the situation in the country continued to be characterised by uncertainty and instability.

This is the third time that popular uprisings have resulted in the ousting of the president and achange of government in Kyrgyzstan in the past two decades. The earlier ones were the 2005 Tulip revolutionand the 2010 April revolutionthe latter of which was also followed by the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in the southern part of the country. The current crisis comes at a time when the past few months of COVID-19 pandemic have strained the health care system, aggravated socio-economic problems and seen growing pressure on media, social media users and civil society actors who have spoken out against government mismanagement, corruption and injustice.

The developments related to the post-election protests and crisis are described in more detail below in this special update on the situation in Kyrgyzstan, prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor. This update covers developments from election day (4th October) through 15th October 2020.

Elections marred by irregularities

The parliamentary elections held in Kyrgyzstan on 4th October 2020 were undermined by widespread allegations of violations. Civil society monitors documented, in particular, violations in the form of vote buying, the use of so-called administrative resources in support of pro-government parties and pressure on public servants and others to vote for certain parties. Dozens of videos and photos posted on social media on election day showed people photographing their marked ballots, apparently as proof that they had fulfilled their part of vote-buying agreements. There were also allegations of voters being bussed to polling stations where they could swing the result, under an election regulation allowing voters to cast their vote where convenient.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which deployed a limited election monitoring mission, concluded:

“Credible allegations of vote buying and pressure on civil servants remained a serious concern throughout the process”.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions, the ODIHR was unable to systematically observe election day proceedings.

According to the preliminary results of the parliamentary elections, which were announced on the evening of 4th October 2020, the two pro-government parties Birimdik (“Unity”) and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (“My Homeland Kyrgyzstan”) had secured most of the votes (close to 50 percent collectively). While the brother of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and other government-affiliated individuals were running for Birimdik party, the party Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as being associated with the family of Raimbek Matraimov, a former top customs service official implicated in a high-profile corruption investigation published by media last year.

The preliminary election results showed that only two other parties out of the 16 parties that took part in the elections had passed the seven percent threshold required to win seats in parliament: one of them was another party considered loyal to the government (the Kyrgyzstan party), while the second one was an opposition party (Butun Kyrgyzstan, or “United Kyrgyzstan”). Updated results, published later, showed that one more opposition party (Mekenchil, or “Patriot”) had gained representation in parliament.

Protests against election results

In response to the official elections results and the allegations of vote rigging, political opposition members and supporters took to the street to protest in the capital Bishkek, as well as in other cities. On 5th October 2020, several thousand people gathered at Bishkek’s main Ala-Too Square, demanding the annulment of the election results.

During most of the day, the protests were peacefuland took place without interference by law enforcement authorities. However, during the evening of 5th October 2020, police began dispersing demonstrators using water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades, after protesters blocked Chui Avenue and some of them attempted to break through the gates of the White House, where the President and parliament are seated. Clashes between police and demonstrators followed, with protesters reportedly throwing stones at law enforcement officials and burning several police cars.

On the morning of 6th October 2020, some protesters stormed and seized the White House, the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security and the building of the Public Broadcasting Corporation. Protesters also freed several high-profile prisoners, among them former President Almazbek Atambayev who was convicted on corruption charges in June 2020 and former MP Sadyr Japarov who was serving a sentence for hostage taking which he has described as politically motivated.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Health, more than 1,000 people needed medical attention in connection with the post-election clashes. As of 7th October 2020, around 200 people remained in hospital. Some of those hospitalised were in a serious condition and a nineteen year old youth died in hospital due to his severe injuries: reportedly both of his legs had been torn off by an explosion. Those injured included both protesters and police officers (with over 600 police officers reported to have sustained injuries of different degrees of severity). The Ministry of Health also stated that several emergencystaff members, who provided medical assistance during the clashes, were injured.

The mayor’s office of Bishkek estimated that the post-election clashes caused property damages to the value of about17 million som (around 200 000 USD), which included damages to police vehicles, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other equipment.

Political crisis and power vacuum

The election related events plunged Kyrgyzstan into a political crisis. On 6th October 2020, the CEC annulled the results of the elections, without immediately setting any date for new elections. Several top officials tendered their resignations, including Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov, while President Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s whereabouts were at first unknown. The outgoing parliament wasunable to convene at its regular venue, which had been captured by protesters, and its members split into different factions.

During the events that unfolded, different political forces, including those in office, opposition parties and so-called coordination councils established by them, as well as previous high-ranking officials and their supporters were vying for control. At both the national and local level, new public officials were being appointed in violation of legal requirements, which can partly be described as outright mob rule. This resulted in a high level of insecurityuncertainty, and a lack of clarity as to who was in power. There were reports of looting and attacks on property in Bishkek and elsewhere, prompting the mobilisation of volunteer groups to help ensure order and safety. There were also concerns about the growing influence of organised criminal groups, with members of parliament saying that decision makers were subjected to pressure by such groups.

In a statement issued on 6th October 2020, President Sooronaby Jeenbekov deemed the events of the previous night an unlawful attempt to seize power, but said that he had ordered law enforcement authorities not to open fire at those involved. He urged that all sides return to “legality”. Many called for Jeenbekov’s resignation, blaming him for the perceived election rigging and the heavy-handed law enforcement response to the post-election protests, which also affected peaceful demonstrators (see above). There was a failed attempt by MPs to impeach him. Initially Jeenbekov signalled his intentions to remain in office. However, on 9th October 2020, he announced his readiness to step down after new “legitimate” government leaders had been approved, and signed a decree endorsing the resignation of Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov and his cabinet.

On the same day, the president also declared a state of emergency in the capital due to the unfolding crisis. This regime allows for an introduction of a curfew, a ban on assemblies and other restrictive measures, as well for the deploymentof armed forces to help enforce the emergency measures and uphold law and order. Later endorsed by parliament, the state of emergency was set to be in force until 19th October 2020. However, on 16th October 2020, parliament cancelled it.

After Sadyr Japarov was freed from prison on the morning of 6th October 2020 (see above), his supporters carried out an aggressive campaign to promote him as prime minister. Some of the MPs of the outgoing parliament also backed his candidacy. At an extraordinary session held on 10th October 2020, parliament approved the composition and programme of a government led by Japarov.However, both political actors and lawyers questioned the legality of this decision, pointing to numerous procedural violations at the session, in particular the apparent lack of the required quorum as less than half of all MPs were physically present. On 13th October 2020, the president declined to sign the decision because it had not been adopted in accordance with legal requirements and returned it to parliament. The following day, parliament again approved the Japarov-led government, with 83 out of 120 MPs voting in favour of it, and shortly thereafter Jeenbekov ratified the decision. While the new decision was made in accordance with legal requirements, it was adopted in a context in which MPs had reported being subjected to pressure to support Japarov’s bid for prime minister. For example, on 13th October 2020, Deputy Parliament Speaker Aida Kasymalieva expressed support for Japarov, while also saying that she had been intimidated by his supporters. In particular, she said that members of organised criminal groups had threatened to burn down her house, kill her and rape her.

Following his appointment, Japarov insisted on Jeenbekov’s resignation and his rallying supporters demanded the president’s immediate departure. While Jeenbekov initially said that he would not step down before new parliamentary elections had been held and new presidential elections announced, he eventually resigned on 15th October 2020. He stated that the appointment of the new government had not reduced tensions and warned about the risk of confrontations between protesters demanding his resignation and law enforcement authorities, resulting in bloodshed. He said that he had decided to resign since he did not want to go down in the history of Kyrgyzstan as a president who opened fire at his own citizens.

According to the constitution (article 68), the country’sspeaker of parliament becomes acting president if the president steps down ahead of time, while this responsibility goes to the prime minister if thespeaker of parliament is unable to shoulder it. The position ofspeaker of parliament became vacant in Kyrgyzstan when the speaker in office left in connection with the post-election protests. Following this, the person first appointed to replace him resigned after less than a week, leaving the country without a speaker of parliament for several days during the ongoing crisis. However, on 13th October 2020, the position was filled again, with Kanat Isaev approved as speaker. After President Jeenbekov’s resignation, Japarov’s supporters called for the resignation of Isaev as well. By the 15th October 2020, Isaev had declined to become acting president, and Japarov announced to his cheering supporters that he was taking up this role as well, in addition to that of prime minster. This development gave rise to concerns about the concentration of powers in the hands of the prime minister, even if during a transition period (see also the section on reactions by the international community below).

The appointment of the new government and the president’s resignation technically brought Kyrgyzstan closer to an end of the post-election crisis. However, as of mid-October 2020, many questions remained about the way forward. New dates for parliamentary and presidential elections are yet to be determined. By law, the date of new parliamentary elections should be announced within a month after the annulment of results of the previous elections, while new presidential elections should take place within three months from the date of resignation of the president in office. According to the Constitution, the person serving as acting president is not allowed to run in early presidential elections. The CEC stated that it would announce new parliamentary elections after parliament had reduced the electoral threshold for parties to secure seats, revised the rules concerning the address at which citizens may vote and regulated the participation of parties “whose actions served as the basis” for invalidating the results of the 4th October 2020 elections.

New rallies and clashes

In the days that followed the initial protests against the election results, new rallies took place in Bishkek. On 9th October 2020, several different groups rallied Civil society representatives protesting against the political influence of organised criminal groups, as well as the supporters of former President Almazbek Atambayev and former and aspiring Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov eventually gathered at Ala-Too Square. The supporters of former MP and prime minister candidate Sadyr Japarov had assembled at nearby Old Square. Later people who appeared to be participants in the pro-Japarov rally also arrived at Ala-Too Square, after which scuffles began, with stones and bottles being thrown at the speakers on the podium and sounds of weapon being fired were heard. Several people were injured, among them Tilek Toktogaziev, another prime minister hopeful, who sustained a head injury. The cars of Almazbek Atambayev, Omurbek Babanov and Sapar Isakov (another former prime minister who was freed from prison during the events during the night of 5th-6th October 2020) were reportedly shot at, as these political figures were leaving the square.

Sadyr Japarov denied that his supporters had been involved in the commotion at Ala-Too Square, although observers made a different conclusion, noting that Japarov’s supporters have also repeatedly assaulted journalists (see more below). A criminal investigation was opened into the 9th October 2020 events and the following day, Almazbek Atambayev and several people associated with him were detained on charges of organising riots. Atambayev is also facing other criminal charges dating back to his time as president.

Attacks on journalists

Journalists have faced heightened risks during the election related events. Both local and international media watchdogs have raised the alarm about a series of threats and attacks targeting journalists covering these events and have called for investigations into all reported attacks, and for measures to guarantee the safety of journalists at this time. Among others, the Media Policy Institute, other local organisationsthe Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) have issued statements to this end.

“Independent news is essential to the public during these chaotic and quickly moving events in Kyrgyzstan since the parliamentary elections. Kyrgyz authorities should ensure journalists can work freely and safely; law enforcement must stop attacking the press and ensure that protesters don’t target journalists either.”-CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Gulnoza Said.

The media organisations mentioned and media outlets have reported the following incidents:

Aggressive acts against journalists covering the elections:

  • As a crew from the independent Kloop news website was filming at a polling station in the city of Osh, two unidentified men tried to stop them from filming. The men attempted to confiscate the phones of camera operator Khamidullo Uzakov and correspondent Adilet Kyzy, while police officers present reportedly did not intervene to help the journalists.
  • An unknown woman harassed the crew from Radio Azattyk (the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL), which was filming in a polling station in the city of Talas. She reportedly hit their camera and demanded that they stop filming.

Attacks on journalists reporting on the post-election protests on 5th-6 thOctober 2020:

  • Riot police fired a rubber bullet at journalist Aibol Kozhomuratov from the Current Time (affiliated with RFE/RL) during a live broadcast from the scene of events in Bishkek, although he was wearing a reflective vest designated for media workers and was standing and filming at a well-lighted spot. Kozhomuratov was not harmed, but said that the bullet flew only “a millimeter” above hit his head.
  • Eldos Kazybekov, a correspondent for the Vesti.kg news site who was also covering the protests in the capital, reported that one police officer threw a stone at him and that another one appeared to target a stun grenade at him. He was not injured.
  • A police officer confiscated the mobile phone of Ruslan Kharizov, a correspondent from the independent 24.kg news agency while he was conducting a live broadcast in Bishkek.
  • A group of unknown perpetrators attacked a film crew from the Kloop news outlet during a live broadcast outside the House of Government in Bishkek.
  • Unknown perpetrators damaged equipment of a team from Govori TV that was filming events outside the General Prosecutor’s Office in Bishkek.
  • The filming crews of several media outlets, including Kloop and 7 Kanal, were denied entry to the Dostuk hotel, where members of the outgoing parliament were meeting to consider the prime minister candidacy of Sadyr Japarov. Unknown people also attacked Kaktus Media journalist Tanzilya Mingalieva, who was conducting a live broadcast there, and took her phone. Members of a vigilante group reportedly helped her to escape and get her phone back.

Attacks on journalists later during the post-election crisis:

  • On 9th October 2020, an unknown perpetrator attempted to take the phone of a journalist from the 24.kg news agency who was filming the speech of members of the Respublika party at a rally held outside the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Bishkek. Later another person demanded that the journalist stop filming the protest.
  • A journalist from Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL, was attacked while covering a rally held by supporters of Sadyr Japarov at Old Square outside the House of Government in Bishkek on 9th October 2020. The assailants threatened the journalist, saying that the service was “not correctly” covering the rally, demanded that he leave, pulled him by the arm and hit his leg. Fearing for his safety, the journalist stopped covering the event and left.
  • During the same rally, a group of unknown perpetrators also reportedly attacked a correspondent from 7 Kanal.
  • As the rally in support of Japarov continued on 10th October 2020, a group of 25-30 unknown people arrived to the office of the Sputnik media outlet and demanded that a correspondent immediately be sent to cover the rally, threatening that they would otherwise use physical violence. Rally participants also reportedly voiced discontent that other media outlets were not covering the event, threatening to go to their offices and make sure they provided coverage. After being warned about planned attacks on their offices, several media outlets including Radio Azzatyk, 24.kg, Sputnik and Kaktus Media had requested volunteers to help protect their offices in the evening of 9th October 2020.
  • At a rally in support of Sadyr Japarov in Bishkek on 14th October2020, participants verbally attacked Radio Azzatyk and other media outlets, accusing them of being “traitors” because of their negative coverage of Japarov. Rally participants also reproached journalists and bloggers belonging to ethnic minorities.

In response to a media question on how the safety of journalists would be ensured given the attacks reported, Prime Minister elect Japarov said that “no one had been subjected to pressure” and that people might have a negative view of media because of the publication of “fake information”.

Local media organisations also raised concerns about restrictions on internet access in connection with the post-election protests. In the evening of 5th October 2020, many customers of the state mobile phone operator Megakom reported problems with internet and phone connection. Megakom claimed that these problems were due to “prophylactic” measures taken to improve services, an assertion that raised serious questions as these measures supposedly were implemented at the same time as the mass protests against the election outcome took place. In connection with the post-election protests, the customers of other operators also reported problems with internet access.

Responses from the international community and civil society

Representatives of the international community responded with concern to the post-election developments in Kyrgyzstan and issued calls for non-violence, dialogue and the rule of law. UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged all involved “to exercise the utmost restraint and refrain from violence” and encouraged them “to engage in dialogue and agree on a way forward”, within the existing constitutional framework.

The European Union called for “inclusive dialogue across the political spectrum” in order to find a way out of the crisis and pave the way for new, free and fair elections, stressing the need to “respect the rule of law and basic freedoms”.In response to the announcement that Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov had assumed the functions of acting president, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell concluded that this transfer of presidential powers “raises serious questions” and said that the division of powers must “be respected and preserved” in the country.

The OSCE Chairmanship called on all political leaders and citizens of Kyrgyzstan to “refrain from violence and act in the interest of maintaining stability in the country.” The United States embassy in Bishkek raised particular concern about “the attempt by organised crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections” and expressed support for the efforts “to return the political life of the country to a constitutional order”.

Both local and foreign civil society actors also appealed for respect of human rights and the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan at this time of crisis. Among others, Kyrgyzstan’s community of lawyers urged all political parties and leaders to comply with fundamental rights and to takedecisions in accordance with the country’s constitution and legislation. The Adilet Legal Clinic appealed to the parliament to “take full responsibility for the fate of Kyrgyzstan”, “find consensus between all political forces” and ensure that political processes were “brought back into the constitutional framework”. The Bir Duino Human Rights Movement called on all political movements to join forces to ensure a peaceful transition of power and to prevent further violence and instability.

IPHR and more than 30 other members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, a network of human rights NGOs from across Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America, expressed support with Kyrgyzstan’s civil society in its efforts to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law in the context of the ongoing upheaval.

We call on the authorities of Kyrgyzstan, as well as on all the groups staking claims on power to opt for dialogue and cooperation, refrain from violence, and act strictly within the framework of national and international law with a view to overcoming the current uncertainty, power struggles and threats of lawlessness and to continuing the course of democratic development.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that:

“It is incumbent upon those in power to respect fundamental human rights, especially during great political upheaval. Protecting the right to life, as well as freedoms of speech, assembly, access to information, and the right to protest, are critical in times like these,”-Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International stressed that:

Peaceful protesters should not be subjected to violence at the hands of law enforcement officers or non-state actors, journalists should be able to carry out their profession without fear of attack, and the emergency health services should be able to work without interference.”

Both organisations called for investigations into allegations of the excessive use of force and violence against protesters, as soon as possible. As covered above, media watchdogs condemned threats and attacks targeting journalists and called for safeguarding freedom of expression.