Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov: From a prison cell to the presidency

Japarov, often described as a populist, won a landslide with 79 percent of the vote. Months ago, he was languishing in jail.

Sadyr Zhaparov, Kyrgyzstan's prime minister and a presidential candidate, attends an election rally in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, December 30, 2020 [Vladimir PirogovReuters]

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – It was almost 11pm when Sadyr Japarov began his victory speech, three hours after polls closed on Sunday.

Most of the votes in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election and a referendum which will put the country on a path towards stronger presidential rule had been counted.

It was a moment of triumph for Japarov and his vision.

Seventy-nine percent of voters put their trust in his presidency, while 81 percent opted for the presidential form of government.

Japarov, a nationalist who was just months ago in a prison cell, enjoyed the moment with ease and a sense of gravity.

His voice was calm and soft. He was confident, with undisturbed faith in the righteousness of his cause. He looked humbled and determined.

“Your votes have filled me with energy and confidence and ignite me to work. I will do all in my power to keep your trust. I’m coming to power in a difficult moment for the country,” he said.

“That is why, I am once again asking for your support in the coming three, four years. You all know that to solve the problems that have mounted during the past 30 years in a year or two will be hard. But I am convinced that we will manage to improve the economic situation in the next two, three years and get out of the crisis.”

He then promised to bring migrant workers home by creating opportunities for those who work menial jobs in foreign countries for unfair pay.

He said he has no hate or anger towards his opponents and those who have tried to discredit him and go against the will of the people. Today, he continued, everyone should join him in his fight to fulfil the dreams of all Kyrgyzstanis. Today, everyone should be a patriot.

Sadyr Japarov and his wife Aigul pose for a picture after casting their ballots at a polling station during a presidential election and constitutional referendum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan January 10, 2021 [Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters]

Japarov’s speech ended with applause but not all shared his enthusiasm. For activists, lawyers and intellectual elite, his victory means disaster – the concentration of power in the hands of one individual, disregard towards the law, and authoritarianism.

“He is using the standard populistic tools that have been used by popular leaders,” Saniya Toktogazieva, a Kyrgyz expert in constitutional law, told Al Jazeera. “He plays on people’s emotions and does not back his claims with any facts. Now, the main narrative is that he is acting on behalf of ordinary people against the elite which has been exploiting Kyrgyzstan,”

“He’s working for the regions, he speaks plain Kyrgyz that everyone understands and knows what to say to touch people’s emotions. I think it’s manufactured and that there are political technologists behind him who know the Kyrgyz reality, especially in the regions.”

Japarov ascendance to power remains a mystery.

When the third political upheaval since the country’s independence began on October 4 last year, following a disputed parliamentary election, he was still in prison serving an 11.5-year sentence for kidnapping a local official.

Amid the revolutionary fervour, he was freed from prison by protesters, and immediately rose to the highest echelons of power.

The High Court acquitted him in a hasty trial and he became the interim prime minister. Soon after, his supporters forced President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to resign and Japarov assumed the role of the country’s acting president.

With the old parliament still in place, he began working on a new constitution that would place almost unlimited powers in the hands of the president, a process which according to lawyers has been far from legal.

But on Sunday, Kyrgyzstanis decided to trust in him.

He is the man of the people. The voice of the voiceless: the impoverished regions and average citizens removed from the glamour of the Russian-speaking capital. The new national hero.

Japarov supporters attend a rally in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, October 15, 2020, at the height of the recent unrest [Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters]

Opponents have acknowledged that he has earned his reputation, although his past is not free from controversy.

He began his political career in 2005.

From 2008 to 2010, under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, he headed the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, a period some observers have noted saw rampant corruption.

Today, he is reluctant to talk about this time. He prefers to concentrate on his activism to nationalise the Kumtor gold mine following the 2010 revolution which dethroned Bakiev.

His protest against the exploitation of Kyrgyzstan’s scarce natural wealth by foreign corporations, which he claimed benefitted the country’s elite at the expense of the people and the environment, won him support across the country.

“In 2013, Japarov became a sole figure for the movement to nationalise the Kumtor gold mine. The protests he organised were much more radical than all the protests before. In 2013, at one of the rallies in Karakol, his supporters locked the local governor in a car. The authorities labelled it as kidnapping and a lawsuit was filed against him,” said Bektour Iskender, co-founder of Kloop media platform.

Following the incident, Japarov left Kyrgyzstan and spent three years between Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and Cyprus. He devoted a lot of attention to supporting migrant workers, who have been largely ignored by the country’s political elite.

“This was a very important part of building his genuine popularity, because we’re talking about a huge group of people. There are about a million Kyrgyz working abroad, most of them live in poor conditions, are discriminated by everybody, ignored by the Russian state and completely forgotten by Kyrgyzstan. And suddenly, there is a politician who cares about them,” Iskender said.

Kyrgyzstan’s total population is about 6.3 million.

In 2017, Japarov returned to Kyrgyzstan, knowing that he would face arrest. He was summoned to prison while crossing the border. In the eyes of the public, he became a martyr, a victim of the corrupt elites.

Protesters march in Bishkek against Sadyr Japarov and constitutional changes [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

While in prison, he wrote extensively about his political path and vision for the country. His books were distributed widely among his supporters who began to see him as the last man standing.

In 2017, still imprisoned, Japarov tried to cut his neck. In a video available on YouTube, a weak and confused Japarov serving his sentence explains that he did not know why he did that. He was in a state of shock.

After being freed from prison, Japarov facilitated the parliament’s meetings, which has left many questions unanswered.

According to Iskender, there are reasons to believe that organised crime, which for years has had significant influence on Kyrgyzstan’s politics, played a role in his rise to power. So far, however, direct evidence has been lacking.

Japarov’s popular appeal, his nationalism and his promise to return the country to its roots, restore its pride and foster people’s wellbeing has worked.

“People are coming to his rallies despite the cold just to see him. Those who couldn’t have made it were asking when he’ll come back. He said that if he becomes president he will go to the regions again in spring to meet with the people. I don’t remember any candidate, president or prime minister who would be meeting with the people so openly,” said Jyldyz Bekbaeva, a well-known journalist, who decided to join Japarov’s election team.

“People were crying, asking for help, demanding justice. For the past 30 years, nobody has listened to them.”

It remains to be seen whether Japarov fulfils his promises. One thing, however, is clear: it will not be easy.

“If you go back in Kyrgyz history, each time a president changed the constitution was followed by unrest. That was the case in 2005 and 2010, and I’m sure that the upheaval that happened in 2020 took place because of the constitutional changes that President Atambayev introduced in 2016,” Toktogazieva said. “If Japarov is going to go ahead with the reform and completely change the constitution, I’m really worried about the consequences.”

Sadyr Japarov’s poster is seen in Bishkek amid the election [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera