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Kyrgyzstan prison-to-presidency power grab proceeds as China frets

Expert sees 'Trump effect' behind Acting President Sadyr Japarov's rapid rise

Kyrgyzstan's new Acting President Sadyr Japarov speaks in parliament in Bishkek on Oct. 16, less than two weeks after he was sprung from jail.   © Reuters

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- October has been a tempestuous month for Kyrgyzstan, from the annulment of a rigged election to the resignation of a president and a nationalist politician's rise from a jail cell to the presidential office.

Now, Acting President Sadyr Japarov and his backers are looking at ways to consolidate his power, as Chinese and other investors watch warily.

Events in Kyrgyzstan have moved at a blistering pace since President Sooronbai Jeenbekov announced his resignation on Oct. 15, saying he did not want to shoot his own citizens, and Japarov took his place.

Japarov, who up until Oct. 6 was serving a jail sentence for organizing a kidnapping, had been sprung from prison by unknown supporters amid the chaos that followed the contentious parliamentary polls. He then stormed his way to power, helped by those shadowy allies as well as vocal, sometimes violent supporters from the Kyrgyz heartland.

In his short tenure he has introduced measures to reform the constitution; initiated an "economic amnesty" to encourage officials to come clean about corruption; had criminal cases opened and other convictions overturned; put his cronies into positions of power; and seen election dates set and then abruptly canceled -- all with scant regard for the rule of law.

Political analyst Azim Azimov sees a "Trump effect" at play in Japarov's ascendancy. "There are very few things on his resume that would support the claim that he is the most fit leader for the PM's office or the president," Azimov told Nikkei Asia. "However, he has very strong popular support, especially amongst traditional nationalist and very conservative rural people of Kyrgyzstan."

Japarov supporters stage a rally in Bishkek on Oct. 15.   © Reuters

Kyrgyzstan's new leader came to prominence in 2012 in a campaign to nationalize Kumtor, a gold mine located in his home region of Issyk-Kul. The mine, which is owned by Centerra Gold -- a Canadian mining company of which the government of Kyrgyzstan is the largest shareholder -- is a major contributor to the country's gross domestic product.

In October 2012, Japarov and Kamchybek Tashiev -- a fellow nationalist, rabble-rouser politician -- led protests in the capital Bishkek after the government refused to nationalize the mine. The protest ended with an attempt to storm parliament, for which the pair were given 18-month jail sentences (a conviction now hurriedly quashed).

After his release, Japarov was again involved in protests calling for the mine's nationalization and was also accused of involvement in the kidnapping of a state official. For this, he was given an 11.5-year sentence in 2017, reduced to 10 on appeal.

With this conviction conveniently under review, the way is almost clear for Japarov to formally seek the presidency, provided he can overcome a constitutional rule that bars acting presidents from running. As for the gold mine, he recently came out against nationalization, suggesting the reserves are now too depleted to make it worthwhile.

Given the acting president's track record, investors are seeking reassurance over security concerns. A number of foreign-owned businesses were targeted by mobs in the unrest of early October. Back in February, plans for a Chinese-backed $280 million logistics center in the south of the country were canceled after the site was attacked by protesters -- not the first time anti-Chinese sentiment has led to turmoil in Kyrgyzstan.

China, which operates a number of projects linked to its Belt and Road Initiative in Kyrgyzstan, expressed concerns about the deteriorating security situation when its ambassador met with Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev on Oct. 16. Kyrgyzstan's largest creditor, with some $1.8 billion owed, it has so far refused to grant debt relief to its impoverished neighbor during the pandemic.

Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine, seen here in 2013, played a key role in Japarov's rise to national prominence.    © Reuters

Some commentators fear that Bishkek's new nationalist leaders may play on anti-Chinese sentiment in the coming months as elections loom, which may adversely affect Chinese investment. However, Raffaello Pantucci, a China expert at the U.K.'s Royal United Services Institute, feels such apprehensions may be overblown, given the significance of these investments to Kyrgyzstan.

"The broader logic of BRI still holds in Kyrgyzstan -- a country that needs external investment to enable it to grow. And for it to not see China as a potential investor is absurd given their physical geography," he told Nikkei Asia.

"I would imagine that like any political leader who has made strident statements on the campaign trail, brute reality will kick in once in power," Pantucci said.

Russia, Kyrgyzstan's key strategic partner, has also been keeping a keen eye on the developments.

President Vladimir Putin described the change of power as a "misfortune" but promised Russia would not "meddle" in Kyrgyzstan's affairs. Earlier, Russia showed its displeasure with hints about suspending a financial assistance package.

Maximilian Hess, Central Asian fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, believes Russia's moves are calculated to improve its standing in Kyrgyzstan.

"The Kremlin appears to be leveraging its established influence in the country to ensure that it is not negatively affected, and indeed may even be able to take advantage of the developments," he told Nikkei Asia.

On the domestic front, the acting president has made demonstrative moves to tackle corruption, even as he was forced to deny having links to organized crime himself. On Oct. 22, Rayim Matraimov -- a former top customs official turned mega-rich oligarch, who was named last year in an international journalistic investigation into a cross-border smuggling ring that had cost the Kyrgyz economy $700 million -- was detained. But he was released into house arrest on the same day after agreeing to pay back $24.5 million to the state, leading many to believe the anti-corruption drive is just a show.

Confusion reigns over the timeline for parliamentary and presidential elections. Plans to re-run the parliamentary polls on Dec. 20 were superseded by rushed legislation suspending the vote and laying out plans to enact constitutional reform first, with a parliamentary election to be held by summer 2021.

Before that, a presidential election is scheduled for Jan. 10. Japarov has hinted he will find a way around the constitutional hurdle, either by laying down his presidential powers or via constitutional reform abolishing that restriction.

If he wins, his prison-to-presidency power grab would be complete.

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