Japarov of Kyrgyzstan: from prison to presidency

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Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP)

Just over three months ago, Kyrgyzstan’s favorite in Sunday’s presidential poll, Sadyr Japarov, was languishing in prison, mourning his parents and a son who all died while in prison.

But an October crunch over a contested vote saw him come out of his cell by supporters and a court overturned his hostage-taking conviction as local brokers lined up to support his bid for the day’s leadership on the next day.

Japarov’s rise to power was so remarkable that it seemed to surprise even Kyrgyzstan’s key ally, Russia, and fueled speculation about the role organized crime could have played in the high-speed events.

Yet it was also typical of the most volatile country in the former USSR in Central Asia, where political fortunes were often made in street protests first and only later at the polls.

Japarov’s election campaign, which filled stadiums across the country despite the coronavirus threat, was showcased with banners reading “Sadyr – President”.

The same slogan was chanted by supporters who gathered in the capital Bishkek and demanded that Sooronbay Jeenbekov step down in favor of Japarov after a parliamentary election marred by allegations of vote-buying.

Jeenbekov agreed, citing the need to avoid bloodshed as he became the third Kyrgyz leader to step down during political turmoil since Moscow gained independence in 1991.

Japarov became interim head of state, stepping down in November to participate in Sunday’s vote while installing loyalists in key positions to maintain his grip.

Sunday voters are expected to grant him a first-round victory.

– Man of the people? –

Japarov, 52, entered Kyrgyzstan’s political scene as a lawmaker in 2005, after setting up a small oil company in his eastern region of Issyk-Kul.

His star rose under the patronage of then-president Kurmanbek Bakiev, who appointed him to head the anti-corruption agency in 2008.

But the agency’s investigations never touched Bakiyev’s family – widely seen as the primary beneficiary of the systemic transplant at the time.

Bakiyev was overthrown in 2010, in a revolution far more violent than the one that displaced the first post-Soviet President Askar Akayev five years earlier.

Violence erupted between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks two months later, killing hundreds.

A nationalist opposition party that included Japarov among its leaders won parliamentary elections later that year, but was excluded from the ruling coalition.

Japarov’s political brand then joined in chaotic rallies against Canadian operators of Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine, which contributes up to 10% of national production but has been hampered by corruption charges and environmental concerns.

During a rally in his home province in 2013, the local governor was briefly taken hostage and sprayed with petrol.

The authorities then opened criminal proceedings against Japarov, who fled the country.

– Upcoming challenges –

Japarov used his exile to build bridges between the million-strong Kyrgyz Diaspora who work in Russia and Kazakhstan.

On his return from neighboring Kazakhstan in 2017, Japarov was jailed for hostage-taking and later sentenced to 11.5 years in prison.

During this time, he lost his father and mother, as well as one of his sons, who died in a traffic accident. He always insisted on his innocence.

If Japarov is victorious on Sunday, he will face an uphill battle to reorganize the economy of the second-poorest Soviet successor state and deliver on his promises to fight corruption and organized crime – both systemic problems.

Winning the trust of Russia, a key partner in last year’s crisis, could be another challenge.

President Vladimir Putin called the overthrow of the previous government a “misfortune” in October and berated Kyrgyz politicians for trying to emulate Western democracies at his year-end press conference.

“The level of political awareness, the maturity of the institutions are not the same as, say, in France,” Putin said.

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