Less than five months after becoming Kyrgyzstan’s president, Sadyr Japarov has had to face a crisis with neighbouring Tajikistan. After a series of remarks in March that contributed to tense relations with the Tajiks, Japarov was slow to act when the conflict escalated and the Tajik forces entered Kyrgyz territory. Questions now remain of how quickly, or if at all, he will be able to recover from this setback.
What on April 28 seemed like another border incident between villagers from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan escalated a day later to a full-blown confrontation when the security forces of both countries got involved. The Tajiks were faster to react, which raises questions about premeditation, and the Kyrgyz were overwhelmed. As a result, a number of villagers were seized, property destroyed, tens of people (mostly civilians) killed and tens of thousands displaced.
The events that took place at the end of April and beginning of May seem a partial culmination of the verbal exchanges between both sides that had taken place months before. On March 26, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiyev, declared that Bishkek was willing to exchange Kyrgyz territory in return for the Tajik enclave of Vorukh. This was seen in the Tajik capital, which was not consulted on the matter, as a threat. Days later, the Tajik president visited Vorukh to reassure its inhabitants no such plans existed.
Tashiyev is a nationalist politician known for his blunt statements who appeals to a nationalist sector of Kyrgyz society but lacks the tact and diplomacy to deal with delicate matters such as border issues.
When the conflict erupted Tashiyev was nowhere to be seen. He was abroad receiving medical treatment. At least that is what official sources stated. However, rumours circulated in Kyrgyzstan that he was actually in Spain at the time, visiting his son Emirkhan who plays football for Levante, a football club based in Valencia, for his birthday (April 29). It is worrying to have the country’s top security official outside Kyrgyzstan when such events take place, but it is even worse when his whereabouts are unknown.
On May 2, Tashiyev surprised when, questioned by Sputnik’s reporter, he stated that “we knew that to some extent the situation on the border was getting worse. We took appropriate measures.” If he was aware that was the case, why did he go abroad then? How were the measures appropriate when the scale and determination of Tajik forces surprised the Kyrgyz? Such statement raises more questions than it provides answers to.
The current president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, has been in office for less than five months, although more in an interim capacity, and has failed to deliver in the first major test he has faced. After consolidating his power, it was time for him to rule and solve his citizens’ problems. However, at the first real obstacle he has encountered he has not delivered. Making populist remarks while on the campaign trail is one thing, ruling and dealing with complex situations is a very different one.
Japarov reached the presidency with a populist rhetoric, making promises that he would not be able to uphold. He rode on a nationalistic sentiment that he is now unable to satisfy, as was seen in Bishkek on May 1. That day, around 1,500 people, mostly young men, demonstrated in front of the White House demanding military mobilization. “We are ready to defend the Motherland, give us weapons” read some of the banners. A small group of them tried to enter the building by force but were prevented by other demonstrators and the police. A warning to Japarov of what could come if he fails to appease the same nationalism he has encouraged during his political career.
The crisis with Tajikistan has put Japarov between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, to descale the conflict he will have to reach an agreement with the Tajiks, and as a matter of fact, Tashiyev has announced that 112 kilometres will be demarcated by May 9. On the other hand, any concessions he makes will be badly received by nationalists and would erode his popular support. What will he do then? How will he sell any agreement to his base? Nobody said ruling a country would be easy.
It was a matter of time for Japarov to fail to deliver on his promises. The pandemic, the economic situation, Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China… They all seemed like prime candidates for this to take place. However, his first major challenge has come from a, somewhat, unexpected place. Japarov has experienced his first failure. The question now is how many more will the Kyrgyz people tolerate.