It would be understandable if one lost the plot in observing Kyrgyz politics since the October 2020 parliamentary election kicked off a change of government. As 2022 looms on the horizon, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has the system of government he wanted — a presidential system — and a newly elected, pared-down parliament will finally begin work this week. To sort through what the past year has yielded, what challenges the Kyrgyz government has to get serious about managing, and what the neighbors may be thinking, The Diplomat spoke to Dr. Aijan Sharshenova, a postdoctoral research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of Dr. Aijan Sharshenova and do not reflect the official policy or position of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.
Kyrgyzstan has had a year full of elections. What conclusions do you think can be drawn from the results of those elections, primarily the presidential election in January, the constitutional referendum in April, and the recent parliamentary election?
Indeed, Kyrgyzstan has held six elections and referendums in a little more than a year: a parliamentary election in October 2020, a presidential election and a constitutional referendum in January 2021, local council elections and one more constitutional referendum in April 2021, and local council elections in July 2021. I would draw several conclusions.
First, the current leadership is not interested in holding free and fair elections or referendums. There are two reasons to say that. The head of the Central Election Commission [Nurjan] Shaildabekova was kept in her position and oversaw all of the elections and referendums since the epic-level failure at the parliamentary election of October 2020, which led to yet another change of government in the country. If a professional who has failed at such a scale manages to keep her job, the motivation behind such decision is rather political. In addition, each election and referendum gets increasingly complex without sufficient time for the public to get acquainted with the format of the electoral process and the substance of the political issues that people are voting for or against. One might think that this is also a deliberate complication: As the old saying goes, “Muddy waters makes it easy to catch fish.”
A second conclusion relates to the consistently low voter turnout: Central Asia observers could probably feel the so-called “voter fatigue,” a kind of apathetic behavior on the side of electorate, who are asked to decide on various policy matters far too often. However, this could be a combination of factors, such as disenfranchisement (a complex social issue), electoral absenteeism (a protest behavior), and lack of clarity about the electoral process. Unless there are robust sociological studies devoted to this phenomenon, I would not say it was a pure voter fatigue. In other words, electoral behavior in 2020-2021 might hold a lot of insights into deeper, more structural issues of the Kyrgyz politics.
Arguably, Sadyr Japarov now has the government he asked for: a presidential system with a diminished parliament, his allies in key positions. What are the benefits and risks of the new system?
While it is difficult to forecast what the benefits and risks of the new system would be, it is possible to say that the benefits are probably short term and the risks are long term. The key benefit is probably Japarov’s emotional well-being as he is unlikely to face much (constructive or not) criticism in his immediate work environment. However, this temporary all-approving bubble of the political system holds very serious risks both for Japarov’s presidency and for the country.
First, without constructive criticism it is impossible to develop anything in any meaningful way. The best of us require some sort of external pressure to continue improving our work.
Second, this safe bubble creates a dangerous illusion that all is well in the country, while a lot of issues go unaddressed. This could lead to the “Let them eat cake” tone-deafness, which only fuels public resentment. You must have seen many times where public resentment gets us in Kyrgyzstan.
Third, even a powerless parliament is a safe and controlled platform to talk through differences in opinions. If this platform is taken away, the differences in opinions will spill over onto streets. Again, you might be aware how resolute our streets are: They make kings as often as they break kings. The current spread of political powers are not just Japarov vs. urban liberals, there are many more socio-political groups, whose voices need to be heard and taken into consideration.
What are the most acute challenges Japarov’s government faces now?
The most obvious and urgent is probably getting the country through the winter. Winters are always harsh in Kyrgyzstan, and not because of the weather conditions. Energy shortages, high coal prices, increasing food and fuel prices, along with the usual levels of unemployment and lack of access to such basic necessities as clean water, education, and health care, will certainly put Japarov’s (real or perceived) public popularity to a test.
A second challenge would be to listen and to address the public’s woes. Japarov, as a true populist leader, rose to popularity having criticized previous governments for not addressing public needs. Now he is in power and he has acquired more power and control over every aspect (even the appointment of village heads) than any other president in the history of the independent Kyrgyzstan. Japarov cannot continue asking the public to be patient and to wait while he seems to be living the dream of wearing designer clothes and flying private jets to hang out with the world leaders. This creates really bad optics. He did a good job feeling and tapping into the public mood before, but he does not seem to hear and see it now.
A third challenge would be to manage the diverse and vocal set of explicit political forces and the hidden behind-the-curtain business and other actors. I do not think Japarov is sponsored by foreign governments, as some political scientists might claim. I do believe he has the backing of a group of both domestic and foreign business and other forces. How he can keep up his public promises while fulfilling the expectations and demands of this quite powerful interest group is a genuinely difficult challenge.
How has political instability in Kyrgyzstan been perceived by its neighbors in Central Asia? What about larger international partners like China and Russia?
International partners and neighbors must be quite confused. I certainly cannot speak on their behalf, but they might be losing the plot of Kyrgyz politics as each domestic development brings a whole new set of political actors and issues.
The current leadership is certainly different from all previous presidents and elites in Kyrgyzstan, and they are different from the leadership of our neighbors. Japarov is no match for the old post-Soviet elites or Putin-era autocrats in the region. They will all deal with Japarov as their positions require, but the way Japarov came to power and his background have certainly undermined Kyrgyzstan’s position. It is clear that he is yet to make powerful friends and this is a weakness for a small country like Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan’s violent breach of Kyrgyzstan’s borders earlier this year was a clear sign of this domestic weakness. The regional organizations’ and the regional powers’ responses (or lack thereof) added insult to this powerful injury.
A lot has to be done to bring Kyrgyzstan back to where it stood before in the regional politics, and I am not sure the current leadership pays this issue the attention it requires.
In what ways are Kyrgyz politics and political culture influenced by Russia?
This is a tough one! Honestly, the ways Russia advertently and inadvertently influences Kyrgyz politics and political culture are so many I am not sure where to start. Most obviously, we speak the Russian language – to a lesser extent than before, but certainly more than any other foreign language. Kyrgyz politicians prefer to hire Russian experts in communications and political technologies: partly because it is safer (Kyrgyzstan is small and it is difficult to keep anything secret), and partly because Russian specialists have tested their skills elsewhere. Higher education, and to a large extent school education too, are still very similar to Russian counterparts. The news we watch, the entertainment products we enjoy – all come from Russia and shape the way we see the world.
This is not to say that Kyrgyzstan is a copy of Russia. But there are a lot of ways Russia influences Kyrgyzstan, often without even realizing it.
Something strange happening in Canadian politics – The Hill Times
CHELSEA, QUE.—Something strange has been happening in Canadian politics since the Trump contagion to the south. Voters elect a mostly reasonable, often affable, Member of Parliament only to discover, as they watch their MP climb the leadership ladder, that they are not so reasonable, not so affable after all. That, in fact, some are drifting rapidly from the centre to the fringe, even to tinfoil-hat territory.
It is evident, most recently, with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, whose public appearances—tweets, videos, press conferences—have taken on an almost manic tone. One 40-second video has him bouncing around in front of the Parliament Buildings in -23 weather—“-37 in Yellowknife!”—accusing Liberal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault of threatening to shut down Canada’s energy sector in 18 months, leaving us all freezing in the dark.
First, Guilbeault could never achieve such a coup even if he tried. Governments move too slowly. Second, even the most ardent environmentalists acknowledge that renewables are not ready to replace fossil fuels that quickly. But, more important, OToole’s claim is not true—and he knew when he said it that it wasn’t true, as The Toronto Star’s Althia Raj underscores in a recent column.
What Guilbeault has vowed to do—elaborating on an international commitment first endorsed by Stephen Harper in 2009—is end federal subsidies to fossil fuel companies by 2023. It’s a tall order, but it is no sneak attack: it was promised in the Liberals’ election campaign and now, at last, they are preparing to deliver. In an interview with The Narwhal, Guilbeault mentioned “eliminating fossil fuels” in a list of his government’s ambitions, an obvious error (he had spoken previously of eliminating fossil fuel *subsidies*.)
As Raj reports, O’Toole publicly acknowledged the minister “made a mistake” in a Zoom presentation, before an unusually animated O’Toole made his video, distorting Guilbeault’s intention. The Conservative leader apparently doesn’t care, because that is the way politics works these days. Hysterical exaggerations, often flatly untrue, advanced without a shred of shame or remorse.
Consider the Conservative leader’s recent condemnation of Justin Trudeau for “normalizing lockdowns” and single-handedly bungling the management of the pandemic, by failing to provide rapid tests and PPE. By now, everyone knows that lockdowns are determined by provinces and not by Ottawa— indeed, premiers are more inclined to ignore federal suggestions than embrace them.
As to rapid tests, some will recall stories a year ago of millions of rapid tests gathering dust in provincial storerooms, of premiers, like British Columbia’s John Horgan, reluctant to use them because they were seen to be not as reliable as lab-based PCR tests. In fact, as Trudeau underscored last week, his government has sourced 425 million rapid tests overall. Some 85 million were delivered to provinces before December, and the Omicron onslaught, and another 35 million last month. And, as O’Toole must surely know, another 140 million are arriving now and being distributed.
There have been, and still are, shortages in some provinces, but the problem can hardly be laid at the feet of the federal government—certainly, not entirely—as anyone following the news knows. But this distortion is of a piece with O’Toole’s incoherence on the pandemic.
He and his wife are both vaccinated, after an early bout of COVID, and he regularly urges everyone to get their shots. He supports mandatory vaccines for the Canadian Armed Forces—as a veteran and proud defender of the military—yet is ambiguous about his own caucus, playing with words to hide the fact that there are some vaccine resisters in the Conservative ranks.
He also took up the cause of long-haul truckers who were resisting mandatory vaccines to be imposed by the federal government this week. O’Toole claimed the requirement would disrupt crucial supply chains and called for rapid testing instead. Then, in a confusing climb-down, the government backed away from its vaccine deadline insisting that any unvaccinated Canadian drivers quarantine for several days before coming home. Unvaccinated American truckers will be turned back.
Vaccines, quarantines, rapid tests: any way this unfolds there will be (hopefully short-lived) supply chain disruptions and, ultimately, little daylight between O’Toole’s and Trudeau’s positions.
O’Toole also accuses the prime minister of characterizing all vaccine resisters as “racists” and worse, which is not what Trudeau said. In fact, he and O’Toole are in agreement that some who haven’t been vaccinated may be fearful, uninformed, or unable to manoeuvre the system. Trudeau’s target is the small minority of wilful resisters and protesters, with links to far-right movements who are also anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and anti-government.
Yet O’Toole wants “reasonable accommodation” for all resisters and suggests frequent testing rather than vaccines—except, he must know the rapid tests are not as reliable when it comes to detecting Omicron. Meanwhile, the pandemic runs rampant, hospitals are overwhelmed and parents are worried sick for their school-age children.
To keep his ragged band of followers from splitting asunder, O’Toole—a formerly likeable, middle-of-the-road backbencher and junior minister in Harper’s government—is behaving like an unhinged bile-machine. It is particularly laughable when he accuses the prime minister of avoiding taking a stand on Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21, of “attempting to play both sides” by leaving it to Quebecers to decide the issue, rather than forcefully defending the bill’s victims, notably Muslim women schoolteachers. Laughable, because that is exactly what O’Toole has been doing.
The brilliant political cartoonist, Michael de Adder, summed up public reaction to this new, hyperactive O’Toole with a depiction of a giant hand, labelled Public Opinion, flicking a tiny O’Toole away like an annoying fly.
For all that, O’Toole is a model of reserve compared to Maxime Bernier. Old-timers (guilty) remember Bernier as a dapper, friendly urban sophisticate with libertarian economic views—hence the sobriquet, Mad Max. However, he was thought to be socially liberal and displayed no overtly anti-immigrant, or social conservative views as a member of Harper’s cabinet.
That was then. Bernier, of course, has become a vehement anti-vaxxer, anti-masker, a critic of the immigration Quebec needs to fill jobs, and, since losing the leadership to O’Toole in 2019, a harsh critic of his former rival. He calls O’Toole #RedErin and “wet noodle” and vows NEVER to go back “to that morally and intellectually corrupt party.”
Bernier sees “fascists coming out from under rocks everywhere,” as he noted in a recent tweet, this one aimed at Alberta’s NDP health critic David Shepherd, who expressed cautious support for mandatory vaccines. He routinely calls Trudeau a fascist. The Toronto Star “is run by hateful fascists.” RCMP Chief Brenda Lucki is “gestapo” for asking Canadians to report suspicious internet activity.
Bernier also opposes the recently proposed Quebec tax on the unvaccinated— probably a trial balloon, rather than enforceable policy—and says Premier Francois Legault’s government “is responsible for the death of thousands of elderly Quebecers in nursing homes. Now it wants to force the unvaccinated to pay for its abysmal management of the pandemic.”
Bernier has his high-profile fans, including Dr. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic who made an international reputation opposing trans rights, or “radical trans ideology,” and taking on wokeism in all its manifestations. Peterson also likes Conservative finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, noting on Twitter last week: “It’s nice to see a politician with some courage. You should have run for the Conservative leadership, and maybe you could bring Max Bernier back on board. He has some spine, too.”
Poilievre was flattered by the vote of confidence from “an outstanding, world-renowned Canadian thinker.” When chided by Liberals for his praise of the discredited psychology professor, Poilievre replied, with typical subtlety: “There’s more brainpower in Dr. Peterson’s pinky finger than in all the bobbleheads in the Liberal caucus combined.”
So goes the debate within the new politics. (Rebel News Ezra Levant tweeted, after O’Toole posted a coded defence of “LIBERTY” last week, in a nod to anti-vaxxers: “You weird liar.”) It is steeped in vitriol, fuelled by resentment and untethered from facts. As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney once famously said of Trudeau, it has “the intellectual depth of a finger bowl.”
But it is dangerous and corrosive, nonetheless. Bernier is able to muster large crowds in downtown Montreal on a frigid January day. His People’s Party of Canada (PPC) is gaining strength in Alberta and Saskatchewan. As for Poilievre—shrewd, ambitious, coldly calculating, a master of the personal smear—he could well replace O’Toole when the time is right.
Many voters would not want these harsh, angry men—no matter their politics—sitting on the local school board, never mind running the country.
But there is no telling what will happen if Trudeau stumbles—as he inevitably will; as all long-serving prime ministers do.
O’Toole may look benign in retrospect.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
The Hill Times
Poroshenko, Former President, Returns to Ukraine, Roiling Politics – The New York Times
Petro O. Poroshenko, a former president, returned to Kyiv on Monday facing possible arrest, adding internal political turmoil to a threat of Russian invasion.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s former president and a leading opposition figure, Petro O. Poroshenko, returned Monday to Kyiv, where he faced possible arrest, adding internal political turmoil to the mounting threat of a Russian invasion.
Mr. Poroshenko’s return brought into focus Ukraine’s wobbly politics, which were mostly in the background in recent weeks as the United States and its allies in Europe scrambled to forestall Russian military intervention.
He arrived Monday morning at Kyiv’s Zhuliani airport, where a scene erupted at passport control. Mr. Poroshenko said border guards for some time refused to allow him to enter the country, though he was due to appear at a court hearing later in the day in Kyiv. He later passed the border control but said authorities had confiscated his passport.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been embroiled in a long-running feud with Mr. Poroshenko, who was president from 2014 to 2019. Mr. Poroshenko faces a court hearing late Monday morning on charges of high treason and supporting terrorism.
His appearance in the capital where he once governed comes after a week of mostly futile negotiations between Russia and the West seeking a solution to tense disagreements over the security of Eastern Europe.
In Kyiv, opinions differed on whether the threat of an arrest was just another maneuver in Ukraine’s typically byzantine politics at home, or something more ominous related to the Russian threat.
Analysts suggested that Mr. Zelensky might be seizing on the distraction of the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border to sideline an opponent, or that he hoped to tamp down possible opposition protests if he is forced to make unpopular concessions to Moscow to avoid an invasion.
“Maybe he thinks that with forces on the border, Ukrainians won’t protest” an arrest of the opposition leader, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor in chief of Ukraine World, a journal covering politics. If so, he said, it is a risky move.
“With the situation on the border, when everybody is yelling, ‘There will be a war,’ it’s very strange,” Mr. Yermolenko said of the spectacle of Ukraine’s two leading politicians squabbling despite the existential threat to their country. “It just seems ridiculous.”
Polls have consistently shown Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Poroshenko to be Ukraine’s most popular politicians. Mr. Poroshenko has a base of support in Ukrainian nationalist politics, particularly in the country’s western regions, which want closer ties with Europe, and he has criticized Mr. Zelensky for giving ground in peace negotiations with Russia to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Poroshenko left Ukraine last month, saying he had meetings in Europe. Prosecutors say he left to avoid a court hearing.
Mr. Zelensky’s aides have said that the charges against Mr. Poroshenko are justified and that courts decided the timing of the arrest and other actions, including the freezing of Mr. Poroshenko’s assets earlier this month.
The former president was accused of missing a court hearing last month while traveling abroad. He returned to Ukraine on Monday despite reports in the Ukrainian news media that a court had issued a sealed order for his arrest.
Mr. Poroshenko left the presidency in 2019, when he lost an election to Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian who ran as an outsider to politics who would fight corruption and uproot the entrenched interests of Ukraine’s political class. Mr. Zelensky’s popularity has since slumped. Opinion polls today show only a slight advantage in a potential future election against Mr. Poroshenko, who is now a member of Parliament in the European Solidarity party.
In an interview before his return to Ukraine, Mr. Poroshenko said that his arrest might help Mr. Zelensky sideline a rival but that the political instability would play into the hands of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“He wants to undermine the stability in Ukraine,” Mr. Poroshenko said of Mr. Putin. “He analyzes two versions: One version is a military aggression through the Ukrainian-Russian or Ukrainian-Belarusian border. The second is just to undermine the stability inside Ukraine, and in this way just stop Ukraine from our future membership in NATO and in the E.U.”
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
Mr. Poroshenko offered no evidence of a Russian hand in the political turmoil and described internal Ukrainian feuds as the most likely cause of the legal pressure he faced. But he said Mr. Zelensky might hope to win concessions from Russia by arresting a politician aligned with the nationalist wing of Ukrainian politics.
“I am absolutely confident this is a very important gift to Putin,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “Maybe with this gift he wanted to launch a negotiation with Putin, as a precondition.”
After massing tens of thousands of soldiers on Ukraine’s border through the fall, Russia demanded last month that the United States and NATO pull back forces from countries in Eastern Europe and guarantee that Ukraine not join the Western alliance.
Diplomatic talks last week with Russia ended inconclusively, and Russian officials now say they are awaiting a written response to their demands from the United States.
As a contingency, in case diplomacy fails, Ukraine has also been quietly pursuing talks with Russia and proposed a bilateral meeting between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin. On Friday, the Ukrainian presidential chief of staff, Andri Yermak, suggested a three-way video conference with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders and President Biden.
Mr. Poroshenko’s controversial return was not the first sign of political turmoil. In November, just as Russia was ramping up its deployments along the border, Mr. Zelensky told journalists that Russia was also planning a coup.
He said Russian operatives were seeking to draw one of Ukraine’s wealthy businessmen, Rinat Akhmetov, into a plot against his government. The businessman was “being dragged into a war against the Ukrainian state,” Mr. Zelensky said, but he provided no evidence and made no move to arrest Mr. Akhmetov.
Mr. Akhmetov vehemently denied any involvement in a plot to undermine Mr. Zelensky’s government.
New documents show census officials concerned about political interference from Trump's Commerce Department – CNN
(CNN)Newly released documents appear to show top career officials at the Census Bureau had drafted a memo of concerns during the Trump administration’s attempts to exert political pressure on the bureau during the 2020 population count.
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