Small World: Democracy in Kyrgyzstan

A glimpse into a country’s quickly developing dictatorship may reveal crucial warning signs about the state of our own democracy.

A couple weeks ago, I remember waking up to see something absolutely terrifying occurring live on television: a contingent of far-right extremists storming the Capitol in support of former US president Donald Trump — by the way, you have no idea how much satisfaction it brings me to use that phrase. The American republic arguably came the closest it’s ever been to collapse, and the years of the Trump administration have taught us that even our most basic democratic ideals and institutions are far from unassailable. I’m writing this on the day that Joe Biden has been inaugurated, and I’m relieved that our country has managed to pull back from the edge of a cliff we’ve allowed ourselves to stray far too close to. But I’d like to share an ongoing story with you, a story of a democracy which is continuing to erode even as I write this passage; the story of Kyrgyzstan. 

Now when you think of foreign dictatorships, there are probably a few very specific countries which come to mind. The Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran are some of the most prominent. But when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, its newly independent constituent states in Central Asia became their own dictatorships, with the exception of one: Kyrgyzstan. Aside from a couple authoritarian presidents in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan has stood as one of the few semi-functioning democracies in its region, officially adopting a parliamentary system of government in 2010 and maintaining an internationally recognized status as a relatively free nation as opposed to the practically absolute dictatorships of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. 

But Kyrgyzstan sunk into serious trouble in 2020. After years of a failing economy, perceived government corruption, and what many voters claimed to be a fraudulent election, Kyrgyzstan broke into mass, often violent protests last year. More than a thousand were critically injured, one Kyrgyzstani died, and in the midst of all the chaos a formerly imprisoned politician named Sadyr Japarov slowly rose to power, assuming the office of prime minister before taking over as acting president in mid October. 

In recent weeks, Japarov has slowly expanded presidential powers, eroding the constitution and strengthening his personal political dominance over the levels of Kyrgyzstan’s government. Kyrgyzstan went from a semi-functioning democracy to a quickly developing dictatorship, and all it took was a couple months of civil unrest. The fact of the matter is, as fundamental as democracy may seem in American society, it’s really nothing more than an idea. It’s an idea that needs to be believed in, that needs to be fought for, and when enough people stop believing in democracy, it falls apart. Now obviously I’m not drawing a direct comparison between one of the most populous, established democracies in the world and an unstable nation whose economy depends mostly on oil and goats. But in the wake of the attack on January 6, we must now more than ever study the warning signs of history and the world around us, because to do otherwise would doom us to the same mistakes. 

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