Kyrgyzstan’s new president has vowed to end two decades of political instability in the Central Asian nation with a constitutional overhaul that will drastically strengthen the powers of his office, even as he rebuffed critics’ claims that his reforms will push the country towards one-man rule.
Sadyr Japarov, who will be formally sworn in as president on Thursday, told the Financial Times that the country needed a strong leader to crack down on corruption and unite the population after three revolutions since 2005.
“The issue is about responsibility. More power should be dedicated to the presidency but also more responsibility,” Mr Japarov said in an interview on the eve of his inauguration. “Our people opted for presidential rule. To have a single individual responsible for everything.”
Mr Japarov’s rise to the presidency has been unusual. Last October, he was sprung from jail by supporters protesting against rigged parliamentary election results. Those protesters then forced the sitting president to resign and the country’s parliament to appoint Mr Japarov as his successor.
That revolution followed similar overthrows of elected presidents in 2005 and 2010. In the 29 years of independence from the Soviet Union, 30 different people have held the office of prime minister.
“There have been three revolutions in the history of the country, and all of them took place because of rigged election results,” Mr Japarov said. “But no such things will happen again. The fourth revolution is unacceptable and will not happen.”
Mr Japarov was officially elected president earlier this month with almost 80 per cent support, while a majority of voters also backed a proposal to shift the country from a parliamentary republic to a presidential system.
That sparked concerns from some civil rights groups that Mr Japarov plans to establish a regime akin to those of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Nursultan Nazarbayev in neighbouring Kazakhstan, and end Kyrgyzstan’s reign as the sole democracy in the post-Soviet Central Asian region.
“When civil society accuses us of attempts to usurp power, that’s not justified,” he said. “I took over the responsibility to right the wrongs in Kyrgyzstan. And I have every confidence in myself, and I am certain that I am not going to re-establish a dictatorship. I am a democratically minded person.”
“I know what a dictatorship is. I know what lack of justice is, what brutality and unlawfulness mean,” he added. “[The new system] is not establishing single-man rule.”
Mr Japarov laughed off jibes from critics that he was a “Kyrgyz Trump”, but said he would use his stronger mandate to launch a broad anti-corruption crackdown. He also rebuffed criticisms by some international election observers that he had vastly outspent his presidential election rivals by saying that had been skewed by their decision to spend less than the maximum.
“I don’t know what Donald Trump says, but I can only share my own thoughts,” he said. “Prior to me, corruption was rampant and pervasive. There was red tape and graft. I am sure that I will be able to weed out graft and do away with bureaucracy.”
A 98-person committee is drafting a new constitution that will be put to a public referendum, Mr Japarov said. The draft changes presidential term lengths from six years to five and increases the term limit to two per person.
The new document will not change Kyrgyzstan’s status as a secular republic, and will include codified protections for foreign investments. Mr Japarov also said he would set up the country’s first ever dedicated agency to attract foreign investors, describing overseas capital as “a must” to improve the country’s economy.
That marks a sea-change for the president, whose previous conviction for kidnapping related to his campaign to nationalise the country’s massive Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine. He disavows those views today, explaining: “A lot has changed since then.”
Kyrgyzstan hosts a Russian military base and counts Moscow as a strategic partner. But it has also sought to expand business and trade ties with its eastern neighbour China, which is vying with Russia to be the dominant geopolitical player in the region.
Mr Japarov admitted “there are signs [it] is true” that China and Russia compete for assets and influence in Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, but said that rivalry “does not play a huge role”.
“All our existing commitments and obligations will be honoured. Our relations with international partners, long-term wise, will remain stable,” he added.
Kyrgyzstan’s $8bn economy relies heavily on remittances from emigrant workers, mainly based in Russia. Mr Japarov says his administration will launch an initiative this year to lure many of those people back home with state-built housing and government-backed investment projects.
“High-potential and well-educated young people unfortunately tend to leave the country to work elsewhere in other countries, having failed to find how to apply their knowledge, expertise and skills here,” he said. “We need to bring them back to their motherland.”