AT THIS TIME of year the wild cherry blossom spreads from the valley floor up the flanks of the mountains that form the glorious backdrop to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s laid-back capital. Kyrgyzstan itself used to be the democratic flower of Central Asia, surrounded by hulking autocracies. But democracy has not served the 6m people of the former Soviet republic particularly well, even if they would not swap it for the dictatorships of their neighbours. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the region. Worse, the government’s petals are beginning to fall.
The people of Kyrgyzstan are proud that two revolutions, in 2005 and 2010, pushed corrupt presidents into exile, albeit at the cost of considerable bloodshed during the second uprising. After these events, voters approved constitutional changes that curtailed the president’s powers, including the ability to dismiss parliament. Presidents may now serve only one term. Following a competitive election in late 2017, the country’s first transfer of power from one elected president to another took place, when Almazbek Atambayev gave way to his protégé and former prime minister, Sooronbay Jeyenbekov.
Yet Mr Atambayev, for all that he claimed to champion the rule of law, had undercut democratic progress while in office. To get Mr Jeyenbekov across the line he took to jailing both leaders and supporters of the opposition. Mr Jeyenbekov is consolidating power in a similar manner. Last year Bishkek’s main thermal plant broke down while it was being modernised by Chinese firms, leaving the city shivering. What looks suspiciously like a political purge ensued. The prime minister, Sapar Isakov, was ousted and arrested over the scandal. He faces corruption charges in a closed trial.
A consequence, officials say, is that those in authority dare not put their names to any order or initiative. Moves to broaden the economy, strengthen institutions and improve health care and education have ground to halt. That matters in a country where a single gold mine, whose opencast deposits will soon be exhausted, generates nearly a tenth of GDP, while remittances from migrants toiling in Russia account for a further third. When measured by GDP per person, Kyrgyzstan is marginally poorer than Cameroon or Papua New Guinea. Income per person in next-door Kazakhstan is ten times higher. State employees earn a pittance. Banyan’s driver in Bishkek was a doctor moonlighting from his job in a state hospital.
The risks of political trouble are mounting again. Mr Atambayev has taken bitter offence since Mr Jeyenbekov, once in office, refused to show deference. With reason, he views the arrest of Mr Isakov, his former chief of staff, and other allies as an attack on him. Mr Atambayev has kept a grip on the country’s biggest party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan. Extraordinarily, last month he took the party, Mr Jeyenbekov’s own, into the opposition. Parliament toyed with stripping former presidents of their immunity from prosecution—a move that could only be aimed at Mr Atambayev—but in the end did not. From his office, in which a vast safe squats next to him, the former president claims, with a measure of implied threat, that Mr Jeyenbekov is “pushing people to revolution”.
With parliamentary elections next year, some MPs are joining Mr Atambayev’s growing public protests as a way to flaunt anti-incumbent credentials. Now, to add to the volatility, comes the possible return to Kyrgyzstan of the presidential candidate, Omurbek Babanov, whom Mr Jeyenbekov beat in the election of 2017. Mr Babanov, a businessman and political moderniser, left Kyrgyzstan after Mr Jeyenbekov threatened to jail him, too, on spurious charges of attempting to overthrow the new government and of inciting racial unrest between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz—an accusation intended to call to mind clashes between the two ethnic groups in 2010 that led to hundreds of deaths.
On April 13th Mr Babanov was due to return to head a rally of his supporters in the capital. But claiming to have got wind of planned “provocations” by “third forces”, he cancelled his return at short notice. Bishkek’s (pro-Jeyenbekov) mayor has since proposed banning protests and rallies until next year, on the grounds that they are bad for business and upset tourists. That is more likely to provoke Mr Jeyenbekov’s opponents than subdue them. The last thing most people want is more unrest. But with growing power struggles among the elite, that is what they seem likely to get.