By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On June 4, after more than two years of deliberations, the Kyrgyz Parliament overwhelmingly approved amendments to the law on “non-commercial organizations” in its first reading. According to the new amendments, NGOs receiving funding from abroad will be labeled “foreign agents.” If passed in two more readings and approved by the President, the bill will impose severe limitations to the activities of civil society actors and will put the country’s democratic development into a great jeopardy.
In his address to the Kyrgyz Parliament, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, a lawmaker and one of the initiators of the amendments, stated that locally registered NGOs have received around US$ 10 million from foreign countries over the past 3 years. In his words, “NGOs receive funding from abroad and try to influence our internal politics. Therefore, we have the full right to know where their money goes and for which purposes they are used. The bill will improve our national security.”
By contrast, local and international human rights organizations believe that the law fully resembles the one passed in Russia in 2012 and has nothing to do with national security. “The bill is aimed at taking full control of the institutions that speak against certain unpopular policies of the Government,” according to Dinara Oshurakhunova, a Bishkek-based civil society activist. The bill would indeed, as the Russian experience shows, limit the activities of civil society institutions. It will impose burdensome reporting requirements on them and allow governmental agencies to send representatives to participate in internal activities and decide whether this or that organization complies with its objectives or not. Failure to do so will result in their immediate termination.
Local experts are therefore hotly discussing the degree of Russia’s involvement in the development of these legislative changes that speak against the fundamental values of democracy. Several media sources have even reported that the Kremlin has a direct influence on these processes by buying off MPs and exercising direct pressure on the government, and that this process will likely exacerbate as Bishkek is now an official member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
The position of Kyrgyzstan’s President is another interesting aspect of the controversy. During his trip to Brussels in 2013, President Atambayev stated clearly that there was no need for Kyrgyzstan to adopt a law on “foreign agents.” However, in a recent interview to the public channel, the president seemed to be in favor of adopting the bill. Atambayev said, “I will check if the law corresponds to the interests of the country, whether it complies with human rights standards. Now I do not want to promise you anything. Today we are facing the fact that under the guise of human rights organizations, NGOs are opening and trying to destabilize the situation in the country and international relations.” The sudden shift in the president’s opinion can be explained by Bishkek’s new international orientation, which seemingly comes at the expense of the country’s relatively successful democratic transition.
In its first reading, the bill was supported by 83 parliamentarians against the 23 who opposed it. Daniyar Terbishaliev, an MP from the ruling coalition, argued that based on the suggested law, all MPs must also register as “foreign agents.” In his words, “all the MPs interact with international organizations and civil society groups go on study tours funded by them. We all know that our country is donor dependent, and it is wrong to underestimate the degree of the international community’s assistance.”
Some experts also believe that the initiators of the bill want to pass it before the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2015, in an effort to take control over the democratic institutions. If adopted, the law will pave the way for persecution and pressure on NGOs that will observe the elections and address political concerns.
In the meantime, civil society activists have already launched a campaign to collect citizens’ signatures against the bill. According to the legislation, 10,000 signatures will allow for the submission of a new bill to the parliament, which would repeal the document on foreign agents.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Kyrgyzstan’s political parties are aligning for the upcoming parliamentary elections. On May 21, the two political parties Butun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) and Emgek (Labor) officially announced their unification, despite differences in political program and ideology. During their joint press conference, the leaders of the newly created party “Butun Kyrgyzstan Emgek” stated that they have agreed on all the essential positions. According to the party’s co-chairman Adakhan Madumarov, “we share the same values and hold one single position on all the critical issues. Our political party holds a strong view that Kyrgyzstan should go back to a pure presidential form of governance since the current semi-parliamentarian system has divided our country and led to anarchy, with politicians bearing no responsibility for their deeds.” The party’s other co-chairman Askar Salymbekov, an oligarch and owner of the country’s largest market Dordoi, added that his party received a number of proposals to unite with other political forces but found a strong compromise only with “Butun Kyrgyzstan.”
The union of these two relatively big political parties received varying reactions from local expert circles, with many predicting its success in the upcoming parliamentary elections in November 2015. During the last elections in 2010, Madumarov’s political party “Butun Kyrgyzstan” almost made it to the national parliament, lacking about 1 percent of the votes to overcome the required threshold. In 2011, Madumarov, a former journalist and a close ally of the ousted president Bakiev, former speaker of parliament and head of the country’s Security Council ran as a presidential candidate, receiving 15 percent of the votes and coming second in the race. Following the presidential elections, Madumarov remained an outspoken critic of the country’s political leadership until he was nominated as deputy Secretary General of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, a decision that was viewed by many as a sign of loyalty to Kyrgyzstan’s political leadership. Despite numerous claims that Madumarov would not participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, he officially stepped from his position as deputy SG of the Turkic Council and returned to Kyrgyzstan in mid-May.
According to political commentators, the newly formed political union has a good chance of entering the national parliament. The former Bakiev ally Madumarov comes from southern Kyrgyzstan and continues to enjoy widespread support there. His party ally Salymbekov comes from the northern part of the country and his substantial financial wealth will allow for an impressive nationwide election campaign.
The newly formed political party constitutes a union between two political forces guided by short-term political interests. In the words of political analyst Mars Sariev, “the lack of program or ideological commonalities between them might endanger the party’s existence after the election period.” Other prominent members of the new party include Kyrgyzstan’s former Prime Minister Amangeldi Muraliev, former speaker of Parliament Altai Borubaev and a number of other formerly prominent state figures.
The tendency to merge political parties ahead of the parliamentary elections started a year ago. Last fall, the political parties Respublika and Ata-Jurt formed a new union, guided by similar regional and financial factors. According to MP Daniyar Terbishaliev, the political parties are at this stage preoccupied with forming their party lists. At a roundtable held in Bishkek, he stated that anyone willing to be in the so-called “golden ten” – the top 10 candidates on the party’s election list – must allocate from US$ 50,000 up to 1 million to the party fund, depending to their popularity among the electorate. Terbishaliev said this tremendous degree of corruption in the formation of party lists can only be regulated through tougher regulation of election funds and necessary adjustments to the law on elections.
In early May, Kyrgyzstan finally introduced new amendments to its election code. As predicted, the threshold for political parties to enter the parliament was increased from 7 to 9 percent, forcing political parties to merge. Also, according to the latest data from the Ministry of Justice, 200 registered political parties exist in Kyrgyzstan, a country with a population of 5 million.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 5, Kyrgyzstan marked the 22nd anniversary of its constitution. In a relatively short period, the country’s basic law went through numerous changes, with the state remaining inefficient. The changes primarily aimed to centralize and strengthen the vertical of power of the first two ousted Presidents. Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution, adopted via a nationwide referendum in the aftermath of the April 2010, has been an exception. Ye the country’s prominent political circles recently suggested holding another referendum in the fall, together with the parliamentary elections.
Kyrgyzstan’s first constitution as an independent state was adopted in 1993 after two years of heated debates in the country’s “legendary Parliament,” as it was termed at the time. Already in 1994 the constitution faced new amendments, under the slogan of creating two chambers of the Parliament, but in reality massively increasing the power of the country’s first President Askar Akaev. A series of amendments were again introduced in 1996, 1998 and 2007 under the reign of the country’s second President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who just like his predecessor, was keen to manipulate the basic law to increase the authority of his own regime.
In 2010, Kyrgyzstan did what then seemed to be unthinkable in Central Asia by adopting a constitution that limited the power of the head of state, in a region where personalization of power is the rule. Moreover, with the objective of preventing further manipulation and ensuring a form of stability to the new system, a Constitutional council comprised of 75 members decided to introduce a special clause, banning any changes to the basic law until 2020. After less than five years, the country’s power holders are again eager to change it.
The talks on amending the 2010 constitution were activated a year ago, with some politicians advocating it from time to time. During a meeting of the country’s Council on Judicial Reform last October, President Atambayev also supported the idea of changing certain articles in the constitution, as he put it, “if they are necessary to carry out full-fledged reform of the judicial sector.” Without much subsequent public deliberation ever since, the initiators have presented a new set of amendments on April 28, stirring heated discussion and opposition from expert and civil society circles.
According to local political experts, the initiatives severely weaken the independence of parliamentarians. Under the proposed amendment, parliamentary factions can vote for early termination of the duties of individual MPs, if so proposed by the governing body of their respective political party. The initiators of the change justify this amendment, arguing that voters vote for a party rather than individual candidates. Yet according to political analyst Tamerlan Ibraimov, “in the Kyrgyz political context, voters first look at the individuals who are in the party list and then decide which party to vote for. The amendment is simply an effort to establish a system of party dictatorship and will not increase the efficiency of the legislature whatsoever, as claimed by its initiators.”
Moreover, the proposed changes strengthen the role of the Prime Minister. He will be in a position to dismiss members of the government and directly appoint and dismiss heads of regional administrations, therefore clearly weakening the role and independence of local self-governments. This initiative has already led to speculations that it serves the interests of the current President, who could after his term in office become the country’s next Prime Minister with extensive powers and no term limits, in close resemblance of the Kremlin scenario. Under the country’s current constitution, the president serves one six-year term with no possibility for reelection. President Atambayev’s term in office expires already in 2017.
Whatever the real motives are, a new amendment to the constitution will hardly improve pluralism in Kyrgyzstan’s political life. Instead, it will strengthen the “vertical of power” and will gradually diminish the room for political competition, along with general legal culture. In more than two decades of independence, the country’s political elite has become accustomed to blaming the constitution for their own lack of capacity to launch public reforms. Therefore, the real problem lies not with the constitution, but with the unwillingness of the power holders to abide by it and their constant efforts to redraw it for their own benefit.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 23, Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has announced his decision to step down, even though the country’s lawmakers have rated his government’s performance for the year 2014 as satisfactory. He is the fourth Prime Minister to resign in the last five years and the 26th since the country’s independence.
When announcing his resignation, the now interim Prime Minister thanked the majority coalition for recognizing his work as satisfactory. He refrained from giving any motive for his decision, simply stating that “No monopoly of power can exist in a democratic country. Therefore, the branch of government should be shaken again. I pursued the goal of the country’s development and advancement and hope that with this decision, the majority coalition can choose a more decisive head of the executive and that this will become a normal practice in the political culture of the country, when high officials leave their posts voluntarily.” Otorbaev also stated that his resignation will not affect the country’s path towards assuming full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union this May.
Immediately after Otorbaev’s decision, Kyrgyz political and expert circles put forward various reasons for his resignation. According to Asylbek Djeenbekov, the Speaker of Parliament, Otorbaev’s decision comes amid a renewed controversy over the operations of the Kumtor Gold Company, which remains one of the biggest unresolved issues for the country. Indeed, much of Otorbaev’s time in office was marked by difficult negotiations with Toronto-based Centerra Gold over the future of the Kumtor Gold Company, which according to various estimates accounts for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and nearly half of its industrial output.
Currently, the Kyrgyz government controls around one-third of the Company, with Canada’s Centerra Gold controlling the rest of the shares. In recent years, the country’s opposition and public have made numerous demands to nationalize the mine or to create a new joint venture with a 50-50 split in ownership, an initiative hampered several times by international tribunals. The Prime Minister opposed this idea as well, stating last month that the launch of a joint venture is no longer in the country’s national interest due to Centerra’s new, lower estimate of the gold reserves. Instead, Otorbaev expressed his intention to increase the government’s representation on Centerra’s board of directors, coming under massive attack from a number of parliamentarians.
However, a number of political experts believe that Otorbaev’s resignation has nothing to do with the fate of the Gold Company. Former MP Alisher Mamasaliev sees pure political motives behind the unexpected move. In his words, “the ruling political leadership cannot afford to have a government in place, which is very much unpopular in the eyes of the electorate, especially shortly before the parliamentary elections, and is striving to appoint a loyal head of the executive.” Others are already speculating who will become the 27th prime minister, mentioning the current Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Economy, both fitting the criteria that the Kyrgyz White House is currently looking for.
Otorbaev’s resignation has also prompted local political analysts to speak of the overall crisis in the country’s management system. Since last September, 10 out of 15 Ministers announced their decision to resign, with some elaborating on the matter and others giving no comments. This speaks in favor of the argument that in times of socio-economic instability in the country, with crucial issues unresolved, no one is willing to take responsibility. On April 24, President Almazbek Atambayev accepted the Prime Minister’s resignation, which according to the country’s constitution means the resignation of the entire government. The current three-party majority coalition has 15 days to nominate a new head of the executive to the legislature.
Local media are also speculating over Otorbaev’s future. Some claim that the urbane, Western-oriented, English-speaking politician, who previously worked for Philips Company and taught physics in the Netherlands for several years, might assume a senior position in one of the international financial institutions. Others argue that he will be competing for a parliamentary seat in the upcoming elections.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 7, Kyrgyzstan commemorated the fifth anniversary of its popular revolution that put an end to the highly corrupt, criminalized and authoritarian regime of the ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Alongside a number of high-ranking state officials, President Almazbek Atambayev took part in a solemn ceremony in Bishkek’s Central Square Ala-Too, at the site where nearly 100 demonstrators were shot dead by snipers on April 7, 2010.
In his emotional speech to the participants of the ceremony, President Atambayev stated once again that his predecessor established a highly corrupt regime, which robbed the whole country and described the system of the day as “monstrous,” referring to a number of killings of politicians, journalists and businessmen during Bakiev’s reign. The president went on to state that unlike a number of Arab countries and most recently Ukraine, which have all toppled similar regimes, Kyrgyzstan has in a short time managed to recover and is “currently on the right track of enhancing its democratic institutions, establishing justice and fighting corruption.”
Despite Atambayev’s positive remarks, the ideals of the April 2010 Revolution are very far from being met. Even after the president’s speech, dozens of participants of the ceremony demonstrated in front of the White House accusing the regime of failing to bring the perpetrators of bloodshed to justice, to systematically tackle corruption and bring back the assets stolen from the country. Indeed, none of the high-ranking officials of the Bakiev regime accused of direct involvement in the killings during the revolution are serving prison sentences. All are sentenced in absentia, including the former President himself, who is now residing in Belarus and leading a comfortable life. His son Maxim Bakiev, who has embezzled millions of state funds, now resides in London. According to a recent journalistic investigation by Global Witness, the son of the ousted President has purchased a house worth 3.5 million GBP. Kyrgyzstan’s continuous demand for their extradition has not been successful.
The revolution’s anniversary was also met with other critical comments from political and expert circles. In the words of Edil Baysalov, former Minister for Social Development and an active participant of the April 2010 events, “after 5 years, the country’s ruling political elite have failed to keep their promises; the country still suffers from widespread corruption, socio-economic challenges are growing, commitments to establish parliamentary democracy with a multiparty system have all been discredited.” Recent developments in the country tend to speak in favor of these remarks. None of the political parties, as driving forces behind a parliamentarian form of government, have managed to evolve as formal institutions and continue to represent informal unions of individuals guided by personal interests.
Furthermore, the commitment to address widespread corruption in the aftermath of the April 2010 events features a selective rather than a systematic approach. Despite the arrest of a number of high-ranking officials, corruption remains present at all levels and the latest Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International clearly demonstrates this fact.
Commenting on the anniversary of the April Revolution, the leader of the United Opposition Movement and MP Ravshan Jeenbekov noted that instead of carrying out democratic reforms, the country has on the contrary taken a big step back by adopting two controversial laws; one banning “gay propaganda;” another labelling foreign funded organizations as “foreign agents.” Both initiatives severely limit civil liberties and put the further development of civil society into great jeopardy. According to local civil society activists, this process of increasing authoritarianism is likely to flourish after Kyrgyzstan becomes a full-fledged member of the Moscow-led Eurasian integration project.
Indeed, each anniversary of the April 2010 events generates public debate on whether the country has reached its ideals and where it is moving further. So far, one can name the downfall of family rule, prevention of a large-scale ethnic conflict and the overall socio-political stability as major achievements of the past 5 years and the upcoming parliamentary elections in the autumn will be a key test for the country’s further stability.
The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.