As Kyrgyzstan prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary of independence, recent moves by President Askar Akayev's administration indicate that democratic ideals are coming back in fashion. It remains open to debate, however, whether the latest liberalization trend is a strategic development with long-term implications for the country's political evolution, or just a tactical shift designed to deflect international criticism of Kyrgyzstan's human rights record.
In the early years of independence, Kyrgyzstan gained a reputation as an "island of democracy" in Central Asia. During the past several years, however, Kyrgyzstan's image has suffered, as the government has cracked down on political opposition and freedom of expression. Among the more notorious actions in the government crackdown were the prosecution of Akayev's rival, Felix Kulov, and the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections, which were assailed by several international monitoring organizations for numerous irregularities. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In the weeks leading up to the August 31 independence anniversary, Akayev has taken several steps to put new gloss on Kyrgyzstan's tarnished democratic reputation. The campaign began August 16, when Akayev announced that he would not seek reelection in 2005. In addition, he dismissed rumors that a national referendum would be organized to extend the presidential term to seven years, as well as to reduce the Jogorku Kenesh (Kyrgyz Parliament) to a unicameral institution.
If implemented, the measures would have significantly expanded executive authority at the expense of the legislative branch. Rumors of an impending referendum had been circulating widely in early August, fueled by both government officials and parliament deputies. Even some of the main newspapers in Bishkek had already started to openly discuss the upcoming referendum.
On August 20, the thaw continued with the release from custody of Topchubek Turgunaliev, an opposition politician and human rights activist. Turgunaliev had received 16-year prison sentence in September 2000 for allegedly masterminding an assassination attempt on Akayev. The conviction was obtained on circumstantial evidence, and the prison term was later reduced to six years. The 60-year-old Turgunaliev spent nearly a year behind bars before gaining the presidential pardon. Turgunaliev has vowed to remain active in politics, and to continue work on human rights-related issues in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Also on August 20, Akayev gave civil society development a boost by recalling a draft law regulating non-governmental organizations, political parties and media outlets. The draft had provoked strong criticism since it won government approval July 18. On July 27, NGO leaders sent Akayev a letter warning that the new law, if implemented, would severely weaken civil society and all democratic structures in the country. According to NGO activists, a major flaw in the legislation was that any criticism of authorities' actions or policies could be classified as criminal behavior. Akayev ordered that the law's wording should be revised.
AKI Press, the leading independent news agency in Bishkek, reported: "President Akayev read the appeal of leaders of NGOs about the Governmental Resolution of July 18, 2001, and said that it would be appropriate and necessary to take into consideration the interests of all sectors of society when drawing, extending and amending bills. The President suggested that the bill be clarified in public and then it can be amended."
The policy shift came after a series of stinging criticisms about the country's human rights record. In a July 31 report, US Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, lambasted Akayev's recent record. "In Kyrgyzstan, President Akayev, who was once considered democracy's best hope, has already rigged two elections in order to keep serious contenders from running against him," said the report, titled Human Rights in Central Asia a Decade After Independence.
Overall, the report painted a bleak picture for civil society development in Central Asia. "Specifically, with respect to democratization, human rights and the rule of law, overall trends in the region are extremely discouraging," the report said. "In 1992, these countries unreservedly accepted the commitments of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But despite the carefully crafted claims of Central Asian leaders and their spokesmen, in the region and in Washington, the trend is toward consolidation of authoritarian control and increased repression, not gradual democratization."
More international criticism of Kyrgyzstan came in early August, when the UN Secretary-General's special representative for human rights issues, Hina Jilani, expressed concern about the country's adherence to internationally accepted norms concerning freedom of speech and assembly. In addition, the reluctance of World Bank officials to fully finance an ambitious government development plan for the next decade signaled the institution's dissatisfaction with civil society development.
Some local observers say the international community's statements and actions had a significant influence on Akayev's decision to promote a thaw in the country's political climate. Experts are divided on whether the current trend will continue for long. Some suggest that Akayev is simply seeking to deflect criticism of Kyrgyzstan at the upcoming OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues in Warsaw in September.
Despite Kyrgyz officials' image-improvement efforts, the government remains vulnerable to international criticism. The administration has not given any indication that it will end its attacks against Kulov, or ease its recent crackdown on independent media.
Akayev, speaking at an August 24 news conference, indicated that his administration would continue to stress measures that promoted domestic stability. He portrayed much of the criticism of Kyrgyzstan's democratic record as unfair.
"It is disheartening that international organizations sometimes take the opinions of irreconcilable opponents and certain discontented people at face value and form an image of our country on this basis," Akayev was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. "It has become almost fashionable for people who have gotten into trouble with the law
Chris Schuepp is Country Director for Internews Network in the Kyrgyz Republic.