In mid-December, Kyrgyzstan will hold the maiden session of the People’s Kurultai, a new permanent branch of government willed into existence by President Sadyr Japarov.
Japarov began promoting this concept almost as soon as he seized power amid a season of political turbulence.
“The People’s Kurultai will serve as an effective lever in controlling the work of the government,” he said in November 2020. “Once a year, representatives of the kurultai – about 2,000 people – will gather and hear an annual report from the president and parliament. That way there will be a form of popular control over the authorities.”
Japarov has elsewhere billed this initiative as key to ensuring the country’s prosperity.
The shape and vision for this idea has changed since then. Japarov’s critics maintain his true intention is to create another catspaw decision-making chamber that may ultimately serve to further hollow out civil society.
The tradition of the kurultai refers to a coming-together of community leaders, or even tribal or clan chieftains in more ancient times, to discuss and agree upon important matters.
In contrast to the organic quality implied by that description, there is a precedent for leaders of post-independence Kyrgyzstan mounting kurultais in a more top-down fashion. One former president, Askar Akayev, convened ad hoc nationwide kurultais in 2001 and 2003.
At times, the format has been adopted by opposition politicians seeking to cast themselves as parallel governors-in-waiting. In the months before the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, for example, rallies organized by his opponents were designated as kurultais in a bid to lend them a flavor of popular legitimacy.
And now it is Japarov’s turn. The formal existence of the People’s Kurultai as a permanently standing body was endorsed in a constitutional referendum in 2021.
In November 2022, Japarov mounted a two-day trial assembly at which no formal decisions were adopted. Next month should be the real deal.
The wider public, though, has little notion of quite what to expect. In July, Japarov signed legislation outlining the rules under which the People’s Kurultai will operate, but that document was not placed on the website of Justice Ministry for scrutiny. The legislation is only available behind a paywall on a specialized database.
What is known is that the People’s Kurultai will comprise around 700 people who will be selected through a largely opaque mechanism. It appears a secretariat of seven appointees will consult with government officials and members of representative assemblies at the local level on putting this all together.
The president will determine membership quotas by region, ethnic background, and age. There is no gender quota.
Delegates will seemingly retain their position only for a short period, although the exact duration remains a mystery. Kyrgyz citizens over the age of 21 are eligible to run for membership so long as they are not state or municipal workers, deputies in parliament or have a criminal record.
In addition to a secretariat, the People’s Kurultai will have other trimmings of a permanent body: a national council, a working group, and an oversight committee.
The national council will act as an executive body and will comprise 17 people to be identified among the members of the broader kurultai. The working group will be tasked with writing legislation.
While sharing some attributes with an upper house of parliament, it appears that the idea for the People’s Kurultai is for it to initiate legislation rather than merely approve bills or suggest changes.
The People’s Kurultai will further be empowered to petition the president’s office to remove ministers and heads of government bodies. One delegate will sit on the Judicial Council, a nominally independent body responsible for approving judges.
Other aspects of the remit are hazier and broader. Delegates are tasked with dwelling upon the “spiritual and cultural development of the country,” how to preserve culture and traditions, the relationship between the state and religion, the environment, interethnic relations, and human rights.
To do all this effectively, the People’s Kurultai is required to work with interest groups representing families, children, young people, migrant laborers, ethnic minorities, and faith leaders.
Critics of this aspect of the initiative spy an attempt by the state to nationalize civil society.
Tattuububu Ergeshbayeva, an activist and director of Tandem, a coalition of law practitioners, told Eurasianet that she believes the People’s Kurultai is superfluous and only harms the national interest by locking whole swathes of the public out of the decision-making process.
“The state is in effect closing access to other citizens and giving a narrow circle of people the privilege to represent the opinions of the public. And the composition of this circle of people is ultimately determined by the presidential administration,” she said.
As for the kurultai being able to propose legislation, this is only a mechanism for even further diluting the authority of an already-hollow parliament, Ergeshbayeva argued.
“The kurultai does not have any powers to adopt legislation, it can only put forward legislative proposals,” she said. “These people will not have the capacity to make a detailed analysis of draft laws, they have no access to classified state information, they do not have the personnel to conduct analyses. And so, these individuals will act more from an emotional perspective and on the basis of personal experience.”
The stakes could not be higher.
U.S.-based Freedom House and others have documented a worsening of democratic standards under Japarov’s watch.
“After his sweeping constitutional reform in 2021, … Japarov consolidated control over the executive branch of power all the way down to local governance, and also oversaw key appointments in the judiciary,” Freedom House found its most recent country report on Kyrgyzstan. “The powers of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Jogorku Kenesh – Kyrgyzstan’s 90-member, unicameral parliament – were reduced under the expanded presidential mandate.
Short-circuiting the policy-making machine and leaving it prone to behind-the-scenes horse-trading will make the country’s leadership anything but more accountable, critics argue.
“It is the People’s Kurultai that will help the state consolidate its authoritarian status,” said Ergeshbayeva.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.