Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has surprised many in the country by hosting a gathering of civil society’s leading lights to discuss pressing problems.
If notes that came out of the closed doors meeting are anything to go by, they gave him a rather long list.
The July 19 meeting is not without precedent. Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, also hosted a meeting of nongovernmental organization leaders in the first year of his presidency. But later on, bridges with this diverse and sometimes fractious community of advocates and opinion leaders were thoroughly burned.
Atambayev seemed to take particular pleasure in excoriating individual rights defenders at press conferences and directed his ire primarily at two women — Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdirasulova. Their main offense was to raise the case of an ethnic Uzbek community leader sentenced to life imprisonment in the wake of ethnic clashes of 2010.
Both Ismailova and Abdirasulova were invited to Jeenbekov’s gathering at the presidential residence in Ala-Archa, not far from Bishkek. So too were activists such as Edil Baisalov, who had been highly critical of Jeenbekov’s electoral campaign, which was widely viewed as an Atambayev-driven attempt to engineer a friendly successor, and perennial opposition politician Ravshan Jeenbekov (no relation), who recently called on the new president to "stop talking and start acting" on reforms.
Jeenbekov has, to some extent, won some of these figures over, precisely because he has now split from Atambayev and unleashed investigative organs against several of his former mentor’s allies. But others are concerned that history is repeating itself, with due process a secondary concern behind political score-settling.
The tone of the meeting seems to have been friendly and non-critical on both sides. Radio Free Europe's Kyrgyz service Azattyk reported July 20 that Jeenbekov offered at least three delegates government positions matching their areas of interest. But the problems raised at the powwow were wide-ranging and some activists complained there was not enough time before the meeting to ensure a coordinated approach.
“The meeting was called at quite short notice, on Monday. And there was no list of participants,” long-time civic activist Dinara Oshurahonova told Eurasianet. “Only a few of us were able to get together and ensure some kind of coordination.”
Key issues raised according to notes posted by Baisalov on Twitter included judicial, police and penitentiary reform, ecological problems in Bishkek, radicalization and state orphanages.
If anything, the sheer diversity of topics might make them easier to ignore individually.
At least two participants raised the entry bans and deportation of AFP’s Central Asia correspondent Chris Rickleton (a journalist who has also written for Eurasianet) and Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittman.
Another raised the case of opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev, who was jailed amid a confrontation with Atambayev.
Jeenbekov promised to look into these cases, according to Oshurahonova and one other activist present at the meeting who requested anonymity.
Azimjan Askarov, the ethnic Uzbek community leader whose case caused a rupture in relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States in 2015, was not mentioned by anybody, however.
Jeenbekov has already said that he has no intention of reviewing the case, as doing so would constitute interference in judicial process.
But this position is undermined by his own admission that the judiciary, like the law enforcement organs, is in need of reform.
Overall, said Oshurahonova, it is early to be optimistic, since “one meeting has never solved anything,” but that the fact Jeenbekov pledged to meet separately with some participants to discuss issues in more detail gives some cause for hope.
“If this happens then there will be belief that we can really begin working together. But if (the meeting) is followed by silence, there will only be disappointment,” she told Eurasianet.