After years of engaging in increasingly blatant human rights violations, President Askar Akayev's administration has launched a full-fledged campaign to neutralize political opposition. In the days before and after run-off parliamentary elections March 12, the government arrested, or otherwise stripped of political potential, virtually all of the country's opposition leaders. The concept of civil society is facing a severe test in a nation once heralded as an "island of democracy."
Just prior to the balloting, officials barred several opposition candidates from competing, including Iskhak Masaliev, Omurbek Subanaliev, and Daniyar Usenov. According to the OSCE, both Usenov, chairman of the opposition People's Party, and Felix Kulov, chairman of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party and the former Vice President and mayor of Bishkek, had won a parliamentary seat in the first round. However, authorities stripped Usenov of his registration on March 3 before the run-offs, and claimed that Kulov had in fact lost. Kulov sued to annul the official, tainted results in his district. Three days before the second round, authorities detained the head of Kulov's election campaign team, Emil Aliev, on charges of misappropriation of funds dating from 1995.
The OSCE, the lead election monitoring body, expressed serious concerns over the conduct of the elections. It also criticized the Kyrgyz government for not implementing recommended reforms. Even though this message was delivered personally by the Secretary General of the OSCE, the government brushed off the criticism. According to a journalist for Res Publica, government "counselor" K. Bayalinov stated that the government does not take such concerns seriously because OSCE rebukes carry no sanctions.
As if to prove the point, the government escalated its repressive practices. On March 16, authorities arrested Topchybek Turgunaliev -- the thrice-arrested leader of the Erkin Kyrgyzstan Party -- after he called for President Akayev's resignation. And on March 22, the prosecutor general suddenly moved to "apprehend" Felix Kulov, even though the charges against him dated back to at least 1997. Kulov launched a hunger strike in prison and has been denied access to his family and attorney.
When grassroots protestors took to the streets in the capital, and also paralyzed opposition bases like Kara-Buura, Balykchy, and Jalalabad in mid-March, authorities reportedly responded with excessive force and conducted mass arrests. Now that the rallies have dissipated, the government has turned its attention to silencing the independent media. A court order has prevented the newspaper Res Publica from printing, and security agents have made threatening calls to journalist activists.
The crackdown has been arguably the worst in Kyrgyzstan since the Soviet era. But it is not a surprise. The Kyrgyz government has blatantly violated political and civil rights since 1994. In that year, President Akayev dissolved parliament arbitrarily (suffering significantly less censure than Kazakhstan's President Nazarbaev for the same act). In 1995, President Akayev insured his re-election by stripping three contestants of their registration arbitrarily before the election. In recent years, journalists and other government critics have faced repeated, fabricated, and sullying criminal charges.
NGO leaders, too, have come under direct attack. The government refused to register the outspoken Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) in 1998, but relented under international pressure, revealing the political nature of the denial. [See Eurasia Insight Archive] And this year, the government arrested Nurlan Alymkulov, head of the Yntymak youth organization, according to the KCHR, to silence his advocacy for the rights of homeless youth.
For much of the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan's comparatively tolerant system contrasted with those of more authoritarian-minded countries, such as China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan's compliance with its international human rights obligations, until recently, has been quantifiably better than that its neighbors. Nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan's reputation as a democratic bastion should have been considered relative. Compliance with international human rights norms should be measured by universal standards.
The recent escalation of repression in Kyrgyzstan may reflect the overwhelming burden of having unreliable or badly behaved neighbors. Repression is the way of life or actively on the rise throughout Central Asia. Russia's influence under newly elected Vladimir Putin is unknown and therefore threatening. Neighboring Tajikistan and Afghanistan have drawn Kyrgyzstan into abuses connected with arms and drug trafficking [See Eurasia Insight Archive]. And Kyrgyzstan's proximity to authoritarian Uzbekistan played a major role in the Batken hostage crisis from August October 1999. The parliamentary elections may have simply triggered in Kyrgyzstan the panic already gathering in the region.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.