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Kyrgyzstan: Civil Society Set to Fight Constitutional Fiddle

Civil society in Kyrgyzstan has begun a counter-offensive against proposed tinkering to the constitution that critics of the amendments suspect constitutes a move to consolidate the power of the current ruling elite.

The Committee for Civic Control, a coalition 70 nongovernment groups, issued a passionate statement on August 24 urging President Almazbek Atambayev to avoid an attempt to make the same mistakes as his two deposed predecessors, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Talk of constitutional reform have been in the air from some time, despite provisions incorporated in 2010 in the last adopted constitution that prohibited any changes before 2020. Atambayev himself spoke for the need to change the basic law as prerequisite for improvements to the justice system.

But the Committee for Civic Control argued that any constitutional amendments would be the thin end of the edge.

“The entire history of independent Kyrgyzstan shows the negative experiences of any changes to the constitution that have been initiated from above. These have always led only to the usurpation of power by those who proposed the changes,” the committee said in a statement.

There are many proposed changes, but the most significant involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister.

The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism

One proposal envisions introduction of a raft of mandatory “supreme state values” that would encompass individual human rights but also tag on concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.” Another proposal is to revamp the concept of the family to change from the non-gender specific “union of two people” to “a union between a man and a woman.” The general drift would appear to be a transition away from rights conceived as protection for individual members of society toward an increased reliance on traditional and collective norms, presumably as conceived by whoever is in power at any given time. 

The Committee for Civic Control expressed its alarm at Kyrgyzstan’s proposed abandonment of the widely embraced human rights agenda.

“The potential juridical norms underwriting human rights that are articulated in the current constitution have not yet been implemented and are still in many aspects in existence only in nominal terms. But your proposed amendments would deprive our descendants even of the possibility of implementing [those norms] in future,” the committee said in its statement.

If this is a slightly recondite cultural area, the fixes proposed to the primer minister’s office are a little more straightforward. One suggestion is to grant the prime minister to present a motion of no confidence in the government before parliament and to fire and hire individuals members of the Cabinet.

The 2010 constitution adopted after the violent overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev should on paper have ensured a semblance of balance in the powers of the president, prime minister and parliament. Inertia, political shenanigans and the passivity of parliament has in reality meant, however, that the president remains, in effect, top dog in the country. Moving around the furniture might — in the view of critics of the proposed constitution revamp — be an attempt to avoid a new president coming in after Atambayev concludes his single permitted term in office and throwing his weight around.  

In order to lend the amendments a veneer of democratic credibility, they were first aired in parliament by a group of pliant deputies and are now to be put to the people in a referendum.

But as the Committee for Civic Control argued, putting questions about abstruse constitutional matter to the people is transparently an attempt to dazzle with legalistic mumbo-jumbo. 

“Referendums as an institute of plebiscite are also subject to risk of manipulation given the specificity and complicatedness of understanding the essence of the proposed changes, which require special legal expertise. That cannot be expected of all citizens of the country, who cannot be expected to understand the intricacies and convolutions of legal norms,” the committee said.

The authorities understand clearly that things are more than likely to go their own way for objective cultural reasons. While electorates in the West often tend to use referendums as a way of thumbing their noses at their government, societies in the more politically unsophisticated post-Soviet nations incline toward voting consensually. Kyrgyzstan is head and shoulders above its Central Asian peers in the plurality and vivaciousness of its political area, but consensus still remains an omnipresent theme.

Kyrgyzstan: Civil Society Set to Fight Constitutional Fiddle

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