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Kyrgyzstan: President Rages at Critics of Constitutional Fix

Kyrgyzstan’s president struck a sour and far from statesmanlike note during independence day celebrations on August 31 by using a public address to condemn his critics and promote contentious changes to the constitution.

In a series of vitriolic verbal broadsides delivered on a stage in the center of Bishkek, Almazbek Atambayev found time to lash out at a number of the erstwhile political allies with whom he helped grab power from former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the 2010 revolution. He reserved particular animus for Roza Otunbayeva, who served as interim president after Bakiyev’s overthrow, prompting her to storm off the stage in disgust.

The president’s choleric disposition was brought on by a statement issued on the eve of independence day by the members of the 2010 interim government that pleaded with the government to desist from pursuing amendments to the constitution. Plans currently taking shape envision a referendum in the fall on the amendments, which would see the office of the prime minister broaden its powers — a measure that many suspect is designed to bolster the position of elites surrounding the one-term president. Another particularly controversial change would enshrine vaguely defined “supreme state values” that critics fear would dilute the value of individual human rights in deference to concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.”

Atambayev spared no bile for the members of the interim government, which Otunbayeva led.

“I can understand their envy, their spite and their hatred for me. After all, they expected some special conditions for themselves, some concessions and privileges, some ‘eternal chairs’ in high places. But I will say openly that I, as a president, make no discounts for my own family, let alone for members of the interim government,” he said.

Atambayev went on to argue that it was the 2010 constitution that directly led to years of political instability. 

“If you have already forgotten Roza Isakovna [Otunbayeva], then we well remember, what chaos there was after the adoption of the new constitution,” he said. “Our country was in turmoil for four years because of all the mines laid in the constitution.” 

That was the final straw for Otunbayeva, who stormed off the stage in what appears to have been a carefully orchestrated provocation.

The most perverse aspect of Atambayev’s sudden decision to pin all Kyrgyzstan’s evils on the 2010 constitution is that he was until not so long ago one of its greatest champions. News website Kloop.kg collated some choice pieces of praise.

“[The current constitution … has created a system that will not allow all power to be usurped by one branch of government or one figure of state. It has once again given the government the independence that is necessary for successful resolution of all the country’s pressing issues,” he said in 2012.

And in 2013: “Today the country needs stability as it needs air. Stability in everything. Including in the inviolability of the rules and provisions of the current constitution. As president, I hold the view that the constitution should not be changed with the arrival of each new leader.”

His enthusiasm had not faded even by 2015.

"The basic law [of 2010] restored the values that were laid down in the 1993 constitution — a true parliamentary system, making it impossible for one person to take all the important decisions,” he said last year.

One of the legal objections to changing the constitution hinge on the 2010 legislation that brought the document into being, which states that no amendments can be introduced before 2020. This does not impress Atambayev, however. 

“I want to say openly: This is a vile lie,” he said.

This is a peculiarly strange argument since the stipulation is indeed explicitly stated in Article 4 of the 2010 law.

A member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament submitted the proposed constitutional amendments to the Venice Commission, a group of constitutional experts operating under the aegis of the Council of Europe. The commission reported back on August 29 and the news was not good for Atambayev. 

The Commission concluded that the amendments “would negatively impact the balance of powers by strengthening the powers of the executive, while weakening both the parliament and, to a greater extent, the judiciary.”

“Some of the proposed amendments raise concerns with regard to key democratic principles, in particular the rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, and have the potential to encroach on certain human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the commission found.

Perhaps most explosively, Atambayev suggested in his independence day speech that some members of the interim government were somehow connected to inciting the ethnic unrest in June 2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.

Such statements are particularly ominous considering how liberally the authorities have taken this year to arresting Atambayev’s political opponents on less-than-solid grounds.

In May, the State Committee for National Security filed criminal charges against leaders of the self-styled “People’s Parliament” — former Agriculture Minister Bekbolot Talgarbekov, ex-Finance Minister Marat Sultanov, one-time presidential candidate Torobay Kolubayev — for allegedly plotting the violent overthrow of the government. Evidence provided by the authorities for the supposed coup scheme consisted of a recorded conversation that left many skeptical. The trial opened in August behind closed door and is set to resume on September 7.

It might be worth noting here that Atambayev himself came to power through a violent uprising against former President Bakiyev.

Another figure loosely associated to the People’s Parliament, inveterate troublemaker and businessman Nurlan Motuyev, was on August 29 sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of public calls to terrorist activity. Motuyev pushed his luck too far with his repeated and downright bizarre praise for the Islamic State group, once at a People’s Parliament meeting. Motuyev has long been considered little more than an eccentric gadfly on the political scene given to foolish and provocative statements, so the punishment could be seen as perhaps excessive.

Cases like these are a vivid reminder that although Atambayev is no Bakiyev, he may well be willing to resort to extra-political means to deal with his enemies. Some remarks made in the Kyrgyz language section of his independence day speech referred to “dark powers,” “[people] receiving support from other countries,” and “dirty politicians” — a suggestion of a paranoid mindset that could manifest itself in dangerous ways.

Kyrgyzstan: President Rages at Critics of Constitutional Fix

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