Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Throughout 2001, the Kyrgyz government continued its persecution of opposition leader Felix Kulov, whom many regarded as the main political challenger to President Askar Akayev. Kulov was sentenced to prison in January for abuse of power while national security minister in the late 1990s, and was charged with additional crimes later in the year. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the tiny Central Asian country of the Kyrgyz Republic offered its support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, including the use of its airspace and air bases.
Populated by nomadic herders and ruled by tribal leaders for centuries, the Kyrgyz Republic was conquered by Russia in the mid-1800s and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1924. The country declared independence from the U.S.S.R. in August 1991. Two months later, Askar Akayev, a respected physicist, was elected president in the country's first direct presidential vote. While Akayev introduced multiparty elections and pursued economic reforms in conjunction with International Monetary Fund requirements, he faced strong resistance from a Communist-dominated parliament elected in 1990.
In the 1995 parliamentary elections, no single party won a clear majority, with a mix of governing officials, intellectuals, and clan leaders capturing most of the seats in the legislature. Later that year, Akayev was reelected president in early elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. In a February 1996 referendum, 94 percent of voters endorsed constitutional amendments that substantially increased the powers of the presidency.
In the highly flawed February 2000 parliamentary poll, opposition parties, including the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (PDMK), El Bei-Bechora (The People's Party), and Ar-Namys (Dignity), were barred from the vote over minor legal technicalities widely regarded as politically motivated charges. Ar-Namys chairman Felix Kulov, who ran as an independent candidate, lost in the runoff by a suspiciously large margin despite having enjoyed a secure lead in the first round. According to official election results, the Communist Party received the largest percentage of votes, followed by the pro-government Union of Democratic Forces. International election observers, including representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noted serious irregularities such as attempts to bribe voters, violations in tabulating the votes, the forging of ballots, and a state media bias in favor of pro-government parties.
Shortly after a second-round runoff on March 12, Kulov was arrested on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power allegedly committed while national security minister in the mid-1990s. Critics charged that Kulov's arrest was an attempt to prevent him from running against Akayev in the October presidential election. Following more than four months in detention and a closed military trial, Kulov was acquitted in August and immediately declared his candidacy for president.
The October 29 presidential poll was contested by six candidates, including the heavily favored incumbent, Akayev, who received nearly 75 percent of the vote. Omurbek Tekebayev, deputy speaker of parliament and leader of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, came in a distant second. Kulov, who was widely regarded as Akayev's main challenger, was denied registration as a candidate for refusing to take a mandatory Kyrgyz language exam, which he charged violated election laws and the constitution. As with the parliamentary elections, international monitors and opposition figures cited widespread irregularities, including the exclusion of candidates for political purposes, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and biased state media coverage.
For the second successive year, Islamic militants engaged in armed incursions in August 2000 in the southern region of the Kyrgyz Republic. The rebels were members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group seeking the violent overthrow of the secular government of Uzbekistan and its replacement with one based on Islamic law. After several months of intense battles between the rebels and Uzbek and Kyrgyz troops, the fighting ceased with the onset of winter, with many of the rebels fleeing back to bases in neighboring Tajikistan.
After a closed military trial, Felix Kulov was convicted in January 2001 of abuse of power while serving as national security minister in 1997 and 1998, and was sentenced to seven years in prison; a military court rejected his appeal in March. In late December, he was put on trial again on additional charges of embezzlement. Most observers maintain that the case against Kulov is politically motivated and intended to exclude him from further activities in politics.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Kyrgyz Republic offered Washington the use of its airspace in connection with the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. In December, parliament voted to allow the U.S. to use its air bases for one year for humanitarian operations, and the first U.S. transport planes began arriving at Manas airport by mid-month. For the cash-strapped Kyrgyz economy, U.S. troop deployments promise to be a valuable source of income, with Bishkek reported to receive some $7,000 for each takeoff and landing. Other countries, including France, Italy, and Australia, reportedly requested the use of Manas airport for aid shipments to Kabul. At the same time, human rights groups expressed concern that the government is using its increased cooperation with the United States since September 11 to crack down further on sources of domestic dissent, including independent media and opposition political groups.
Relations between the Kyrgyz Republic and its more powerful neighbor, Uzbekistan, continued to be strained throughout the year. A number of Kyrgyz civilians were killed in 2001 by land mines placed by Uzbekistan along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Tashkent insisted that the mines, which were laid without Bishkek's approval, were necessary to prevent Islamic extremists from crossing into Uzbek territory. During the winter, Tashkent reportedly pressured Bishkek to accept certain territorial demands by suspending deliveries of natural gas. Publication of the land-swap deal caused an uproar in the Kyrgyz parliament, where many members maintained they had been unaware of the agreement.
Citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic cannot change their government democratically. International election observers described the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections as neither free nor fair. The 1996 constitution codifies strong presidential rule and a weak parliament, and the post of prime minister is largely ceremonial. The bicameral legislature is composed of a 45-member upper chamber, which meets only occasionally to approve the budget and confirm presidential appointees, and a 60-seat lower chamber. Although the constitution limits the president to only two terms in office, President Askar Akayev was allowed to run in 2000 after the constitutional court ruled that his first term began in 1995, rather than in 1991, when he effectively ran unopposed.
While there is some degree of press freedom in the Kyrgyz Republic, both state and private media are vulnerable to government pressure, which causes many journalists to practice self-censorship. All media are required to register with the ministry of justice, and an article in the criminal code regarding libel is used to prosecute journalists who criticize government officials. The independent newspaper Res Publica was forced by court order to stop publishing for a few weeks in early 2001 until it paid off two fines it had received after losing a libel suit for an article accusing the head of state television and radio of corruption. In March, a district court overturned its earlier decision to free journalist Moldosali Ibrahimov, who had been sentenced to two years in prison in June 2000 for libel over a report that a judge had engaged in bribery. In June, the ministry of justice rescinded the April and May registrations of 16 new media outlets, claiming that already registered media outlets had to be re-registered first. Many press freedom advocates maintain that the decision represents another attempt by the government to stifle freedom of expression.
All religious organizations must register with the State Commission on Religious Affairs and the ministry of justice to obtain status as a legal entity. After the events of September 11, the government increased its efforts to monitor and restrict Islamic groups that it regards as a threat to national security. Freedom of assembly and association is respected inconsistently, with local authorities sometimes using registration requirements for demonstrations to inhibit this right. On May 1, police prevented a march of some 1,000 protestors organized by opposition parties in Bishkek. The same day, they detained six demonstrators in Djalalabad, including the local coordinator of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR), who were protesting declining living conditions and calling for President Akayev to resign.
While some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate with little or no state interference, others, including the KCHR have faced harassment by the authorities. In March 2001, an unknown assailant attacked Tolekan Ismailova, the president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, causing her to lose consciousness. Opposition politician Topchubek Turgunaliev, who had been found guilty in 2000 on politically motivated charges of plotting to assassinate President Akayev, was granted a presidential pardon in August 2001 following considerable pressure from foreign governments and international and domestic human rights groups.
A 1992 law permits the formation of trade unions and the right to bargain collectively. Most workers belong to the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan, the successor to the Soviet-era labor organization. To help stem the tide of growing Russian emigration from the Kyrgyz Republic over the last several years, President Akayev in December 2001 signed into law a bill making Russian an official language alongside Kyrgyz.
Despite various legislative reforms in the court system, the judiciary is not independent and remains dominated by the executive branch. Corruption among judges is reportedly widespread, and police frequently use violence against suspects during arrest and interrogation. Conditions in the country's prisons, which suffer from overcrowding, food shortages, and a lack of other basic necessities, remain poor.
Personal connections, corruption, organized crime, and widespread poverty limit business competition and equality of opportunity. Women are underrepresented in government and politics, and domestic violence, rape, and trafficking of women and girls into forced prostitution abroad are serious problems.