Kyrgyzstan | Page 23 | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

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The January 2002 arrest of an outspoken parliament member critical of the country's leadership sparked an unprecedented wave of public demonstrations that continued throughout much of the year. Fed by popular discontent over years of economic stagnation and political exclusion, the protestors adopted various demands, including the resignation of President Askar Akayev. The shooting deaths by police of five protestors in March represented the first time that political disputes had turned violent since Kyrgyzstan's independence more than a decade earlier.

Populated by nomadic herders and ruled by tribal leaders for centuries, Kyrgyzstan 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, 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 IMF 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.

Opposition parties, including the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (PDMK), El Bei-Bechora (The People's Party), and Ar-Namys (Dignity), were barred from competing in the February 2000 parliamentary elections over minor technicalities in rulings that were widely regarded as politically motivated. 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 OSCE, noted serious irregularities such as attempts to bribe voters, violations in tabulating the votes, and a state media bias in favor of pro-government parties.

The October 29, 2000, presidential poll was contested by six candidates, including the heavily favored incumbent, who received nearly 75 percent of the vote. 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 Kyrgyzstan. The rebels were members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group seeking the violent overthrow of the secular government of Uzbekistan and its replacement with one based on Sharia (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 their bases in neighboring Tajikistan.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Kyrgyzstan offered its support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, including the use of its air bases. For the cash-strapped Kyrgyz economy, U.S. troop deployments promised to be a valuable source of income; Bishkek reportedly received several thousand dollars for each takeoff and landing. At the same time, human rights groups expressed concern that the government would use its increased cooperation with the United States to crack down further on sources of domestic dissent, including independent media outlets and opposition political groups.

Years of simmering frustrations in the economically depressed and politically marginalized south culminated in an unprecedented series of public protests in 2002. The demonstrations were sparked by the January arrest of an outspoken parliament member, Azimbek Beknazarov, on charges of abuse of power allegedly committed in 1995. Critics maintained that Beknazarov had been detained because of his public criticism of a controversial 1999 border agreement ceding land to China.

A few days after his trial began, thousands of pro-Beknazarov demonstrators marched in the southern district of Aksy on March 17 and 18. In the first outbreak of deadly political violence since Kyrgyzstan's independence, five protestors were killed and more than a dozen were wounded when police fired into the crowd. Although the government was quick to blame human rights activists and opposition figures for provoking the confrontation, Beknazarov was released from prison the following day in an apparent effort to quell the protests. However, thousands of his supporters continued to hold rallies, demanding that the charges against him be dismissed and that those responsible for the killings be punished.

After numerous delays, a state commission investigating the clashes released its final report on May 18. While concluding that the violence had been triggered by factors including the illegal use of firearms by law enforcement officials, the report did not address the critical question of who had given the orders to shoot. Under growing domestic and international pressure, Akayev dismissed Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, as well as the head of the presidential administration and the interior minister, on May 22; Bakiev subsequently was replaced by Nikolai Tanayev, the first ethnic Russian to hold that post. Two days later, Beknazarov was convicted of abuse of office, given a one-year suspended sentence, and stripped of his seat in parliament.

Tensions continued to mount as protestors staged mass marches in cities in the south, clashing frequently with police. The demonstrators adopted additional demands, including Akayev's resignation and the overturning of a May 8 conviction of Felix Kulov that had resulted in a sentence of 10 years in prison for embezzlement. Kulov was already serving a seven-year prison term, which he had received in January 2001, for abuse of power while national security minister in 1997 and 1998. Most analysts maintained that the cases against him were politically motivated and intended to exclude him from further activities in politics.

The crisis eased somewhat after an appeals court annulled Beknazarov's sentence on June 28, allowing him to retain his seat in parliament. In August, the prosecutor-general's office announced that it was filing charges against several officials in connection with the Aksy shootings. The trial, which opened in late September, concluded on December 28 with the sentencing of four former regional prosecutors and police officials to between two and three years in prison; three other local officials were acquitted. Critics charged that the verdicts were too lenient and maintained that the real responsibility lay with senior government officials, including the former interior minister and the head of the national security service. Many observers believed that Akayev's handling of the fallout from the Aksy shootings--which had prompted criticism from both hard-liners within his government and members of the opposition--had left him increasingly politically isolated by year's end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Kyrgyzstan 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 had begun in 1995, rather than in 1991, when he ran effectively unopposed. In September, a new constitutional council began drafting constitutional amendments on the redistribution of power between the executive and legislative branches. The council's members include senior government officials, members of parliament, and leaders of several opposition parties. Discussion on the proposed amendments is scheduled to continue into 2003.

While there is some degree of press freedom in Kyrgyzstan, 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. The state printing house has refused at times to print some independent newspapers, including Res Publica and Moya Stolitsa-Novosti. A controversial resolution adopted in January that severely restricted the activities of independent publishers was canceled in midyear. That resolution had stipulated that only those publishing houses in which the government owned at least a 10 percent stake could operate, and it had required the registration of various publishing activities, including bulletins by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, the government increased its efforts to monitor and restrict Islamic groups that it regards as a threat to national security. In order to obtain legal status, all religious organizations must register with the State Commission on Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice, a process that is often cumbersome.

Most political parties are weak and poorly organized and centered around a specific leading figure. While some NGOs operate with little or no state interference, others, including the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, have faced harassment by the authorities. In July, Akayev created the post of ombudsman, a position that was filled in November by human rights activist Tursunbai Bakir Uulu.

Freedom of assembly is respected inconsistently. A series of demonstrations throughout 2002 included a March protest in which five people were killed by police. In July, Akayev signed a law on freedom of assembly adopted by parliament the previous month. Critics charged that the law would allow law enforcement officials to ban demonstrations if they determine that the rights of citizens not taking part are being violated. A 1992 law permits the formation of trade unions and protects members from anti-union discrimination, and unions generally are able to conduct their activities without obstruction.

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. According to the 2001 U.S. State Department report on human rights, released in March 2002, the government generally respects the right of free travel into and outside the country. However, certain policies complicate internal migration, including a requirement for citizens to have official permission to work and settle in a particular area of the country. In 1999, Kyrgyzstan abolished the Soviet-era exit-visa system.

Many members of the country's sizeable ethnic Uzbek minority have been demanding more political and cultural rights, including greater representation in government and better resources for Uzbek schools. Women are underrepresented in government and politics, and the trafficking of women and girls into forced prostitution abroad is a serious problem. Cultural traditions discourage victims of domestic violence from seeking legal help.