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With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2005, Kyrgyzstan's political opposition began preparations in 2004 to challenge the authoritarian rule of President Askar Akayev at the polls. Meanwhile, growing discord within the legislature, including two failed no-confidence votes against the prime minister and a scandal over listening devices discovered in the offices of several opposition deputies, was visible during the year. On the international front, Kyrgyzstan continued to juggle its relations with the United States and Russia over strategic matters, while border and water resource issues contributed to tensions with neighboring Central Asian countries.
Having been 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 USSR in August 1991. After Akayev, a respected physicist, was elected president in the country's first direct presidential vote two months later, he introduced multiparty elections and pursued economic reforms.
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 Feliks 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 vote tabulations, 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 conducted armed incursions in August 2000 into the southern region of Kyrgyzstan. The rebels were members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group seeking the overthrow of the secular government of Uzbekistan and its replacement with one based on Islamic law. After several months of 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. Meanwhile, 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 parliament member Azimbek Beknazarov on abuse-of-power charges, although critics maintained that he had been detained because of his public criticism of a controversial 1999 border agreement ceding land to China. On March 17 and 18, a few days after his trial began, thousands of pro-Beknazarov demonstrators marched in the southern district of Aksy. In the first outbreak of deadly political violence since Kyrgyzstan's independence, several protestors were killed and more than a dozen were wounded when police fired into the crowd. In an apparent effort to quell the protests, the authorities released Beknazarov from prison the following day. However, on May 24, he was convicted of abuse of office, given a one-year suspended sentence, and stripped of his seat in parliament.
Thousands of Beknazarov supporters continued to hold rallies, demanding that the charges against him be dismissed and that those responsible for the killings in Aksy be punished. The demonstrators adopted additional demands, including Akayev's resignation and the overturning of a May 8 conviction of Kulov 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 were intended to exclude him from further activities in politics.
The crisis eased somewhat after an appeals court annulled Beknazarov's sentence on June 28, 2002, allowing him to retain his seat in parliament. On December 28, four former regional prosecutors and police officials were sentenced to between two and three years in prison in connection with the Aksy shootings. However, critics charged that senior officials who had authorized the use of force had not been prosecuted and brought to justice. The government subsequently made certain conciliatory gestures toward the southern regions of the country by designating the city of Osh the "southern capital" and awarding it special budgetary privileges.
Disquiet in parliament and underlying divisions within the political elite were evident throughout 2004. In January, several opposition members of parliament announced that they had discovered listening devices in their offices. A parliamentary commission created to examine the case issued a critical report in May that concluded that the National Security Service (SNB) had planted the devices. The SNB responded by presenting a videotape of a former SNB employee confessing to having passed classified documents to two of the opposition deputies, charges that the deputies denied. As a result of the report, the lower house of parliament adopted a resolution calling on Akayev to hold the SNB officials accountable; by November 30, no actions had been taken to follow up on the resolution.
In April, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the upper house of parliament. Tanayev, who had the president's declared support, had been accused of financial abuses and corruption. Although a second vote of no confidence, this time in the lower house of parliament in May, also failed, parliament's attempts to remove the prime minister were indications of genuine discontent within the legislature over government policies. The year also saw the defection to the opposition of Misir Ashirkulov, former secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council and a long-standing ally of the president.
In the October 10 local elections, candidates representing the pro-government parties Alga, Kyrgyzstan and Adilet captured the largest number of seats. Although the elections took place without significant government interference, some domestic observers reported irregularities, including multiple voting and vote tampering. In a positive step, a new electoral code provision provided for the participation of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on local electoral commissions. While recent legislation somewhat enhanced the responsibilities of local councils - including the right to control local budget expenditures - the councils remain relatively powerless compared with the presidential-appointed regional governors.
With the next parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for February and October 2005, respectively, opposition parties and groups began positioning themselves throughout 2004 to challenge pro-government candidates in the upcoming polls. Several political blocs and tactical coalitions were established during the year in an attempt to improve their chances of gaining seats in parliament and to strengthen their position for the subsequent presidential election. With prominent opposition figure Kulov incarcerated and ineligible for parole until November 2005 - and recent electoral code amendments denying people with a criminal record the right to contest elections - a number of opposition groups declared their support for former prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who announced his candidacy for president in June. Meanwhile, speculation continued over whether Akayev will seek another term in office. Although he is constitutionally barred from running again - and despite his repeated pledges that he will step down after his current term ends - some analysts believe that the country's constitution will be reinterpreted to allow Akayev to become a candidate.
Kyrgyzstan continued to balance its strategic and economic relations with Russia, China, and the United States throughout the year. In August, Russia and Kyrgyzstan announced an expansion of a military base in the town of Kant near Bishkek that was established in 2003 under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty Organization. Although Kyrgyz and Russian officials have insisted that Russian and U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan will serve complementary, rather than competing, strategic roles, the Kant air base is widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to counter the growing U.S. influence in Central Asia after September 11, 2001. The economic benefits of a continued U.S. presence in the country are likely to lead Kyrgyzstan to maintain good relations with both Washington and Moscow. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz government held discussions with neighboring China during the year to broaden trade and investment opportunities.
Kyrgyzstan's border with Uzbekistan continued to be a source of tension between the two countries. Following the 1999 and 2000 IMU incursions into Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan placed land mines along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border to prevent renewed IMU invasions. Tashkent has refused most demands by Bishkek to remove the mines, which have killed a number of Kyrgyz civilians. In one of the latest issues of concern, in September 2004, Kyrgyz members of parliament called for the return of the primarily ethnic Kyrgyz enclave of Shakhimardan that was transferred to Uzbekistan in the 1930s in a move that Bishkek described as illegal. Disputes over the region's critical water supply also strained Kyrgyzstan's relations with both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to which Bishkek provides water in exchange for supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas.
Citizens of Kyrgyzstan cannot change their government democratically. International election observers described the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections as neither free nor fair. The constitution codifies strong presidential rule and a weak parliament, and the post of prime minister is largely ceremonial. 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, after the country's first post-Soviet constitution was adopted (in 1993), rather than in 1991, when he was first elected.
The current bicameral legislature is composed of a 45-member People's Assembly (upper house) and a 60-seat Legislative Assembly (lower house). Constitutional amendments adopted in a February 2003 referendum will create a unicameral legislature with 75 deputies after the 2005 parliamentary poll. Other amendments adopted during the referendum further strengthened the authority of the president at the expense of parliament and included the abolition of party-list voting in parliamentary elections in favor of the first-past-the-post system (which could further weaken political parties) and the granting of immunity to former presidents and their families. Voters also approved a proposal that Akayev should serve out the remainder of his term until December 2005. Election observers noted various irregularities during the referendum, including multiple voting, forged voting results, and polling officials hampering independent observers from monitoring the vote. In addition, the role of the Constitutional Council, which was composed of government officials and civil society representatives and tasked with proposing the amendments, was marginalized, as the final government-prepared text differed significantly from what had been offered by the Constitutional Council. Furthermore, the time frame from the selection of the various proposals for the referendum until the holding of the referendum was extremely short.
A new election code regarded as an improvement over previous legislation was signed into law in January. While the new code contains provisions to improve transparency and NGO and political party participation in the electoral process, concerns remain about certain elements, including some that could be used to restrict the rights of candidates and the media.
The government harassed some members of opposition political groups during the year, including Ar-Namys party deputy chairman Emil Aliyev, who was arrested in July on embezzlement charges that were suspected of being politically motivated. In August 2003, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court upheld the 2002 guilty verdict against Ar-Namys party leader Feliks Kulov that had resulted from a politically motivated prosecution. Twelve months later, a district court denied Kulov parole. Most political parties are weak, poorly organized, and centered around a specific leading figure.
Corruption is widespread throughout Kyrgyz society, and bribes are frequently required to obtain lucrative government positions. As part of the country's anticorruption campaign, parliament in 2004 adopted a law on income declarations for high-level officials; the first declarations are to be presented in May 2005. Kyrgyzstan was ranked 122 out of 146 countries in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Both state and private media are vulnerable to government pressure, which causes many journalists to practice self-censorship. Libel is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Most of the country's media outlets are owned or controlled by individuals with close ties to the government and the president's family. All media outlets are required to register with the Ministry of Justice and wait for formal approval before commencing operations; the registration process is often lengthy and includes background checks on owners and sources of financing. The state printing house, Uchkun, which is the country's primary newspaper publisher, has at times refused to print some independent and opposition newspapers. An internationally funded printing press operated by the nongovernmental Media Support Center Foundation provides services to more than 60 local and regional papers without fear of censorship. There are no credible reports of government interference in or censorship of the Internet.
Journalists and media outlets faced harassment, and even violence, during the year. Chingiz Sydykov, the son of Zamira Sydykova, who is the editor of the Respublica newspaper, received serious injuries during an attack in April. His mother believed that the assault was inretaliation for a recent series of articles that she wrote in the paper criticizing the government. Kyrgyz Ruhu newspaper journalist Ernis Nazalov was found dead in September 2003 in a canal in the southern town of Osh; the fact that Nazalov was investigating government corruption at the time increased suspicion that his death was politically motivated. In February 2004, police closed the investigation into his death after an official inquiry concluded that he died of drowning. In September, the MSN newspaper was found guilty of monopolistic practices for allegedly setting low prices designed to restrict competition. Critics charged that the ruling against MSN, which had published controversial articles about socioeconomic conditions in the country, was politically motivated. The independent television station Pyramida was prevented from broadcasting for more than a month in early 2004 because of alleged technical problems. However, the station's director maintained that Pyramida's weekly political program might have angered the authorities because it featured opposition leaders. In August, the telecommunications company Aeropag, with reported ties to the president's family, announced the purchase of shares in Pyramida.
The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Muslim country. To obtain legal status, all religious organizations must register with the Ministry of Justice, a process that is often cumbersome. The government has increased efforts to monitor and restrict Islamic groups that it regards as extremist and a threat to national security, particularly Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international movement calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world. There have been reports of some alleged Hizb-ut-Tahrir members being tortured while in police custody. In May, Uzbek and Kyrgyz secret services conducted joint surveillance of a mosque in Karasuu near Osh during prayers. The mosque is led by Imam Muhammad Rafik Kamalov, whom a member of parliament accused the same month of being associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Teachers have been forced to subscribe to government newspapers, and municipal authorities in some cities require school children to perform during national holidays and visits by government officials. Corruption is widespread throughout the educational system, with bribes often required to obtain admission to schools or universities.
Freedom of assembly is respected with some restrictions. Numerous protests and rallies took place across the country in 2004, most without interference from the authorities. However, on April 15, police detained more than a dozen demonstrators, including prominent human rights activists, who were protesting Kulov's continued imprisonment. The protestors were given small fines for violating public order and released. In October, the Constitutional Court ruled that a law on assembly was not in compliance with the constitution, which requires only that organizers of public gatherings inform the authorities in advance, rather than seek their permission, to hold such meetings and demonstrations.
Freedom of association is generally respected, although some NGOs have faced harassment and intimidation, sometimes perpetrated by the authorities. On July 3, the daughter of Ramazan Dyryldaev, head of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, was beaten by unknown assailants. On November 16, Tursunbek Akunov, head of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, disappeared. On the day he went missing, he was gathering signatures for a petition calling for the president's resignation and was in the process of organizing a large protest, to be held the next morning, calling for Akayev to step down. As of November 30, Akunov's whereabouts and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance remained unknown. During the year, Akayev and the state media accused foreign NGOs, including the Soros Foundation and National Democratic Institute, of trying to foment popular unrest to overthrow the government.
The law provides for the formation of trade unions, and unions generally are able to conduct their activities without obstruction. Although the right to strike is not specifically codified in law, it is not prohibited. The Federation of Trade Unions is the only union umbrella organization in the country, but unions are not required to join it.
Despite various legislative reforms in the court system, the judiciary is not independent and remains dominated by the executive branch. Corruption among judges, who are underpaid, is reportedly widespread. Defendants' rights, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, are not always respected. Police at times use violence against suspects during arrest and interrogation and to extract confessions. In November 2003, Akayev signed a decision outlawing torture; police will face criminal charges and up to ten years in prison if convicted. During 2004, numerous Ministry of Internal Affairs officials were dismissed and prosecuted for offenses including police brutality, according to the 2004 U.S. State Department human rights report. In March 2004, the president signed a law limiting the crimes that carry the death penalty to aggravated murder, rape of underage children, and genocide. On November 16, eighteen prisoners in a detention center in Osh slashed their wrists to protest alleged ill-treatment and a lack of basic services. The incident highlighted persistent reports of poor prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, a high prevalence of infectious diseases, shortages of medicine, and inadequate nutrition.
Ethnic minority groups, including Uzbeks, Russians, and Uighurs, have complained of discrimination in employment and housing. Members of the country's sizable ethnic Uzbek minority have been demanding more political and cultural rights, including greater representation in government and more Uzbek language schools. In April, Akayev signed a new language law requiring that students applying to universities and state and local government officials be proficient in Kyrgyz and stipulating that at least one-third of news broadcasts and advertisements be in Kyrgyz. Some critics charge that the law will lead to further discrimination against the country's large minority population, particularly Uzbeks, and exclude them from political participation.
The government of Kyrgyzstan, which abolished the Soviet-era exit-visa system in 1999, generally respects the right of free travel to and from the country. However, certain policies complicate internal migration, including a requirement for citizens to obtain official permits to work and settle in particular areas of the country.
Personal connections, corruption, organized crime, and widespread poverty limit business competition and equality of opportunity. Conscript soldiers are commonly rented out to civilian employers under illegal arrangements, and some are forced to work for no pay.
Cultural traditions and apathy by law enforcement officials discourage victims of domestic violence and rape from seeking legal help. The trafficking of women and girls into forced prostitution abroad is a serious problem, and some victims report that the authorities are involved in trafficking. In response, the criminal code was amended in 2003 to punish trafficking with up to 20 years in prison, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an anti-trafficking police unit in 2004. The tradition of bride kidnapping and forcing women into marriage persists despite being illegal, and few are prosecuted for the crime. Although women are well represented in the work force and in institutions of higher learning, declining economic conditions in the country have had a negative impact on women's professional and educational opportunities.