Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Kyrgyzstan's political rights rating improved from 6 to 5, its civil liberties rating from 5 to 4, and its status from Not Free to Partly Free, due to the holding of reasonably free and competitive presidential elections in July, and to modest improvements in freedom of the media, assembly, and association.
President Askar Akayev's increasingly authoritarian 14 year rule came to a dramatic end in 2005, as a popular uprising following seriously flawed parliamentary elections in February and March led to the ouster and resignation of Kyrgyzstan's head of state. Presidential elections held in July, in which opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev secured an easy victory, were described by international monitors as marking tangible progress toward standards for democratic elections. While the so-called Tulip Revolution brought improvements in media and civil society freedoms, the country's stability was compromised throughout the year by divisions within the new leadership, a worsening security situation, and questions about whether the new government represented a genuine break from the previous administration. On the international front, Kyrgyzstan continued to balance its relations with Russia and the United States, while its relations with neighboring Uzbekistan worsened over conflicts regarding the status of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan.
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 Askar 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, El Bei-Bechora, and Ar-Namys were barred from competing in the February 2000 parliamentary elections over minor technicalities in rulings that were widely regarded as politically motivated. According to official election results, the Communist Party received the largest percentage of votes, followed by the progovernment Union of Democratic Forces. Six candidates contested the October 2000 presidential poll, which the heavily favored incumbent won with nearly 75 percent of the vote. Ar-Namys chairman Felix 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, a move that he charged violated election laws and the constitution (Kulov's native language is Russian). International election observers, including representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), noted serious irregularities in both the presidential and parliamentary polls, such as biased state media coverage, violations in vote tabulations, and the exclusion of candidates for political purposes.
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. Many 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 the legislature. Four former regional prosecutors and police officials were sentenced to prison in December in connection with the Aksy shootings, although critics charged that senior officials who had authorized the use of force had not been 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.
Several opposition political blocs and coalitions were established throughout 2004 in an attempt to improve their chances of successfully challenging progovernment candidates in the following year's parliamentary and presidential polls. 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. Speculation continued over whether Akayev would seek another term in office. Although he was constitutionally barred from running again- and despite his repeated pledges that he would step down after the end of his current term-some analysts believed that the country's constitution would be reinterpreted to allow Akayev to become a candidate. Meanwhile, growing discord in parliament was evident throughout 2004, as a scandal over listening devices discovered in the offices of several opposition deputies erupted early in the year, and Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev, who had the declared support of the president, narrowly survived a no-confidence vote prompted by allegations of corruption.
In the February 27, 2005, parliamentary election, nearly 400 candidates contested the 75 seats in the unicameral legislature, with voter turnout reported at 60 percent. Fewer than half of the constituencies saw outright victories in which a candidate received the required 50 percent of the vote, which triggered the need for a second round of voting two weeks later for the remaining seats. According to an OSCE assessment, the first-round poll, "while more competitive than previous elections, fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards in a number of important areas." Irregularities that the election observers noted included multiple voting, voter intimidation, inaccurate voter lists, media bias in favor of progovernment candidates, and the presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations.
During the following week, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across the country to protest election irregularities, support defeated candidates, and ultimately call for Akayev's resignation. In a number of cities, demonstrators occupied government buildings and blocked roads. Mass protests continued through the March 13 second-round runoff election, in which opposition leaders charged numerous electoral violations and questioned the legitimacy of the vote. Although OSCE monitors noted that the "right to assembly was more fully respected in the period between the two rounds of elections," they concluded that numerous flaws observed in the first round were repeated during the runoff vote. Preliminary results from the second-round vote, which indicated that the opposition had captured less than 10 percent of the seats in the legislature, sparked additional protests and seizures of government buildings around the country. By March 20, demonstrators had assumed control of cities including Jalalabad and Osh, with most protests and takeovers of buildings having happened without significant violence.
On March 24, 2005, Akayev's 14-year rule was brought to an end in what became known as the Tulip Revolution, as protestors and opposition supporters stormed the presidential headquarters in Bishkek, taking over the seat of government; police generally did not respond with violence to suppress the demonstrators. Akayev had lost not only popular support, but also the backing of former loyal allies, including key national and regional elites opposed to his family's control of the economy and other prominent institutions. Looting was reported in the capital city, with businesses thought to be controlled by the Akayev family particular targets. After Kulov was released from prison the same day, he took control of the security forces; however, he stepped down after order had been restored several days later. Kulov was subsequently cleared of all charges by the Supreme Court, which made him eligible to contest future presidential elections. The outgoing parliament was dissolved, with the new legislature appointing opposition leader and former prime minister Bakiyev as acting president and prime minister. Akayev, who had fled the country for Russia on March 24, formally resigned as president on April 4; the date of the next presidential election was moved up to July 2005 in accordance with the constitution, which requires an election within three months of the president's resignation.
The months following the collapse of the Akayev regime were marked by greater instability and a deterioration in the security situation in the country. In April, thousands of people-many of whom had joined the protests in March and looked to improvements in their livelihoods following the uprising-seized land around Bishkek. Tensions gradually began to ease as the government, concerned that using force to remove the squatters would lead to further unrest, promised to construct affordable housing. On April 10, Usen Kudaibergenov, an ally of Kulov's who had helped organize citizens' defense groups against looters in late March and more recent land seizures, was murdered in Bishkek. Parliament deputy Bayaman Erkinbayev was wounded slightly in an apparent assassination attempt on April 28, which he claimed was politically motivated. In October and November, more than 20 people were killed, including parliament member Tynychbek Akhmatbayev, when prison riots erupted over poor living conditions in the country's penal colonies.
In the July 10 presidential poll, Bakiyev captured 89 percent of the vote, while his closest challenger, Erkin Kyrgyzstan party leader Tursunbay Bakir Uulu, received just 4 percent. Bakiyev's victory was regarded as largely inevitable after he and Kulov, his most serious potential rival, formed a political alliance in May: Kulov withdrew his candidacy in exchange for a guaranteed position as prime minister if Bakiyev were to become president. The alliance was also regarded as an important step toward ensuring stability; many observers were concerned that a contest between Kulov, whose support base was mostly northern and urban, and Bakiyev, whose backers were primarily southern and rural, could be sufficiently intense to trigger an outbreak of violence. In contrast to the earlier parliamentary vote, OSCE observers concluded that the presidential election "marked tangible progress & towards meeting OSCE commitments, as well as other international standards for democratic elections," although they noted that the "process deteriorated somewhat during the counting of votes." According to the OSCE mission report, the participation of six candidates offered voters a degree of choice, and basic rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, were generally respected.
After Kulov was officially appointed prime minister in September, rumors of tensions between Kulov and Bakiyev and certain officials close to the president began to circulate, although by late in the year their alliance appeared to be holding. Meanwhile, Bakiyev struggled with parliament over the structure and composition of government ministries and other political appointments, with concerns that key posts were being filled with former administration officials or close allies and relatives.
On September 19, Beknazarov, a prominent political figure and supporter of Bakiyev during the March popular revolt, was dismissed as prosecutor-general shortly after persuading parliament to strip Akayev's son, Aydar, of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Beknazarov, who had actively pursued corruption investigations into Akayev administration officials, charged that his dismissal was politically motivated and that his anticorruption drive had alarmed members of the current political elite. Bakiyev countered that Beknazarov's dismissal was related to his alleged negligence in his handling of a dispute over control of a major wholesale market in the town of Karasuu, which culminated in the murders of Abdalim Junusov, the market's director, and Bayaman Erkinbayev, a parliamentary deputy and an owner of the market; some viewed the murders as politically motivated, while others regarded them as examples of violent campaigns to control lucrative economic assets. Roza Otunbayeva, another key player in the uprising and a vocal critic of the current legislature, was removed from her post as foreign minister in September when parliament failed to formally approve her position. Both Beknazarov and Otunbayeva ran in two parliamentary by-elections held in November, which Beknazarov won decisively, while Otunbayeva was defeated.
One of the earliest promises of the leaders of the new government was to review and propose revisions to the country's constitution, including transferring more authority from the president to the prime minister in order to prevent the excessive concentration of power in one individual or group that had marked the Akayev era. Among the specific proposed changes were limiting the president to two 5-year terms in office and banning the holding of referendums on additional terms; changing the system of parliamentary elections from one in which deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies to a combination of single-mandate constituencies and party lists; and abolishing the death penalty. However, the process was plagued with problems from the start, including Bakiyev's seeming reluctance to move forward. In addition, the draft was criticized for not granting enough power to the prime minister and for having been developed by a constitutional council headed by Bakiyev himself. On November 10, Bakiyev's office presented a draft constitution and called for public debate until December 15.
Long-standing tensions between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbor Uzbekistan escalated in 2005, when hundreds of Uzbeks fled to Kyrgyzstan after Uzbek forces reportedly killed some 800 largely unarmed civilian protestors in the Uzbek city of Andijon. Tashkent successfully persuaded Kyrgyzstan to extradite four refugees in June, although Bishkek subsequently bowed to international pressure not to return any additional refugees. Shortly after the United Nations transferred more than 400 Uzbeks from Kyrgzstan to Romania, Uzbekistan cancelled a July agreement to supply natural gas to Kyrgyzstan. In addition to the few hundred refugees who were evacuated, several thousand more were thought to be in hiding throughout the country. Meanwhile, Tashkent charged that the instigators of the unrest in Andijon had been trained in Kyrgyzstan, allegations that Bishkek denied.
Kyrgyzstan continued to balance its strategic and economic relations with Russia and the United States throughout the year. 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. In October 2005, Washington secured an agreement to allow the U.S. military's continued presence at the Manas air base, although there were indications that Washington might be required to make larger payments for the use of the base. Meanwhile, Russia announced that it would invest in the development of a military base in the town of Kant near Bishkek, which was established in 2003 under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty Organization; the Kant air base has been widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to counter U.S. influence in the region.
Citizens of Kyrgyzstan cannot change their government democratically. International election observers described the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections and 2005 parliamentary elections as neither free nor competitive. However, the 2005 presidential elections, which followed the March popular uprising that toppled the Akayev regime, were described by the OSCE as having demonstrated "marked tangible progress & towards meeting OSCE commitments, as well as other international standards for democratic elections." The constitution codifies strong presidential rule and a weak parliament. 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.
Constitutional amendments adopted in a February 2003 referendum replaced the previous bicameral legislature (consisting of a 45-member upper house and 60seat lower house) with a unicameral body with 75 deputies following 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 single-man-date constituency 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. Following the March 2005 collapse of the Akayev government, parliament began to assert its independence to a greater degree, including in the handling of the president's cabinet nominees, many of whom the legislature rejected.
Most political parties continue to be 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. An anticorruption drive espoused by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2005 was directed largely against members and associates of former president Akayev's family. Until his dismissal as prosecutor-general in September 2005, Azimbek Beknazarov had been leading the government's anticorruption campaign against members of the previous regime, including former prime minister Nikolai Tanayev, the chairman of the national bank, and Akayev's son, Aydar. Kyrgyzstan was ranked 130 out of 159 countries in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
During Akayev's presidency, the government restricted freedom of the press. Both state and private media were vulnerable to government pressure, which caused many journalists to practice self-censorship. In the run-up to the February 2005 parliamentary elections, authorities cut off electricity to the country's only independent printing press, the Media Support Center (operated by Freedom House), which prints independent and opposition newspapers. During the same period, a state broadcast regulator suspended broadcasts of the Kyrgyz-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, allegedly because of an upcoming auction for the station's frequency. Reporters from the station, which criticizes government officials, charged that the move was politically motivated. The authorities prevented journalists from the state-run Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (KTR) from reporting on the March demonstrations. The head of the independent Journalists Trade Union, Azamat Kalman, suffered two broken legs when he was beaten by police and then pushed off a 10-foot-high wall by Akayev supporters during one of the March protests.
The media became more open and tolerant of diverse points of view following the March 2005 popular uprisings and subsequent change in regime. According to a May report by the International Crisis Group, "For the first time in years, television news began showing real events and different opinions." The new government established media reform commissions to plan reforms for KTR, draft a new media law, and propose options for privatizing some of the country's state media outlets. Nevertheless, journalists continued to face political pressures; in October, KOORT public radio and television went off the air when its staff struck for a week to protest alleged management pressure to endorse the Bakiyev government. Journalists and media outlets experienced occasional harassment, and even violence, during the year amid the lingering lawlessness and instability in the country. In September, journalist Makhmud Kazakbayev of the newspaper Demos Taimz was beaten following threats from a politician reportedly angered by his articles.
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 monitors and restricts 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.
Teachers reportedly have been forced to subscribe to government newspapers, and municipal authorities in some cities require schoolchildren 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 was respected in 2005, with numerous large-scale demonstrations taking place throughout the year, most without direct interference from the authorities or police. The fraudulent February parliamentary elections prompted thousands to stage protests across the country, which eventually led to the overthrow of the Akayev regime. An estimated 12,000 people demonstrated in September in Aksy to protest the dismissal of prosecutor-general Beknazarov for reasons that he and his supporters maintained were the result of his investigations into corruption among the political elite. Law enforcement officials were reportedly reluctant to use force or take other steps to restore order during demonstrations out of support for the protestors or fear of the possible consequences from the public, the legal system, and powerful elites.
Freedom of association is generally respected, although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) faced harassment and intimidation during Akayev's presidency. On November 16, 2004, 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. He reappeared in a Bishkek hospital on December 1, saying that men believed to be security service agents had held him captive for two weeks.
Despite accusations by the Akayev government regarding the role played by foreign-funded NGOs in the March demonstrations, a May report by the International Crisis Group concluded that only a small proportion of the protestors were connected to Western-oriented NGOs. Following the March events, human rights activists reported an improvement in their general operating environment without concerns that the security forces were monitoring their activities, as occurred under the previous administration. However, legislative changes to support these new freedoms were not fully implemented by November 30.
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.
After the fall of the Akayev regime, with which some criminal elements had developed strong connections over the years, various crime groups struggled to assert greater control and influence within the law enforcement system, as well as in the political sphere. In April, the head of the regional police department responsible for fighting organized crime was shot and killed in the city of Osh. In October and November, prison riots over poor living conditions led to the murder of parliamentary deputy Tynychbek Akhmatbayev while he was trying to negotiate with prisoners in a penal institution near Bishkek. The murder appeared to stem from a rivalry between Akhmatbayev's brother, Ryspek, and Aziz Batukayev, a prominent criminal leader in the prison where Tynychbek was killed. Ryspek himself was awaiting trial on charges of murder and other serious crimes. When Ryspek subsequently led hundreds of demonstrators, including prominent figures in the criminal world, to demand the resignation of Kulov, whom he accused of orchestrating his brother's death, a number of senior officials formally expressed their condolences to him. These events reinforced the widely held perception that certain members of the political establishment had close ties to, or were afraid to challenge, powerful crime figures. The riots also highlighted persistent reports of poor prison conditions, such as severe overcrowding and inadequate nutrition, as well as the extent of corruption in the penal system in which important criminal leaders enjoy considerable privileges and more comfortable living conditions.
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 2004, 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 charged that the law would lead to further discrimination against the country's large minority population, particularly Uzbeks, and exclude them from political participation. In the looting that followed the March 2005 storming of the presidential administration building, businesses owned by ethnic minorities reportedly suffered disproportionate losses.
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. Conscripted soldiers have reportedly been rented out to civilian employers under illegal arrangements, with some 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 practice of bride kidnapping persists despite being illegal, and few are prosecuted for the crime. Although women are well represented in the workforce and in institutions of higher learning, declining economic conditions in the country have had a negative impact on women's professional and educational opportunities.