Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Kyrgyzstan received a downward trend arrow due to restrictions on the opposition in the December legislative elections, which resulted in an excessive strengthening of executive power and a reduction in political pluralism.
After nearly two years of discussion and disputes, an October 2007 referendum approved constitutional amendments that would increase presidential power at the parliament’s expense. Preterm parliamentary elections in December were a setback to a pluralistic political environment with equal chances for opposition parties. Media and civil society freedoms continued to decline in 2007, albeit at a slower pace than in 2006. Also during the year, Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy tilted away from Europe and the United States and toward the regional “authoritarian bloc” led by Russia.
Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. Askar Akayev, a respected physicist, won the first direct presidential election two months later on a reform platform. He easily won another term in an early election in 1995, and constitutional amendments approved the following year substantially increased the powers of the presidency. International observers noted serious irregularities in the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections. Opposition parties were disqualified on technicalities, as was Akayev’s main presidential challenger, Feliks Kulov, who was jailed in 2000 on dubious charges.
Long-standing frustrations in the economically depressed and politically marginalized south culminated in public protests in 2002. The demonstrations were sparked by the January arrest of parliament member Azimbek Beknazarov on abuse-of-power charges that critics alleged were politically motivated. Six protesters were killed in March when police fired into a crowd in the village of Aksy. Beknazarov received a one-year suspended prison sentence, but an appeals court annulled the sentence in June, allowing him to reclaim his seat in parliament. Four former regional prosecutors and police officials were then sentenced to prison in December in connection with the Aksy shootings. However, critics charged that senior officials who authorized the use of force had not been brought to justice. It was not until 2007 that a renewed investigation resulted in a number of convictions.
In the February 2005 parliamentary elections, fewer than half of the 75 constituency contests resulted in outright majority victories, so the remaining races had to be decided in a second round of voting two weeks later. According to an assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), 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.” During the following weeks, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across the country to protest election irregularities and ultimately call for Akayev’s resignation. On March 24, 2005, Akayev’s 14-year rule ended when protesters and opposition supporters stormed the presidential headquarters in Bishkek. Akayev fled abroad and later agreed to formally resign. Protesters freed Feliks Kulov, whose conviction was later formally overturned.
In the July 2005 presidential poll, former prime minister and opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev captured 89 percent of the vote. His victory was regarded as nearly inevitable after he and Kulov, his most serious potential rival, formed a political alliance in May: Kulov withdrew his presidential candidacy in exchange for the post of prime minister. In contrast to the earlier parliamentary vote, OSCE observers concluded that the presidential election “marked tangible progress … towards meeting OSCE commitments.”
The Bakiyev-Kulov “tandem” held until early 2007, when the parliament rejected Kulov’s reappointment as prime minister. In February, Kulov joined the opposition and became leader of the newly created United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan. Together with the For Reforms opposition movement, the United Front organized demonstrations in Bishkek in April calling for constitutional reform and President Bakiyev’s resignation. The violent dispersal of those protests after demonstrators allegedly attacked police dealt the opposition a significant blow and strengthened Bakiyev’s hand. A number of protesters subsequently faced criminal charges and prison sentences. Kulov himself was charged in August with “public disorder” in connection with the April protest.
An October 2007 referendum approved a new constitution that expanded the parliament from 75 to 90 seats and introduced party-slate balloting. The vote on the charter capped nearly two years of wrangling over constitutional reforms. A constitution passed in November 2006 had limited presidential powers, but amendments pushed through the parliament by progovernment legislators in December of that year had restored and widened the executive’s authority. The hastily called 2007 referendum drew criticism from civil-society groups, which pointed to the use of administrative resources to ensure a favorable outcome, and from the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, which said the vote had failed to meet international standards.
President Bakiyev dissolved the parliament the day after the referendum, and a progovernment party called Ak Zhol was quickly formed to contest new elections on December 16. Disputed elections, dubbed a “missed opportunity” by OSCE observers, under new legislation produced a parliament dominated by the propresidential party and devoid of opposition representation.
Kyrgyzstan continued to balance strategic and economic relations with Russia and the United States in 2007, but appeared to tilt toward the emerging “authoritarian bloc” headed by Russia and represented in Central Asia by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). The SCO held its annual summit in Bishkek in August, and the constitutional reforms pushed through by Bakiyev pointed toward the establishment of a superficially democratic, superpresidential system reminiscent of the political systems in Kazakhstan and Russia. Meanwhile, pro-Russian Kyrgyz lawmakers mounted a significant though ultimately unsuccessful effort to end the U.S. military presence at Manas Airport, and Kyrgyz citizens angered by a fatal December 2006 shooting at the base held demonstrations with a similar goal.
Kyrgyzstan is not an electoral democracy. International election observers described the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections and 2005 parliamentary elections as neither free nor competitive. However, the 2005 presidential election, which followed the March popular uprising that toppled the government of President Askar Akayev, was praised for making substantial progress. International observers said, however, that December 2007 preterm parliamentary elections “fell short of public expectations for further consolidation of the electoral process.”
Constitutional changes adopted in the hastily organized October 2007 referendum expanded the unicameral parliament from 75 to 90 deputies, to be elected on party slates instead of individual mandates. The new charter emerged from a confusing process involving multiple texts, and critics charged that it contained numerous inconsistencies and legal discrepancies. Informed sources in Bishkek reported that the text submitted to referendum was composed with Russian input and influence in order to facilitate the establishment of a superpresidential system. Both the president and parliament serve for five years, and the majority party in parliament (currently the propresidential Ak Jol) nominates the prime minister.
Most political parties continue to be weak, poorly organized, and centered on a specific leading figure, despite legislative attempts to encourage party-building. The newly formed, propresidential Ak Jol holds 71 seats in the 90-member legislature.
Corruption is common throughout Kyrgyz society, and bribes are frequently required to obtain lucrative government positions. Numerous anticorruption campaigns have brought meager results, and a 2005 drive appeared to be directed primarily against members and associates of former president Akayev’s family. Meanwhile, the opposition leveled charges of nepotism and corruption against current president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family, particularly his son, Maksim. Kyrgyzstan was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media became more open and tolerant of diverse points of view following the March 2005 popular uprising and subsequent change in regime. But signs of increasing government pressure on the media in late 2005 were reinforced in 2006; the editor of Kyrgyz Tuusu was fired in January after the state-run newspaper published articles critical of then prime minister Feliks Kulov, and masked men damaged $200,000 worth of equipment at the independent television station Piramida in September 2006. During antigovernment protests in April 2007, officials from the prosecutor’s office confiscated the print runs of opposition newspapers. In October, journalist Kayrat Birimkulov sought asylum in Switzerland after he received threats while investigating corruption in the railway sector. The brazen killing that month of Osh-based Alisher Saipov, an accomplished journalist who ran an Uzbek-language newspaper that was critical of Uzbekistan’s government, was a particularly disturbing development.
The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Muslim country. All religious organizations must register with the Ministry of Justice, a process that is often cumbersome. The government monitors and restricts Islamist groups that it regards as extremist and a threat to national security, particularly Hizb ut-Tahrir, an ostensibly nonviolent international movement calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate spanning the Muslim world.
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, and bribes are often required to obtain admission to schools or universities.
Freedom of assembly was generally respected in 2007, although prosecutors secured convictions against a number of participants in April demonstrations that ended in clashes between protesters and police. In October, Bishkek’s mayor banned all demonstrations in the city in the wake of protests over rising bread prices.
Freedom of association is typically upheld, but the harassment and intimidation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) increased in 2006 after a short reprieve in the period following Akayev’s ouster. NGOs participated actively in social and political life in 2007, though they leveled plausible charges that the authorities were attempting to exclude them in a broad push against alternative political voices.
The law provides for the formation of trade unions, and unions generally are able to conduct their activities without obstruction. The right to strike is neither prohibited nor specifically codified in law. The Federation of Trade Unions is the only union umbrella organization in the country, but unions are not required to join it.
Despite the enactment of various reform measures, 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, are not always respected. Police at times use violence against suspects during arrest and interrogation. In August 2007, the head of the Kylym Shami rights group stated that the country’s law against torture remained ineffective.
Ethnic minority groups, including Uzbeks, Russians, and Uighurs, have complained of discrimination in employment and housing. Members of the country’s sizable Uzbek minority, concentrated in the south, have been demanding more political and cultural rights, including greater representation in government, more Uzbek-language schools, and official status for the Uzbek language.
The government, 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 that citizens obtain permits to work and settle in particular areas of the country. Corruption and official incompetence marred efforts in 2006 to introduce new passports for Kyrgyz citizens.
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 contacting the authorities. 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. The practice of bride kidnapping persists despite being illegal, and few perpetrators are prosecuted. Although women are well represented in the workforce and in institutions of higher learning, tough economic conditions have had a negative effect on women’s professional and educational opportunities.