Freedom in the World
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Kyrgyzstan received a downward trend arrow due to new legislative constraints on the media and freedom of assembly, as well as moves by the authorities to enfeeble the political opposition and silence civil society.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev consolidated his power in 2008 after flawed parliamentary elections in December 2007 left the pro-presidential Ak Zhol party firmly in control of the legislature. The political opposition and civil society groups were increasingly sidelined or co-opted by the government, which also pursued an opaque electricity-sector privatization. Meanwhile, new laws in 2008 further curtailed freedoms of the press, religion, and assembly.
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 the parliament. Four former regional prosecutors and police officials were sentenced to prison in December in connection with the shootings, and a 2007 investigation resulted in new convictions. However, opposition critics continued to charge in 2008 that senior officials who authorized the use of force were never brought to justice. Opposition leaders held a public “mock trial” attended by over 500 people in March 2008, the sixth anniversary of the Aksy events, finding former president Akayev and then prime minister Bakiyev broadly responsible for the shootings; no official action resulted.
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, 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 Kulov, whose conviction was later 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 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 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 Bakiyev’s resignation. The violent dispersal of those protests after demonstrators allegedly attacked police dealt the opposition a significant blow.
An October 2007 referendum approved a new constitution that expanded the parliament from 75 to 90 seats and introduced party-slate balloting. The hastily called referendum drew criticism from civil society groups, which pointed to the use of administrative resources to ensure a favorable outcome.
Bakiyev dissolved the parliament the day after the referendum, and a progovernment party called Ak Zhol was quickly formed to contest elections in December. The disputed balloting, dubbed a “missed opportunity” by OSCE observers and held under new legislation, produced a parliament dominated by Ak Zhol and devoid of opposition representation. Amendments pushed through the new legislature later that month widened the executive’s authority, and a government formed in the final days of 2007 was stacked with Bakiyev loyalists.
Bakiyev consolidated his power in 2008, sidelining the country’s remaining well-known opposition figures. Discussions on the impending privatization of the electricity sector took place amid political torpor, rumors of competing clans, and what one expert described as an effort to win over business elites by redistributing assets. Kulov’s departure from politics in May, when President Bakiyev appointed him head of an energy development project, reflected the broader disappearance of a viable political opposition.
As in past years, Kyrgyzstan balanced strategic and economic relations with Russia and the United States in 2008. Bishkek hosted a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in October, but Kyrgyzstan, like its Central Asian neighbors, took a cautious stance on the Russian invasion of Georgia in August. The discovery of a weapons cache at a house rented by U.S. citizens that month briefly strained relations with the United States, but military cooperation continued between the two countries, with the United States using its airbase at Manas Airport through the end of the year.
Kyrgyzstan is not an electoral democracy. The 2005 presidential election, which followed the popular uprising that toppled the government of President Askar Akayev, was praised for making substantial progress over previous elections.However, international observers said that the December 2007 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 to facilitate the establishment of a “superpresidential” system.Both president and parliament serve five-year terms, and the majority party in the parliament nominates the prime minister.
The newly formed, pro-presidential Ak Zhol party holds 71 seats in the 90-member legislature, and the only other parties represented—the Social Democratic Party, with 11 seats, and the Kyrgyzstan Communist Party, with 8—generally cooperate with the government and do not merit the term “opposition.” The formation of a “shadow parliament” in March 2008 had no discernable impact on official policies. The fragmented opposition made efforts to unite in April and December, but the failed attempts only underscored the weakness of alternative forces.
In September 2008, Central Election Commission head Klara Kabilova fled the country and made a videotaped statement claiming that she had been pressured by Maksim Bakiyev, the son of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to ensure the victory of pro-presidential forces in the October local elections. The voting took place with only local monitoring amid widespread reports of fraud.
Corruption is pervasive in Kyrgyz society, and bribes are frequently required to obtain lucrative government positions. The nepotistic practices of President Bakiyev, whose sons and brothers are prominent in business and government, were increasingly evident in 2008. Kyrgyzstan was ranked 166 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the media became more open and tolerant of diverse points of view following the March 2005 popular uprising and the subsequent change in leadership, government pressure has increased in subsequent years. During antigovernment protests in April 2007, officials from the prosecutor’s office confiscated the print runs of opposition newspapers. Osh-based journalist Alisher Saipov, who ran an Uzbek-language newspaper that was critical of Uzbekistan’s government, was killed in October 2007; the Kyrgyz government has failed to investigate the murder vigorously.
The independent newspaper De Facto was raided in June 2008 after printing an article that was critical of the president’s nephew, and the editor faced five years in prison on libel charges leveled a month later. The editor, Cholpon Orozobekova, emigrated to Europe later in the year after receiving threats. In June, President Bakiyev signed amendments to the media law that give the president the power to appoint the director of state-run television and radio, effectively ending efforts to establish a national public broadcaster. State-controlled broadcast authorities took U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts off the air in October, demanding that programs be submitted for prior approval before broadcasts could resume. RFE/RL refused and remained barred from television and FM radio through the end of the year.
The government has generally respected freedom of religion in this predominantly Muslim country, but all religious organizations must register with the Ministry of Justice, a process that is often cumbersome. In November 2008, parliament passed a new religion law banning proselytizing, the distribution of religious literature in public places, and private religious education, and mandating at least 200 signatures to register a religious organization; President Bakiyev had not signed the law by year’s end. 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.
Corruption is widespread in the educational system, and bribes are often required to obtain admission to schools or universities. 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. Looming problems with power and heat in 2008 led the Education Ministry to extend winter break to March 1.
The government tightened restrictions on freedom of assembly in 2007, as prosecutors secured convictions against a number of participants in April demonstrations (which were subsequently overturned), and Bishkek’s mayor banned all demonstrations in the city in October following protests over rising bread prices. In February 2008, the Interior Ministry banned large public prayers during religious holidays, and in April, opposition protesters objecting to the terms of a border delineation agreement with Kazakhstan were beaten by police. In August, President Bakiyev signed amendments to the law on freedom of assembly requiring organizers to give the authorities 12 days’ advance notice of all gatherings and allowing officials to block protests on ill-defined grounds.
Freedom of association is typically upheld, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) participate actively in social and political life. However, since 2007, they have made plausible claims that the authorities are attempting to exclude them in a broad push against alternative political and civic voices. In December, a court in the southern city of Osh sentenced NGO activist Ravshan Garipov to one year in jail for making “unconstitutional calls against Kyrgyzstan’s secular system” over the internet. Kyrgyz NGOs noted in a November statement that nine journalists and human rights activists have sought or received political asylum in the West in the past two years.
The law provides for the formation of trade unions, and unions generally are able to operate 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 widespread. Defendants’ rights, including the presumption of innocence, are not always respected, and there are credible reports of violence against suspects during arrest and interrogation.
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 long demanded 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 unrestricted travel to and from the country. There are barriers to internal migration, however, including a requirement that citizens obtain 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 among 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 abductionpersists despite being illegal, and few perpetrators are prosecuted. Women are well represented in the workforce, the parliament (where they hold nearly a third of all seats), and institutions of higher learning, but poor economic conditions have had a negative effect on women’s professional and educational opportunities.