Freedom in the World
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 and its status from Not Free to Partly Free due to the adoption of a new constitution designed to dismantle the superpresidential system, and genuinely competitive, multiparty parliamentary elections held in October 2010.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years, was forced from office in April 2010 amid antigovernment demonstrations. An interim government headed by longtime opposition figure Roza Otunbayeva then oversaw the adoption of a more democratic constitution in late June and genuinely competitive parliamentary elections in October. However, a campaign of violence that largely targeted the ethnic Uzbek population in the south in early June killed hundreds of people and displaced many more. Security forces were negligent, and by some accounts may have been complicit in the ethnic violence.
Shortly after Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Askar Akayev, a respected physicist, was elected president. He easily won reelection in 1995, and constitutional amendments the following year substantially increased the powers of the presidency. International observers noted serious irregularities in the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections, which yielded another term for Akayev.
Long-standing frustrations in the economically depressed and politically marginalized south culminated in public protests in 2002. Six protesters were killed when police fired into a crowd in the village of Aksy. Four former regional prosecutors and police officials were sentenced to prison in December in connection with the shootings, and additional convictions came five years later, but opposition critics continued to argue that senior officials who authorized the use of force were never brought to justice.
After flawed February 2005 parliamentary elections, thousands of demonstrators protested irregularities and ultimately called for Akayev’s resignation. On March 24, protesters and opposition supporters stormed the presidential headquarters in Bishkek. Akayev fled abroad and later resigned.
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 Feliks Kulov, his most serious rival, formed a political alliance in May: Kulov withdrew his presidential candidacy in exchange for the post of prime minister. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) nevertheless concluded that the election represented an improvement over previous votes.
Kulov joined the opposition in early 2007, and in April opposition groups organized demonstrations in Bishkek calling for constitutional reform and Bakiyev’s resignation. However, after demonstrators allegedly attacked police, the authorities violently dispersed the protests, dealing the opposition a significant blow.
The government pushed through its own constitutional changes in an October 2007 referendum, expanding the parliament from 75 to 90 seats and introducing party-slate balloting. Civil society groups criticized the government for using administrative resources to ensure a favorable outcome to the vote. Bakiyev quickly called parliamentary elections for December, which resulted in a legislature dominated by the newly formed progovernment party Ak Zhol and devoid of opposition representation. Amendments passed by the new parliament later that month widened the executive’s authority.
The president consolidated his power in 2008 and 2009, sidelining the country’s remaining well-known opposition figures. Kulov left politics in May 2008, when Bakiyev appointed him as head of an energy development project. In March 2009, Medet Sadyrkulov, Bakiyev’s former chief of staff, was found dead in a burned-out car near Bishkek. Opposition representatives charged that he had been assassinated because he was planning to join them. Bakiyev won another five-year term in the July 2009 presidential election, taking 75 percent of the vote. OSCE observers concluded that the poll failed to meet international standards, citing evidence of fraud, intimidation of opposition supporters, and the misuse of administrative resources, among other problems.
In April 2010, Bakiyev fled the country amid antigovernment protests in Bishkek. A reported 86 people were killed in the street confrontations, with most victims apparently shot by security forces. In early June, ethnic rioting swept the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad, leaving hundreds dead. Most accounts indicated that Uzbeks suffered the brunt of the violence, and local security forces were accused of abetting attacks on Uzbek communities. A June referendum that international observers deemed generally fair confirmed longtime opposition figure Roza Otunbayeva as interim president through December 2011 and approved a new constitution that shifted power from the presidency to the parliament.
Parliamentary elections held in October were deemed an improvement over Bakiyev-era balloting. The new Ata-Jurt party led with 28 of 120 seats, followed by Otunbayeva’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) with 26, Ar-Namys with 25, Respublika with 23, and Ata-Meken with 18. Ata-Jurt, the SDPK, and Respublika formed a coalition government in December, leaving Ar-Namys and Ata-Meken in opposition. Almazbek Atambayev of the SDPK became prime minister.
Kyrgyzstan’s internal turmoil dominated its relations with the outside world in 2010. As ethnic violence engulfed the south in June, Otunbayeva appealed to Russia for help, but the Kremlin declined to intervene. Uzbekistan briefly sheltered several hundred thousand ethnic Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan, but returned most of them within a week. Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan responded to the waves of unrest by closing their borders with Kyrgyzstan for extended periods in 2010. The United States continued to operate a military transit base at Manas airport, though the facility’s future remained unclear given the fluid political situation.
Kyrgyzstan is not an electoral democracy, though the October 2010 parliamentary elections were considered an improvement over the deeply flawed 2007 parliamentary and 2009 presidential votes. OSCE observers praised the latest campaign’s pluralism and other positive features, but the Central Election Commission made a dubious adjustment to the number of eligible voters after the election, reducing the number of parties that cleared the 5 percent barrier for entry into parliament from six to five.