Freedom in the World
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After two revolutions that ousted authoritarian presidents in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan adopted a parliamentary form of government, and multiparty coalitions have since been the norm. However, power remains in the hands of an entrenched political elite, and corruption is pervasive. Authorities have harshly suppressed dissent from human rights activists, particularly those linked to the Uzbek minority, which bore the brunt of ethnic violence in 2010. In recent years, President Almazbek Atambayev and his party have sought to consolidate executive power, threatening political pluralism.
- The coalition government, led by the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), collapsed in October amid disagreement over a proposed referendum to amend the constitution. The SDPK organized a new coalition in November.
- The referendum passed in December despite low turnout, and the resulting constitutional changes were expected to strengthen the positions of president and prime minister ahead of a presidential election in 2017.
In July 2016, after years of pressure from the international community, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court set aside the life sentence of jailed ethnic Uzbek activist Azimjon Askarov, but ordered him to be retried on allegations that he fomented interethnic violence in 2010. The court decision followed an April ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), which found that Askarov had not received a fair trial and had been tortured and otherwise mistreated. The committee called for him to be immediately freed.
In September, the parliament began to consider a proposed referendum on constitutional amendments despite a previous consensus that the 2010 document should not be fundamentally altered for 10 years. Two junior partners in the ruling coalition refused to back the proposal, prompting President Atambayev’s SDPK to withdraw from the coalition and bring down the government. The amendments would apparently strengthen the executive, weaken judicial independence, and allow the government to rebuff rulings by international human rights bodies—a direct response to the UNHRC decision. Critics said the changes were likely to reinforce the position of the SDPK as Kyrgyzstan’s dominant party, though the full implications of some of the 26 amendments were unclear even to legal experts.
The proposal nevertheless won passage in the parliament in early November, and the SDPK formed a new governing coalition. The final referendum language was not released to the public until mid-November, roughly a month before the scheduled vote. Multiple reports indicated that the government used administrative resources to mobilize support for the referendum, and the proposal ultimately passed amid low turnout. The amendments were due to be signed into law in early 2017.
Constitutional changes adopted in 2010 expanded the unicameral parliament from 90 to 120 deputies, with no party allowed to hold more than 65 seats. Parliamentary elections are to be held every five years. The directly elected president, who shares executive power with the prime minister, serves a single six-year term with no possibility of reelection and has the power to veto legislation.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) judged the 2011 presidential election to have been free and competitive, though marred by widespread problems with voter lists and numerous faults in the tabulation process. Atambayev, then the incumbent prime minister, defeated 15 other candidates and took 63 percent of the vote.
OSCE observers found that the October 2015 parliamentary elections were competitive and that the 14 registered parties offered voters a wide range of options. However, the monitoring group noted significant procedural problems, flaws in the rollout of a new biometric registration system, inadequate media coverage, and widespread allegations of vote buying. Civil society groups and media reports raised concerns that the SDPK had used state resources and pressure on public employees to enhance its position. Six parties cleared the 7 percent national threshold to secure representation. SDPK led the voting with 38 seats, followed by Respublika–Ata Jurt (28), the Kyrgyzstan party (18), Onuguu-Progress (13), Bir Bol (12), and Ata Meken (11).
In October 2016, the SDPK-led coalition government collapsed after Ata Meken and Onuguu-Progress refused to back plans to amend the constitution. In November, a new government was formed by SDPK, Kyrgyzstan, and Bir Bol, and the parliament passed the final language for a raft of 26 constitutional amendments that would be submitted to voters in a simple yes-or-no referendum scheduled for December, leaving the public only a month to understand and debate the changes. The initiative passed with an overwhelming 80 percent of the referendum vote, but only 42 percent of eligible voters participated; this was enough to overcome the 30 percent threshold required for the vote to be valid. Multiple reports indicated that state employees, especially university and college teachers, were ordered to campaign for the initiative and for SDPK candidates in local elections held the same day, contributing to illegal use of administrative resources by the government.
Citizens have the freedom to organize political parties and groupings, especially at the local level. However, in addition to the 7 percent national threshold, parties must win at least 0.7 percent of the vote in each of the country’s nine regional divisions to secure seats in the parliament, which discourages locally organized groups from participating in national politics. Political parties are primarily vehicles for a handful of strong personalities, rather than mass organizations with clear ideologies and policy platforms. Although the 2015 elections featured several new parties, almost all were the result of splits or mergers among the factions in the previous parliament, meaning the actual roster of deputies changed very little.
The 2010 constitutional reforms aimed to ensure political pluralism and prevent the reemergence of an authoritarian, superpresidential system. Since 2012, however, observers have noted signs that President Atambayev was consolidating power and using executive agencies to target political enemies. Opposition members and outside observers have accused the SDPK of attempting to improperly influence electoral and judicial outcomes. The constitutional amendments approved in 2016 included measures that made it more difficult to bring down a sitting government or withdraw from a coalition, effectively solidifying the position of the SDPK.
Although a variety of opposition groups held peaceful rallies during 2016, protesters have frequently complained of interference and pressure from local and national authorities as well as from counterprotesters. In May, a small political opposition group calling itself the People’s Parliament planned a rally and called on Atambayev to resign. Five members were arrested on charges of plotting to violently overthrow the government.
Ethnic minority groups face additional forms of political marginalization. After several years of relative quiet, in 2016 ethnic Uzbeks were again used as scapegoats on various issues by politicians from the Kyrgyz majority. In August, a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, killing only himself; the government publicly named a number of ethnic Uzbeks as suspected accomplices, several of whom publicly professed their innocence. In September, Atambayev asked prosecutors to investigate some of his former colleagues in the 2010 interim government who had recently expressed opposition to the SDPK-backed constitutional reforms, suggesting that they had colluded with alleged Uzbek separatists to foment ethnic violence in 2010. Also that month, the government indicated that it would downgrade the status of the OSCE office in Bishkek after ethnic Uzbek political exile Kadyrzhan Batyrov addressed an OSCE conference in Warsaw.
The 2010 constitution’s division of power between the president, prime minister, and parliament left some issues unresolved. In the years since, a series of prime ministers have clashed with Atambayev over their respective roles, contributing to the instability of coalition governments.
Corruption is pervasive in Kyrgyzstani society, and transparency in government operations remains inadequate. Despite multiple rounds of constitutional and statutory changes, the country has long been trapped in a cycle in which predatory political elites use government resources to reward clients—including organized crime figures—and punish opponents. In April 2016, Prime Minister Temir Sariyev and his cabinet were forced to resign over allegations that a road-construction tender had been rigged in favor of a Chinese company. The transport minister accused Sariyev of benefiting personally from the tender. Several other corruption scandals involving lower-level officials were reported during the year.
A new anticorruption office within the State Committee of National Security (GKNB) was formed in 2012. The office has primarily been used to target the administration’s political enemies in the parliament and city governments.
Additional Discretionary Political Rights Question B -2/0
1. Is the government providing economic or other incentives to certain people in order to change the ethnic composition of a region or regions?
2. Is the government forcibly moving people in or out of certain areas in order to change the ethnic composition of those regions?
3. Is the government arresting, imprisoning, or killing members of certain ethnic groups in order change the ethnic composition of a region or regions?
Southern Kyrgyzstan has yet to fully recover from the ethnic upheaval of June 2010, which included numerous documented instances of government involvement or connivance in violence against ethnic Uzbeks in the region, with the aim of tipping the political and economic balance in favor of the Kyrgyz elite. Though some initial steps have been taken to restore Uzbek-language media, the political economy of the south remains deeply altered.
The media landscape remained divided along ethnic lines in 2016, with improved conditions for Kyrgyz-language media since 2010 and continuing challenges for both Uzbek-language outlets and critical Russian-language media. Independent Uzbek-language media virtually ceased to exist in southern Kyrgyzstan after the 2010 ethnic violence, as major Uzbek television and radio outlets were closed down. Although some outlets have opened since then, Uzbek media representation is extremely limited, and staff at remaining outlets continue to be persecuted. Prosecutions for inciting hatred have focused exclusively on minority writers despite the prevalence of openly racist and anti-Semitic articles in Kyrgyz-language media. A 2014 law criminalized the publication of “false information relating to a crime or offense” in the media, which international monitors saw as a contradiction of the country’s 2011 decriminalization of defamation. The law assigns penalties of up to three years in prison, or five years if the claim serves the interests of organized crime or is linked to the fabrication of evidence. News websites, blogs, and online forums are increasingly important alternative sources of information for those with access.
In June 2016, the parliament passed the first reading of a measure limiting foreign ownership of media companies operating in Kyrgyzstan. The proposal remained in draft form at the end of the year, with activists raising concerns that it was primarily an attempt to limit Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz service in the country.
All religious organizations must register with the authorities, a process that is often cumbersome and arbitrary. The 2009 Law on Religion deems all unregistered groups illegal and bans proselytizing, private religious education, and the wearing of headscarves in schools. Religious groups outside the traditional Muslim and Orthodox Christian mainstream reportedly have difficulty obtaining registration. The government monitors and restricts Islamist groups that it regards as a threat to national security, particularly Hizb ut-Tahrir.
While private discussion is generally free in the country, state and local authorities regularly raid private homes where they believe Hizb ut-Tahrir members or certain religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are meeting to discuss their beliefs.
The government does not formally restrict academic freedom, though teachers and students reportedly face pressure to participate in political campaigns and voting, as with the 2016 constitutional referendum and local elections.
A 2012 law allows peaceful assembly, and small protests and civil disobedience actions, such as blocking roads, take place regularly. Nevertheless, domestic and international watchdogs remain concerned about police violations of the right to demonstrate, including arrests and other forms of interference, as with the preemptive arrests of People’s Parliament leaders who were planning a rally in May 2016. Intimidation by counterprotesters has also emerged as a problem in recent years.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) participate actively in civic and political life, and public advisory councils were established in the parliament and most ministries in 2011, permitting improved monitoring and advocacy by NGOs. However, rising nationalism continues to affect both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek NGO activists. Human rights workers who support Uzbek abuse victims face threats, harassment, and physical attacks. Ultranationalists have stepped up harassment of U.S. and European NGOs as well as domestic counterparts that are perceived to be favored by Western actors. In 2016, human rights activists Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdirasulova repeatedly faced public smears or threats, in some cases from President Atambayev and other politicians and officials; one series of incidents followed the two activists’ participation in the OSCE conference in Warsaw in September. In a positive development, a bill emulating a Russian law that requires NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they receive foreign funding was rejected by the parliament in May 2016 on its final reading, even after revisions that would have reduced its impact.
Kyrgyzstani law provides for the formation of trade unions, which are generally able to operate without obstruction. However, strikes are prohibited in many sectors. Legal enforcement of union rights is weak, and employers do not always respect collective-bargaining agreements.
The judiciary is not independent and remains dominated by the executive branch. Corruption among judges is widespread. Defendants’ rights, including the presumption of innocence, are not always respected, and there are credible reports of torture during arrest and interrogation. Most such reports do not lead to investigations and convictions, and evidence allegedly obtained through torture is regularly accepted in courts.
The widespread and extensively documented violence against the Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 cast a harsh light on the plight of ethnic minorities, and few perpetrators have been brought to justice. Uzbeks, who make up nearly half of the population in Osh, have long demanded more political and cultural rights, including greater representation in government, more Uzbek-language schools, and official status for the Uzbek language. Ethnic minorities continue to face discrimination on economic, security, and other matters.
Same-sex sexual activity is not illegal, but discrimination against and abuse of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people at the hands of police are pervasive. A bill similar to Russia’s ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” remained stalled in the parliament during 2016, but the December constitutional amendments included a clause that formalized a de facto ban on same-sex marriage.
The government generally respects the right of unrestricted travel to and from Kyrgyzstan. However, barriers to internal migration include 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. Companies that had belonged to the family of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev were nationalized in 2010 pending a new process of privatization. That year’s ethnic violence affected property rights in the south, as many businesses, mainly owned by ethnic Uzbeks, were destroyed or seized.
Despite achieving notable leadership positions, women remain underrepresented at higher levels of government and business. Cultural traditions and apathy among law enforcement officials discourage victims of domestic violence and rape from contacting the authorities. The practice of bride abduction persists despite the strengthening of legal penalties in 2013, and few perpetrators are prosecuted. In November 2016, the parliament passed a law introducing criminal penalties for anyone carrying out or enabling underage marriages.
The trafficking of women and girls into forced prostitution abroad is a serious problem. Police have been accused of complicity in the trafficking and exploitation of victims. Kyrgyzstani men are especially vulnerable to trafficking for forced labor abroad.