Kyrgyzstan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

Partly Free
38/100
Overview: 

After two revolutions that ousted authoritarian presidents in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan adopted a parliamentary form of government. Governing coalitions have proven unstable, however, and corruption remains pervasive. In recent years, the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) has sought to consolidate power, using the justice system to suppress political opponents and civil society critics.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • A January power plant failure in Bishkek, which left much of the city’s population without heat during record-low temperatures, sparked a corruption investigation into contracts dating to 2013 with a Chinese company to repair and modernize the plant. A number of current and former high-ranking officials closely aligned with former president Atambayev, including the mayor of Bishkek and former prime ministers Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiyev, were arrested on corruption charges in connection with the contracts.
  • In October, the Supreme Court ruled that immunity from prosecution for former presidents was unconstitutional, and in December, the SDPK-led parliament approved the first reading of legislation to strip all former presidents of immunity. The move could clear the way for the potential arrest and prosecution of former president Almazbek Atambayev, who had feuded with President Jeenbekov throughout the year.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 12 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 4 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

The directly elected president, who shares executive power with a prime minister, serves a single six-year term with no possibility of reelection. The 2017 presidential election was marked by inappropriate use of government resources to support Sooronbay Jeenbekov of the SDPK, who had served as prime minister under outgoing president Atambayev. There were also reports of voter intimidation, including pressure on public-sector employees. Jeenbekov defeated 10 other candidates, securing 54 percent of the vote amid 56 percent turnout. Omurbek Babanov of the Respublika party placed second with about 33 percent.

President Jeenbekov dismissed Prime Minister Sapar Isakov in April 2018, after Isakov’s cabinet lost a no-confidence vote in the parliament, which was considered a move to purge several of Atambayev’s closest allies in the government. The parliament approved SDPK member Mukhammedkaliy Abylgaziyev as prime minister the same month, who formed a coalition government with three other parties: Bir Bol, Respublika–Ata Jurt, and the Kyrgyzstan party.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4

The unicameral parliament consists of 120 deputies elected by party list in a single national constituency to serve five-year terms. No single party is allowed to hold more than 65 seats. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found that the 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 vote threshold to secure representation. The 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).

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4

The Central Commission for Elections and Referenda exhibited political bias during the 2017 presidential election, according to international observers. Amendments to the election law that were enacted ahead of the poll made it more difficult for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to field observers and appeal decisions by election officials.

In 2016, a referendum on constitutional amendments was conducted hastily, with little transparency or opportunities for public debate on the package of proposed changes, which ultimately won adoption. Administrative resources were reportedly used to support a “yes” vote, and state employees faced pressure to participate in the effort.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 5 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4

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.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4

The 2010 constitutional reforms aimed to ensure political pluralism and prevent the reemergence of an authoritarian, superpresidential system. Since 2012, however, observers noted that the ruling party has consolidated power and used executive agencies to target political enemies. Opposition members and outside observers have accused the SDPK of attempting to improperly influence electoral and judicial outcomes. 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.

In recent years, opposition leaders have faced politically motivated criminal investigations and prosecutions. Presidential runner-up Omurbek Babanov, leader of the Respublika party, was accused in 2017 of “incitement to interethnic violence” based on remarks he made at a campaign rally with ethnic Uzbeks. Babanov fled the country and resigned as a member of parliament. In March 2018, authorities commenced another investigation against Babanov, for allegedly planning riots and attempting to seize power. Although investigators dropped the case in September, the criminal probe from 2017 remained open. Babanov continued to live in exile at the end of 2018.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 1 / 4

While largely free from military domination, Kyrgyzstani politics are subject to the influence of organized crime and economic oligarchies. Political affairs are generally controlled by a small group of elites who head competing patronage networks.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

Ethnic minority groups face political marginalization. Politicians from the Kyrgyz majority have used ethnic Uzbeks as scapegoats on various issues in recent years, and minority populations remain underrepresented in elected offices, even in areas where they form a demographic majority.

Women enjoy equal political rights and have attained some notable leadership positions, but they are also underrepresented, having won 19 percent of the seats in the last parliamentary elections despite a 30 percent gender quota for party candidate lists.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4

Unresolved constitutional ambiguities regarding the division of power among the president, the prime minister, and the parliament—combined with the need to form multiparty coalitions—have contributed to the instability of governments in recent years. The prime minister has been replaced nearly a dozen times since 2010.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4

Corruption is pervasive in politics and government. Political elites use government resources to reward clients—including organized crime figures—and punish opponents. A new anticorruption office within the State Committee of National Security (GKNB) was formed in 2012, but it has primarily been used to target the administration’s political enemies in the parliament and municipal governments.

A January 2018 power-plant failure in Bishkek, which left much of the city’s population without heat during record-low temperatures, sparked a corruption investigation into contracts dating to 2013 with a Chinese company to repair and modernize the plant. A number of current and former high-ranking officials closely aligned with former president Atambayev, including the mayor of Bishkek and former prime ministers Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiyev, were later arrested on corruption charges in connection with the contracts. Some analysts viewed the charges as an attempt by Jeenbekov to neutralize Atambayev, who has publicly criticized his successor. The suspects awaited trial at year’s end.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Kyrgyzstan’s laws on access to public information are considered relatively strong, but implementation is poor in practice. Similarly, although public officials are obliged to disclose information on their personal finances, powerful figures are rarely held accountable for noncompliance or investigated for unexplained wealth. Oversight of public contracts is inadequate; corruption scandals in recent years have often centered on procurement deals or sales of state assets.

ADDITIONAL DISCRETIONARY POLITICAL RIGHTS QUESTION

Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? −1 / 0

Southern Kyrgyzstan has yet to fully recover from the ethnic upheaval of 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. Many Uzbek homes and businesses were destroyed or seized. While intimidation has continued and little has been done to reverse the outcomes of the violence, some steps have been taken to restore Uzbek-language media in the region, and fears of further unrest have eased over time.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 26 / 60 (+1)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 10 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

The media landscape is relatively diverse but divided along ethnic lines, and prosecutions for inciting ethnic hatred have tended to focus 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.

Journalists continued to risk arrest, prosecution, and civil suits for critical reporting in 2018. In February, freelance journalist Elnura Alkanova was arrested and charged with disclosing confidential information for 2017 articles she wrote about alleged corruption. In April, however, authorities dropped the charges against her. In May, former president Atambayev dropped libel charges he had filed against the online news outlet Zanoza and two journalists in 2017, which stemmed from articles that Atambayev claimed were insulting.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4

All religious organizations must register with the authorities, a process that is often cumbersome and arbitrary. Groups outside the traditional Muslim and Orthodox Christian mainstream reportedly have difficulty obtaining registration, and the 2009 Law on Religion deems all unregistered groups illegal. Organizations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses often face police harassment. Nevertheless, some unregistered religious communities have been able to practice their faiths without state intervention, and the authorities have investigated and punished relatively rare acts of violence against religious figures or minorities. The government monitors and restricts Islamist groups that it regards as a threat to national security, particularly Hizb ut-Tahrir.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

The government does not formally restrict academic freedom, though teachers and students have reportedly faced pressure to participate in political campaigns and voting, including in the 2017 presidential election.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

Private discussion is generally free in the country, and prosecutions of individuals for the expression of personal views on social media are rare. However, state and local authorities regularly raid homes where they believe members of banned groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir or certain religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are meeting to discuss their beliefs.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 5 / 12 (+1)

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4

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. Intimidation by counterprotesters has also emerged as a problem in recent years.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4 (+1)

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, human rights workers who support ethnic Uzbek victims face threats, harassment, and physical attacks. Ultranationalists have harassed US and European NGOs as well as domestic counterparts that are perceived to be favored by foreign governments and donors.

The threats and harassment from both state and nonstate actors receded significantly in 2018, and no attacks from vigilante groups were reported during the year, allowing NGOs to operate more freely.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 due to decreased incidents of pressure from state and nonstate actors on nongovernmental organizations in 2018, which has allowed them to act with greater freedom.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

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.

F. RULE OF LAW: 4 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

The judiciary is not independent and remains dominated by the executive branch. Corruption among judges is widespread.

In October 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that immunity from prosecution for former presidents was unconstitutional. Following the decision, in December, the SDPK-led parliament approved the first reading of legislation to strip all former presidents of immunity, which could clear the way for the potential arrest and prosecution of Atambayev.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Defendants’ rights, including the presumption of innocence, are not always respected, and evidence allegedly obtained through torture is regularly accepted in courts. Some observers expressed concern about a lack of due process in high-profile corruption cases against Atambayev’s allies in 2018.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4

There are credible reports of torture during arrest and interrogation, in addition to physical abuse in prisons. Most such reports do not lead to investigations and convictions. Few perpetrators of the violence against the Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 have been brought to justice.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

Legal bans on gender discrimination in the workplace are not effectively enforced. Traditional biases also put women at a disadvantage regarding education and access to services. Ethnic minorities—particularly Uzbeks, who make up nearly half of the population in Osh—continue to face discrimination on economic, security, and other matters. Uzbeks are often targeted for harassment, arrest, and mistreatment by law enforcement agencies based on dubious terrorism or extremism charges. 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. Ultranationalist groups have also engaged in intimidation of LGBT activists.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 7 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4

The government generally respects the right of unrestricted travel to and from Kyrgyzstan, though journalists and human rights activists sometimes face bans and other obstacles. Barriers to internal migration include a requirement that citizens obtain permits to work and settle in particular areas of the country.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

The misuse of personal connections, corruption, and organized crime impair private business activity. The ethnic violence of 2010 has affected property rights in the south, as many businesses, mainly owned by ethnic Uzbeks, were destroyed or seized.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

Cultural constraints and inaction by law enforcement officials discourage victims of domestic violence and rape from contacting the authorities. Legislation enacted in 2017 aimed to broaden the definition of domestic abuse and improve both victim assistance and responses from law enforcement bodies, but the law was weakly enforced in 2018.

The practice of bride abduction persists despite the strengthening of legal penalties in 2013, and few perpetrators are prosecuted. In May, a young woman, who was kidnapped twice by the same man in a case of bride abduction, was murdered by her abductor after police placed them in the same jail cell near Bishkek. In December, the perpetrator was sentenced to 20 years in prison, following widespread outrage over the brutal crime.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

The government does not actively enforce workplace health and safety standards. Child labor is restricted by law but reportedly occurs, particularly in the agricultural sector. 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.