Nations in Transit
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Democracy Score(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Electoral Process(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Society(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Independent Media(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Judicial Framework and Independence(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Corruption(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Governance(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Throughout 2002, the regime led by President Askar Akayev was struggling for its political survival, as political opposition, a series of crisis situations, and the issue of political succession produced serious challenges to the existing leadership. These problems have accumulated over several years, especially since the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000, which greatly undermined the republic's reputation as an "island of democracy" in the region. Although the pro-government political parties and candidates won the elections by a large margin, the regime hardly boosted its legitimacy or strengthened its political stand. The elections were accompanied by so many irregularities, including the manipulation of the results, that even the moderate opposition voiced its disapproval of the government's tactics. However, instead of engaging in constructive dialogue with its opponents and solving the political problems, Kyrgyzstan's government chose authoritarian measures and attacked leading opposition figures, prominent journalists, and the most critical media outlets. To silence its critics, the government used its leverage over the country's weak court system to sentence members of the opposition to long prison terms and force them to pay large fines.
Not only has the process of democratization suffered a serious setback, but the government also has become more impatient in dealing with its critics. President Akayev and his supporters have concentrated enormous political power in their hands and have been prompt in turning to authoritarian measures against their opponents. Nevertheless, it remains true that Kyrgyzstan is one of the most liberal states in the region. Unlike neighboring Uzbekistan, political parties and civil organizations have been allowed to register and operate in a relatively free environment, and independent media have produced substantive and cogent discourse on matters such as political development, democratization, and various social and economic issues. Journalists also have not been the target of physical attacks or beatings, and none have been killed in the line of duty. This, however, has not translated into the development of an effective system of democratic governance or fair political and economic competition.
Throughout 2002, the government used direct and indirect pressure to silence their vocal opponents. Further, it attempted to introduce a wide range of restrictive measures, citing the threat of a militant incursion from unstable Tajikistan and the international war on terrorism, in which Kyrgyzstan considers itself directly involved through its hosting of a U.S. military base. The government also used the war on terrorism to launch another round of crackdowns on nonmainstream opposition factions such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic group based mainly in the southern Osh oblast that promotes the return of Islamic traditions and law (Shariah) to society.
There are also serious concerns about the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan. For some time, the central government has manipulated the court system to contain its critics, while local administrations have used law enforcement institutions to curb the critics of widespread corruption. Despite highly publicized government efforts to tackle corruption and lawlessness, ordinary citizens are forced to pay arbitrary taxes, fees, and fines and to offer bribes for basic services from public institutions or favorable business decisions. The government's actions have also contributed to an overall sense of lawlessness in the country by routinely taking opposition leaders and prominent journalists to court, winning numerous cases based on im-plausible evidence and the questionable use of loopholes in the country's regulatory system.
Since Kyrgyzstan depends heavily on international assistance and aid, the government has complied with the recommendations of donor bodies and made substantial progress toward economic liberalization. Macroeconomic policies have been prepared in close cooperation with donors, and the state's budget and spending are under tight control. This has helped the country stabilize its currency and control inflation, which in 2002 reached a historic low. Kyrgyzstan was among the first countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to allow private ownership of land.
Beneath this favorable facade, though, lies a more complex picture. Only on paper do laws and regulations provide fair economic competition and business environments for domestic and international enterprises. In reality, the business community faces rampant corruption, extremely low levels of law enforcement, and arbitrary taxation. Most lucrative businesses and investment projects have been monopolized by a small group of politically well-connected entrepreneurs, whom the locals have dubbed "the family." Even business elites who benefited from what is known as prikhvatizatsia ("grab all you can") have expressed their discontent with the rise of crony capitalism and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small group of government cronies. In fact, some local experts believe that the real reason behind Akayev's abandonment of democratic reforms and his concentration of power is fear of the revelation of past corrupt practices, which ballooned Kyrgyzstan's external debts from zero in 1991 to US $1.4 billion in 2002, and the desire of "the family" to establish control over the most profitable businesses in the country.
In 2001, Kyrgyzstan's political environment became very complex. On the one hand, the state bureaucracy enjoyed both political and economic power, having managed to retain its influence over the years through questionable tactics against political opponents and the exploitation of political patronage, or the clan system. Moreover, the beginning of the U.S.-led international war against terrorism and the establishment of a U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan negatively affected the political environment in the country, because Akayev's entourage perceived that Western pressure over human rights issues would diminish in return for siding with the United States. As a result, the Kyrgyz government instigated new attacks against mainstream and nonmainstream political opponents.
At the same time, the Kyrgyz public in general and the political opposition in particular were angered by the massive corruption in government ranks, social polarization in society, and the regime's inability to reduce poverty and promote sustainable economic growth. The last straw, which triggered public outrage on the eve of 2002, was the revelation of the secret concession of Kyrgyz territory to China and Uzbekistan during border delimitation negotiations. This news brought people to the streets, and the Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament) launched its own independent investigation over the secret deals.
In January 2002, the Kyrgyz government made a decisive move against the opposition when it arrested Parliament member Azimbek Beknazarov, one of the leading critics of the secret deals and a prominent opposition figure from southern Kyrgyzstan. Beknazarov was charged with professional misconduct allegedly committed seven years earlier. Several opposition parties declared hunger strikes in protest and demanded his unconditional release. The government ignored the demands, and as it was preparing to remove the hunger strikers by force, one of them, the highly respected activist Sheraly Nazarkulov, collapsed and later died in the hospital. Nazarkulov's death widened public support for the release of Beknazarov, contributed to a further rise in political tension, and alienated the population and elite of southern Kyrgyzstan.
On March 17, 2002, a group of Beknazarov's supporters in his native Aksy district attempted to organize a public rally in the town of Kerben. As the angry unarmed demonstrators gathered opposite the police building, police and security forces opened fire, killing 6 citizens and injuring more than 60 people in the first violent civil confrontation since independence in 1991. The following day, in a televised address to the nation, President Akayev accused the opposition of "political extremism and attempting to destabilize the country." Both the event and Akayev's remarks provoked widespread discontent and contributed to a further deepening of the age-old political divide between southern and northern Kyrgyzstan.
The killings and the government's handling of the aftermath outraged and radicalized even the country's moderate opposition. The full spectrum of opposition groups and the public joined in demands for an investigation and the bringing to justice of those responsible. They also called for the government's and President Akayev's resignation. In response to the criticism, in May 2002 the Kyrgyz government did resign, and a new one was established. However, President Akayev refused to follow suit, offering instead constitutional changes and the introduction of a national program under a slogan proclaiming "Kyrgyzstan Is a Home for Human Rights." Nevertheless, throughout the summer numerous citizens' groups organized public rallies and marched toward the capital with demands to free Beknazarov and slogans like "Akayev Ketsyn!" ("Akayev Must Go!"). To defuse the tensions, the government released Beknazarov and announced public debates on possible constitutional changes.
In September 2002, the government established a constitutional commission that included opposition figures, prominent public figures, and pro-government appointees. Throughout the fall, the commission was entrusted to suggest constitutional changes that would liberalize the political process, temper demands of President Akayev's resignation, and establish effective mechanisms to balance the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government. To facilitate the dialogue, President Akayev finally declared in October that he would not seek reelection in 2005. However, not all opposition groups were satisfied, and in November several radical opposition groups rallied to express their views.
Despite the dialogue with the country's mainstream opposition, tensions remained high in southern Kyrgyzstan. In October 2002, for example, Usen Sydykov, founder of the opposition party Jany Kyrgyzstan (New Kyrgyzstan) and an important figure in southern Kyrgyzstan's political clan, received the largest percentage of votes in the first round of elections to a vacant position in the legislature. However, the regional court banned Sydykov from participating in the runoff on the grounds that he had not resigned from his public position and had not disclosed all of his property--accusations that were rigorously denied by Sydykov. His supporters perceived the case as a violation of their political rights and took to the streets, later declaring their intentions to march to Bishkek. Tensions ran so high that, in an unprecedented step, the electoral commission postponed the runoff scheduled for November 3.
The electoral system in Kyrgyzstan is largely unstable. Since the introduction of the Kyrgyz Constitution in 1993, the government has developed a penchant for constitutional changes through public referendums and has changed election laws prior to every parliamentary election. The opposition claims that most of the changes have been politically motivated to prevent their parties from entering Parliament. Moreover, in 2002 the government and the Parliament indicated that they would negotiate further changes to the Constitution and the Law on Elections before the next scheduled balloting in 2005. These frequent changes to the electoral system often confuse voters and create additional difficulties for political parties in preparing and mobilizing their supporters.
The Law on Elections in Kyrgyzstan establishes a relatively liberal environment for registration and participation in elections. The Constitution stipulates that all citizens over 18 years of age are eligible to vote, and all citizens over 25 years of age who have resided in the republic for not less than five years before the elections are eligible for election to Parliament. There are no restrictions based on ethnic, racial, or religious grounds, although the Kyrgyz Constitution bans all "religious political parties" and "organizations that propagate war or violence against the state or any ethnic group."
The electoral system is multiparty based and does not establish significant direct limitations on political parties. Any registered political party, public organization (such as a labor collective), or meeting of voters (such as local communities, or mahalya) may nominate candidates. However, this regulation gives advantage to the government and regional and local administrations, because they can control or influence nominations in state-controlled enterprises.
Over time, the Kyrgyz political system has been characterized by the concentration of greater power and political control in the hands of executive authorities. In 1994, for example, President Akayev initiated a series of constitutional changes that weakened the legislative branch of government. Through a national referendum, he gathered public support for, among other things, transforming the 350-seat unicameral Parliament into a bicameral body consisting of a 35-seat Myizam Chygaruu Jyiyny (Legislative Assembly) and a 70-seat El Okuldor Jyiyny (Assembly of People's Representatives). Additional constitutional changes supported by a referendum in 1998 increased the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly from 35 to 60 and decreased the number of seats in the Assembly of People's Representatives from 70 to 45. These changes also included allocation of 15 out of 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly to political parties on the basis of proportional representation.
Both the Constitution and the Law on Public Organizations generally guarantee basic freedoms of associations and do not restrict political parties and the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, during the last parliamentary and presidential elections, state officials intimidated opposition groups and limited their participation for minor irregularities. Although there are no significant barriers to registration and political activities, the Ministry of Justice at times used the same tactics to delay a party's registration.
In 2002, more than 40 political parties, groups, and organizations were registered in Kyrgyzstan, mainly in Bishkek. Financial constraints and the population's general political apathy have become main barriers to the expansion of political parties outside the capital. At the beginning of the decade, 6-9 percent of the population belonged to a registered political party or group, most with only 3,000 to 9,000 members on average.
Most opposition groups have united in recent years in their determination to bring down the Kyrgyz government and force the resignation of President Akayev. The government, in turn, has responded with harsh measures, including the arrest of Parliament member Beknazarov and the closure of several opposition newspapers. This standoff led to a bloody confrontation in 2002 in the village of Kerben, the center of the Aksy district in southern Kyrgyzstan. Police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing 6 civilians and injuring more than 60. In reaction, more than a dozen political organizations called for a national Kurultai (Congress) and united in their determination to bring to justice those responsible. Several organizations established a new political bloc called For Impeachment of President Akayev and for People's Reforms.
In addition to the traditional parties of the Left (PKK and others), the center (Moya Strana and others), and the Right (Asaba, or National Revival Party), the Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party, established in 1999 when Vice President Felix Kulov moved into the opposition camp, unites various political groups under a single aim: to bring down the Akayev regime. General Kulov's experience in politics and government, his moderate stand on political, ethnic, and economic issues, and his promise to fight corruption immediately attracted centrist intelligentsia and businessmen into the party, which had the potential to transform itself into a truly mass organization. However, the party's ability to do so was undermined in 2001, when, in a politically motivated case, Kulov was tried and sentenced to seven years in prison. Although the government released Beknazarov in 2002 and dropped the criminal charges against him, Kulov remained in prison at year's end.
The challenge for opposition political parties in mobilizing support outside Bishkek is the fact that political life at the raion (district) and oblast (province) levels is dominated by local bureaucrats, with whom most people have clan ties. Kyrgyzstan's clans are amorphous and have no clear mode of operation in the country's political life. They are bound by informal arrangements and rules, and their power is based on representing regional interests. The so-called northern clan represents the Chui, Issyk-Kol, Naryn, and Talas oblasts, while the so-called southern clan represents the Batken, Dzhalal-Abad, and Osh oblasts.
President Akayev's real strength has been his ability to both cut deals with and mobilize support from the regional clans. Conversely, the most serious weakness of the opposition has been its inability to gain support from the clans. The situation following the March 2002 killings in Aksy was brought under control only because powerful representatives of the southern clan mediated and prevented people from retaliating or marching to Bishkek. In return, the president has had to make more political concessions to this clan--a move that could lead to direct confrontation between northern and southern clans.
There are no formal limitations on the participation of ethnic minorities in the political process. However, for a decade after independence, minorities were haunted by the memory of deadly interethnic conflict in the Osh-Uzgen areas in 1990 during the Kyrgyz-Uzbek dispute over land allocation. When the Kyrgyz leadership failed to respond to the problem, the conflict erupted into youth riots and assaults on ethnic minorities.
Throughout the 1990s, most ethnic minorities avoided direct involvement in politics, instead working through their ethnic cultural centers. Except for the Communist Party, no opposition organization was successful in recruiting ethnic minorities into its ranks. Until recently, in fact, the ethnic cultural centers, which work under the umbrella of the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, supported centrist and pro-government political parties as well as President Akayev. Some studies have suggested that ethnic minorities voted overwhelmingly for the president and for pro-government parties during the last elections. However, the situation changed in 2001 and 2002, when ethnic minorities began to flag in their support.
In 2002, two events prompted Kyrgyz authorities to target members of the Uigur minority. First, when several Chinese businessmen and government officials were killed execution-style in Bishkek, Uigur separatists were blamed for the act. Second, the U.S. Department of State added the Uigur separatist movement to its list of terrorist organizations.
However, the Uigur community denied that it had ties to al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. Kyrgyzstan's political environment in 2002 was shaped largely by the outcome of elections to the bicameral, 105-seat Parliament in 2000. The preelection campaign was free of violence and armed confrontation, and most candidates worked openly with their supporters. Few interrogations of the candidates took place during the voting process, and local and international observers enjoyed access to the ballots. However, the elections could hardly be called free and fair. In particular, the government and state bureaucracy, which consists largely of presidential appointees, used various legal loopholes to prevent influential opposition politicians such as General Kulov from registering.
On February 20, 2000, 230 candidates competed for 45 seats (out of 60) in the Legislative Assembly; 186 candidates vied for 45 seats in the Assembly of People's Representatives. An additional 15 seats in the Legislative Assembly were filled on the basis of proportional representation. Since few candidates received a mandate with more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff followed on March 12. Only 57.8 percent of the electorate cast votes in the first round, and 61.86 percent voted in the second round. Male and female voters participated in equal numbers.
In some districts, election observers reported misconduct in the counting of ballots. In the district where Kulov and other opposition leaders ran, voters and members of local electoral commissions experienced significant pressure to vote against them. The irregularities were so blatant, in fact, that even the country's pro-government intelligentsia condemned them as "a bad job in the best Soviet traditions." Observers from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that the Kyrgyz government ultimately "narrowed the choice available to voters" and featured "flagrant official interference and vote rigging."
In the official results for both houses, independent candidates took 73 seats; the pro-Akayev Union of the Democratic Forces, 12 seats; the opposition PKK, 6; the pro-government My Country, 4; the pro-Akayev Democratic Women's Party of Kyrgyzstan, 2; the pro-Akayev Party of Veterans of the War in Afghanistan, 2; the opposition Poor and Unprotected People's Party, 2; the opposition Ata-Meken Partiasy (Fatherland Socialist Party), 2; the pro-government Agrarian Labor Party, 1; and the opposition Erkin Kyrgyzstan (Progressive and Democratic Party), 1. The independent candidates--mainly former state officials and successful businessmen--were not necessarily loyal to the government or the president.
The state bureaucracy's manipulation of the preelection campaign negatively affected voter turnout, especially in Bishkek. According to official reports prepared by the Central Election Commission (CEC), turnout in the districts of Bishkek was between 42 and 53 percent. At the regional level, turnout was slightly higher. In the Chui oblast, for example, turnout ranged from 54 to 65 percent.
Although the 2000 elections represented the opposition's biggest defeat since independence, members of the opposition have consolidated since then into a small but vibrant bloc that frequently criticizes the government and President Akayev for their policies. On several occasions, the bloc has gained support from a significant number of independent parliamentarians on such issues as the investigation of the border delimitation agreements with China and Uzbekistan in 2001 and the investigation of the Aksy tragedy in 2002.
Relations between the government and opposition have deteriorated significantly since 2000 because the Akayev-led regime clearly interpreted the opposition defeat in the elections as a sign of weakness. Since then, the government has adopted a confrontational line in dealing with its critics. It also has shown less tolerance to opposition mass media and investigative journalists, who have tried to expose corruption among high-ranking government officials or have criticized government policies. This confrontation was more pronounced in 2002, when the government dismissed any criticism of its policies and arrested opposition leaders, such as Beknazarov, on dubious charges. It was this inflexibility that led to the Aksy tragedy in March.
In 2002, the government also approved a crackdown by the National Security Committee (NSC, the successor to the KGB) on nonmainstream organizations, notably Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The NSC justified the crackdown by alleging that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has ties to radical Islamic groups like the Taliban and to Osama bin Laden. According to an official report, law enforcement agencies detained several members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir during the first half of 2002, even though they had not found arms or any evidence of links to al-Qaeda.
The presidential elections of October 2000 greatly undermined President Akayev's legitimacy. In the preelection campaign, candidates were not subject to harassment and were granted relatively equal access to the national media. In addition, local and international observers enjoyed access to the ballots. However, the Central Election Commission's handling of the registration process provoked considerable criticism and led observers to declare the election as neither free nor fair.
The CEC and the state bureaucracy did everything possible to deny registration to General Kulov and Daniyar Usenov, an opposition leader and member of parliament. Although both men were thought to have a good shot at victory, they failed to meet the registration requirements: nominations by September 14, registration by September 24, a collection of 100,000 signatures, a clean criminal record, and successful completion of a new Kyrgyz fluency test. Usenov's previous criminal conviction (on charges he has denied) ruled him out. Kulov chose not to sit for the language exam after witnessing several candidates fail the test. Instead, he gave his support to Omurbek Tekebayev, chairman of the moderate opposition Fatherland Socialist Party. In the end, the election committee officially registered six candidates: President Akayev; Omurbek Tekebayev; Almazbek Atambayev, an industrialist; Melis Eshimkanov, a journalist and one of the leaders of the National Revival Party; Tursunbay Bakir-Uulu, a leader of the Progressive and Democratic Party; and Tursunbek Akunov, a human rights activist.
On Election Day, President Akayev won in the first round with 74.4 percent of the vote. Akayev's main opponent, Tekebayev, won just 13.9 percent. Opposition candidates reported that their supporters had experienced intimidation at polling stations. There were also reports of vote manipulation, especially of students' votes. Turnout was 77.3 percent.
Several factors have helped establish the basis for a potentially vibrant civil society in Kyrgyzstan. These include political liberalization in the early 1990s, extensive support from the international community, and the rapid development of the population's self-reliance as state institutions and the social welfare system deteriorated rapidly following the collapse of communism. The self-reliance of the Kyrgyz people is expressed through two types of nonprofit organizations.
The first type is the indigenous tradition of communal mutual assistance. The ashar, for example, is a community-based institution that gathers donations and provides aid to individuals in need such as single mothers, elderly people, and the disabled. Ashars are led by aqsakals (community elders) and are popular in southern oblasts, especially in rural areas. They do not register with the state.
The second type of organization is the Western-style NGO. Since 1991, more than 3,000 NGOs have been established and registered in the country. However, many have already disbanded or become inactive. At the present time, between 600 and 1,000 NGOs, or between 20 and 30 percent of those registered, are actually active. These groups focus on providing social services not only in the capital and surrounding areas, but, most important, in remote mountain villages. Most NGOs are led by local activists, whose mission is to increase awareness about the importance of volunteerism and philanthropy. Many NGO leaders are women who were active in public life during the Soviet era and lost their jobs in the economic recession of the 1990s.
Although precise figures are not available, up to 6 percent of the working adult population, or approximately 250,000 people, are active in voluntary activities. According to Counterpart International, out of 1,000 active groups, 236 NGOs, or 9.7 percent, were engaged in women's issues; 302 (12 percent) were providing services to children and youth; around 210 (8.6 percent) were working on education and science; 166 (6.8 percent) were running services for families and pensioners; more than 144 (5.9 percent) were focusing on human rights and civil society; 129 (5.3 percent) were examining health issues; 120 (4.9 percent) were working on environmental issues and environmental awareness; and 86 (3.5 percent) were addressing media issues.
Women's NGOs operate under the umbrella of the Bishkek-based Women's Congress. These include Bermet, which supports families and women rights; and Ene, which provides services to orphan female students at tertiary institutions. Environmental NGOs played a crucial role in promoting public awareness after a cyanide spill in the Issyk-Kol oblast in May 1998.
Religious groups are increasingly playing a role at the community level. Many, both Christians and Islamic, focus their activities on religious education and charitable activities. Christian groups are active in northern Kyrgyzstan, especially in the capital, its suburbs, and the Issyk-Kol valley. Islamic organizations, meanwhile, are active mostly in the Batken, Dzhalal-Abad, and Osh oblasts, where Islam has traditionally been strong among the rural population, and within the country's large Uzbek community. In 2002, Islamic organizations experienced a number of difficulties as religious literature was regularly confiscated and many premises were raided by law enforcement agencies.
Several religious groups, especially Islamic ones, are hostile to what they consider excessive Western influence. Some representatives of Islamic groups have openly expressed this opinion with respect to the presence of U.S. troops in the country and have voiced strong disapproval of the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and military actions in Iraq. The extent of their influence is unknown, though, because many of these groups are not registered and work mainly at the community level. Their funding comes from overseas sources, mainly under the hawala, an informal money transfer system. Various reports indicate that they exercise strong influence in parts of southern Kyrgyzstan and are considerably less influential in the north.
Kyrgyzstan has established one of the most liberal regimes in the region for NGOs. The Constitution, the Law on Public Organizations, and the Law on Noncommercial Organizations regulate the activities of NGOs. The Constitution guarantees freedom of association. The Law on Public Organizations places few restrictions on the activities of the NGOs, prohibiting only activities that might undermine public security or promote racial, ethnic, or religious intolerance. In practice, though, the state has a strong hold on such issues as registration, taxation, and access to information, especially for NGOs that deal with human rights, ecological, or mass media issues.
The government prefers to deal with larger NGOs, especially those led by influential public figures, as long as they do not criticize government policies. An important feature of political life in Kyrgyzstan are the roundtables and public forums where NGO activists meet with government officials. President Akayev has actively promoted the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, which brings together several large and influential NGOs and cultural centers, as an example of the government's cooperation with civil society. (The cultural centers were established by major ethnic groups in the early 1990s and have proved to be a powerful force in politics.) The Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan has played an important role in stabilizing political life in Kyrgyzstan. For example, in May 2002, following the tragedy in Aksy, President Akayev unveiled a national program called "Kyrgyzstan Is a Home for Human Rights" to the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan and soon after signed a presidential edict granting the group the status of a "consultative and advisory organ under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic."
The effectiveness of NGOs is frequently undermined by inadequate training in management, accounting, and fundraising. Many NGOs consist of only three or four staff members and a dozen or so activists. Small NGOs often do not have clear managerial structures or boards of directors and tend to rely on informal networks consisting of colleagues, extended family, or patrimonial support. Training initially presented serious problems, as in the early 1990s there were no instructors or instructions available in the Kyrgyz language. By 2000, a sizable number of training materials had been translated or developed in Kyrgyz and some NGOs had begun to offer training in the native language.
The financial status of NGOs varies widely owing to the steep economic recession and low personal salaries (in 2002, average monthly salaries stood at 1,500 soms, or US$32). Many groups are not viable financially and rely exclusively on funding from foreign sources. There is a growing trend of consolidation of large NGOs, which have established management structures and regular sources of finance, as they increasingly receive a larger proportion of foreign assistance. Meanwhile, most small NGOs face serious financial constraints and temporarily halt their activities when they run out of funds. It is difficult and often impossible for NGOs to collect cost recovery fees.
In the post-Soviet era, the role of the trade unions has largely diminished. The Law on Labor guarantees the rights of workers to join independent trade unions. The government generally does not restrict workers' membership in trade unions because the unions do not confront the government on key economic policy issues.
The Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan (FTUK) is a direct successor of the powerful Soviet-era Council of Trade Unions. Since 1991, however, most trade unions have been unable to adjust themselves to the new economic environment or to build new channels of influence on legislature or government. The FTUK was largely silent when most enterprises collapsed and hundreds of thousands workers were laid off or forced to do unpaid work in the 1990s. Most union members maintain nominal links to their organizations. Among the new trade unions to emerge since 1991 is the Union of Entrepreneurs and Small-Business Workers.
There is no clear regulation of interest-group participation in politics. Nor are there clear lines between the kinds of activities in which such organizations participate. Most NGOs try to influence the government through conferences and seminars, raising public awareness on issues such as the status of women, the environment, human rights, and the work of the legislature. Some NGOs, especially those dealing with human rights, organize rallies and meetings. They also send appeals to the government, the legislature, and various international organizations. Many NGOs are active in monitoring elections at the national, oblast, and local levels and facilitate training sessions for election observers and monitoring groups. Several NGOs are active in the fields of science and education and often produce and publish their own assessments of government projects.
In the early 1990s, the government actively involved institutions like the National Academy of Science in policy planning and legal and economic reforms. Since the middle of the 1990s, however, the authorities have gradually abandoned this practice and rely more on internal experts. The Institute of Strategic Studies, which is subordinate to the president, has been active since the mid-1990s in sharing its expertise and has developed working relations with major Western organizations.
Education is the focus of both government policy and NGO activities. The government encourages NGOs to support educational reforms as part of its program to develop a "knowledge nation." Several independent schools and universities appeared in the mid-1990s, and most universities have gained their freedom from direct government control. At the same time, they also have been affected by state cuts in funding for tertiary education.
In early 2002, there were 27 private schools, 14 private tertiary educational institutions, and 7 campuses for foreign (mainly CIS) universities. These institutions provide education for about 15 percent of the student population. Islamic educational institutions are a relatively new phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan and are not very well developed. However, madrassas do provide basic religious education in practically every large town and city. The Islamic University of Kyrgyzstan, established in Bishkek in 1991, receives funding mainly from overseas sources. In 2002, approximately 400 students were enrolled in the Faculty of Shariah and Arabic Language and the Faculty of Religious Studies.
The Ministry of Education still has to approve the registration and curriculums of all educational institutions, including private schools and universities. However, universities and other institutions are generally free of state propaganda or direct political influence. The educational system of Kyrgyzstan relies increasingly on international assistance to fund reforms.
In 2002, the government tried to introduce new restrictions on independent media, citing the war on terrorism and security concerns as justification. During the year, Kyrgyzstan witnessed the most vigorous confrontation between the government and independent mass media since 1991. Specifically, the government tried to restrict mass media outlets by bringing legal action (often on questionable charges) against most prominent opposition newspapers and trying to silence the most critical investigative journalists.
Meanwhile, the independent media launched its most forceful public campaign against corruption. Opposition mass media, especially those that publish their materials on the Internet, revealed questionable deals and practices not only among high-ranking public officials and members of the presidential administration, but also among the family members and close associates of the president. Their campaign was fueled by the first moves among elites and political groups in the battle for President Akayev's successor.
Throughout the year, the government attempted to find new ways to control the independent media. For example, on January 14, 2002, the government introduced a highly controversial Temporary Decree No. 20, which established for the state-controlled Uchkun Publishing House a de facto monopoly over printing by all major mass media outlets. Specifically, it obstructed the establishment of the Independent Printing Center, a project supported by the U.S. government and several international organizations, including Freedom House. Opposition and independent journalists complained that the decree was unconstitutional and demanded its reversal.
Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution guarantee freedom of the media and freedom of expression. However, Article 49 criminalizes any publication degrading the honor and dignity of the president. Moreover, Article 23 of the Law on Mass Media prohibits journalists from publishing state or commercial secrets or articles that offend any individual's honor or dignity. Article 127 of the criminal code treats libel as a criminal, not a civil, offense.
Although the media is generally free from direct editorial intervention, most journalists practice self-censorship. A prominent case in point was the campaign against the newspaper Moya Stolitsa, which had at least 10 libel suits brought against it in 2002. During the year, the government also continued its policy of prosecuting independent journalists and putting opposition mass media out of print. In recent years, a number of mainstream mass media outlets purportedly have come under the control of President Akayev's relatives or pro-government businessmen and been subject to strong pressure on their newsgathering functions. In response to public protests against one-sided coverage by state-control media of the Aksy tragedy in 2002, Nikolai Tanayev, the new prime minister, promised to reform the state TV and radio companies. Under intense international and domestic pressure, President Akayev also annulled Temporary Decree No. 20.
Television and radio are the two most important sources of public information. Newspapers have declined steadily in importance because the population is less able to afford them. Most national newspapers are based in the capital and often do not reach the nation's remote rural districts. Meanwhile, many district and regional newspapers are heading toward extinction. As of 2002, about 70 percent of media outlets were privately owned.
The state-controlled national newspapers, including Slovo Kyrgyzstana and Kyrgyz Tuusu, and television stations, including KTP and KOORT, are the only media outlets that reach a nationwide audience. There are about 50 independent, semi-independent, and privately owned newspapers and magazines, including the popular Vechernii Bishkek, Delo No, AKI-press, and others. Vechernii Bishkek has the largest circulation (approximately 60,000). Res Publika, Ordo, and Kyrgyz Tuusu each claim to have circulations of 10,000. There are also 14 independent or privately owned television stations and 11 radio stations, including Piramida Television and Radio, Independent Bishkek Television, Asman Television, and Almaz Radio.
Most privately owned newspapers are not financially viable, owing largely to limited advertising revenues and circulation bases. In 2001-2002, though, there was a visible increase in investment in mass media outlets, as various political groups tried to establish greater influence over media in anticipation of the next presidential election. Yet few of the investors have experience in establishing and running profitable media enterprises. By law, advertising is limited to about 20 percent of print space and 25 percent of television and radio airtime. However, many media outlets engage in hidden advertising. Few media outlets are actually profitable.
In 2002, there were numerous court cases against journalists. However, unlike previous years, higher courts dismissed several of the complaints. For example, on May 13, 2002, the Dzhalal-Abad City Court fined the paper Kyrgyz-Ruhu 110,000 soms (about US$2,300) and journalist Akybai Soronbekov an additional 110,000 soms. Raimbek Momunov, the deputy prosecutor of Dzhalal-Abad oblast, accused the paper and the journalist of insulting his dignity and honor in an article published five years earlier. A regional court overturned the city court decision in response to public outcry and mass protests. Likewise, at the beginning of 2002, the state-controlled Uchkun Publishing House refused to publish two newspapers, Moya Stolitsa and Res Publika, on various grounds. The head of Uchkun even tried to bring a libel case against Moya Stolitsa. However, in May Uchkun agreed to resume publication following an out-of-court settlement of the newspapers' legal case against the publisher.
NGOs providing services to journalists strengthened their position throughout 2002. This was due to an increase in international funding and the growth of investigative journalism. The public association Journalist, for example, established a solid infrastructure and developed an action plan aimed at monitoring and defending the rights of journalists. A sizable proportion of journalists in Kyrgyzstan are women, and several NGOs provide services to them. Women in Mass Media of Central Asia, for example, advocates the professional development of women working in the Kyrgyz mass media.
Although both the government and the public realize the growing power of the Internet, its growth is limited by financial constraints and an undeveloped infrastructure outside the capital. However, Internet providers are trying to diversify their customer base by introducing flexible rates and opening new businesses outside major cities. In addition, many NGOs, privately owned Internet cafes, and educational institutions are beginning to offering Internet access to a wider public and at more affordable prices. In 2002, information centers offering free Internet access were opened in seven provincial towns and cities with financial support from the U.S. State Department.
According to estimates, the Internet served between 100,000 and 120,000 people in 2002, a surge of about 15-20 percent. Internet publications have rapidly growing audiences, but they are limited primarily to the capital city. Independent newspapers are increasingly using the Internet to thwart government attempts to limit or stop their publication.
A system of checks and balances among legislative, executive, and juridical authorities is in place in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz Constitution, which was introduced in May 1993, clearly defines the authorities of each branch of government. In recent years, though, executive authorities have concentrated ever more political power in their hands and dominated the other branches of government.
The Parliament is the effective rule-making organization, and it has resisted some of the authoritarian measures of the government and the president. In May 2002, for example, pressure from the legislature, combined with public support, forced the government to cancel Temporary Decree No. 20. This controversial decree, introduced in January 2001, had severely limited printing activities in violation of the Kyrgyz Constitution and the Law on Mass Media.
Kyrgyzstan adopted its first post-Soviet Constitution in May 1993. Since then, it has been amended on three occasions--in 1994, 1996, and 1998. The Constitution remains one of the most liberal in the region, yet enforcement of the basic rights it guarantees is often weak. New constitutional changes were discussed throughout fall 2002, and a referendum was scheduled for February 2003.
In 1998, a new criminal code replaced the 1994 criminal procedure code. The new code, which was developed with the assistance of international legal experts, brought some legal procedures in line with Western standards. For example, under the law, the procurator, an office overseen by the Ministry of Justice, supervises criminal proceedings and authorizes all searches, detentions, and warrants. In practice, though, the law is not vigorously implemented, and police and security forces sometimes detain or search suspected individuals without proper authorization. In 2002, law enforcement officials often used the increased threat of terrorism as an excuse to violate regular procedures.
Also in 2002, many unconstitutional practices came to light. When Azimbek Beknazarov, a vigorous critic of President Akayev's and a member of Parliament, was arrested in January on dubious charges of professional misconduct, he claimed that he was beaten regularly by law enforcement officers and forced to make several public statements under threat. The prominent case of General Kulov, another leading opposition leader, also indicates that there are significant delays and abuses in criminal justice cases.
By regional standards, Kyrgyzstan remains fairly liberal. The Constitution provides a strong framework for human rights, guarantees citizenship to all residents regardless of their command of the state language or their length of residency, and protects business and private property rights. Kyrgyzstan was among the first countries in the CIS to recognize private ownership for the land, which came to full effect in 2000, and the civil code guarantees equal protection of private property, the right to transfer or sell private property, and the freedom to conclude contracts with foreigners. Kyrgyzstan, however, is not a member of the New York Convention, which provides enforcement of international arbitration. Nevertheless, there have been numerous cases in which private citizens have complained that their business and property rights have been violated. Some businessmen have complained that other businessmen or individuals connected to the government and state bureaucracy have seized their successful enterprises.
The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, nationality, language, creed, or political or religious conviction. In practice, though, human rights activists regularly register violations of the individual rights of citizens. The most highly publicized cases involve independent journalists and mass media outlets, which are regularly harassed with libel suits, tax audits, and accusations of financial improprieties. However, journalists are not subject to physical violence.
Although women remain fairly active in politics and the economy, they are underrepresented in both areas. Women were among the first to lose their jobs during the early years of the country's recession, and no mechanisms existed to protect their rights in the workplace. They are also underrepresented in the national Parliament (holding 5 out of 105 seats) and in local legislatures (occupying roughly one-quarter of all positions). Few women have executive positions in the government, ministries, and local administrations. Women's organizations report that violence against women and underage and forced marriages are serious problems, particularly in remote areas.
Although Kyrgyz law prohibits discrimination against ethnic minorities, there is no enforcement mechanism. In the early 1990s, ethnic minorities were also among the first to lose their jobs when nearly 60 percent of industrial enterprises were permanently or temporarily closed and approximately 320,000 jobs were lost. Ethnic tensions, combined with rising nationalism and the collapse of the industrial sector, led to a steep rise in emigration by ethnic minorities. Between 1991 and 2002, more than 600,000 people left the country, and the portion of the population made up by ethnic minorities declined from 47 to 33 percent.
President Akayev has introduced a national program dubbed Kyrgyzstan Is Our Common Home to discourage emigration of educated and skilled minorities. He also has issued a decree declaring Russian an official language along with the Turkic-based Kyrgyz. Kyrgyzstan is now the only country in the region to adopt Russian as an official language. Between 2000 and 2002, a number of representatives of ethnic minorities took positions in the government and state administration. Nonetheless, minorities still cite discrimination in hiring, promotion, education, and business activities as important reasons to emigrate.
Although the majority of the population is Muslim, most religious groups, including Christian and Jewish minorities, can worship freely. Kyrgyzstan experienced a resurgence of interest in Islam and other religions in the early 1990s. All religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice. Some small, nonmainstream religious groups, including the Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists, have reported difficulty in registering and tension in local communities.
The Constitution guarantees judicial independence and establishes the following courts: the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the Higher Arbitration Court, and a range of local and lower courts. However, the president can directly influence judges and procurators, since under the Constitution he has the authority to appoint and dismiss the procurator-general, procurators at the oblast level, the procurator of the city of Bishkek, and the military procurator. He can do so, though, only with the consent of the Assembly of People's Representatives.
There is widespread mistrust of judges, whose rulings the public perceives as unfair or politically motivated. In early 2002, for example, opposition parties complained that the judiciary acted under political influence in the case against Azimbek Beknazarov, who was charged with professional misconduct after he became one of the most outspoken critics of the government. One of the latest examples came to light in October 2002. During the election campaign for a vacant position in the Parliament, a court banned opposition candidate Usen Sydykov after a strong showing in the first round of voting in the Kara-Kuldja district on the grounds that he had misguided the election commission about his property, assets, and income. Sydykov vigorously claimed that the ruling was politically motivated.
In recent years, the government has made some efforts to implement judicial reforms. These include streamlining the court system, improving the professionalism of judges, and increasing funding to the courts. Judges must now pass periodic examinations, attend retraining courses, and be familiar with constitutional and legal changes.
All defendants have the right to counsel, which the state must provide if the defendant cannot afford to do so. However, in the past some defendants have not been provided adequate representation owing to a lack of funding and a shortage of qualified lawyers. In 2002, there were regular reports that judicial decisions were not effectively enforced, especially in disputes over property rights and business activities. This was particularly true in several cases involving powerful political interests in businesses.
Corruption in Kyrgyzstan has begun to paralyze economic activities and force many otherwise legitimate businesses to move to the shadow economy in order to avoid arbitrary taxes. The law sets limits on the participation of government officials in private businesses. However, there are no effective enforcement mechanisms, and government officials can easily use their patronage and patrimonial networks to avoid direct involvement in business activities. A number of top policy makers directly or indirectly own or "patron" profitable businesses and have direct ties with the business community. Allegedly, members of the presidential family control or participate in numerous businesses. For example, according to the newspaper Moya Stolitsa the president's son-in-law, Adil Toigonbayev, has controlling stakes in more than a dozen businesses, including mass media, retail trade, entertainment, and aviation fuel trade. The same can be said of other members of the government and state bureaucracy.
In the late 1990s, with the help of international organizations, the government attempted to address the issue of corruption by preventing the participation of government officials in business activities. By law, parliamentarians and government officials may not use their public positions for private purposes. The law also obliges candidates for the legislature or elected state positions to disclose their incomes and private business interests. However, in practice these legal and ethical standards are not observed consistently.
Several corruption cases, publicized by investigative journalists, have never been brought to court. Moreover, the country has a strong and deeply rooted tradition of patronage and an invisible web of patrimonial relations and loyalties. In May 2002, President Akayev officially admitted that his son-in-law received without a tender a lucrative contract to supply the U.S. military's air base with gasoline.
In 1997 and 1998, the government launched major anticorruption campaigns and suspended the implementation of a new stage in the country's privatization program to streamline legal and administrative procedures against corruption. In 1999, President Akayev initiated a Law Against Corruption, which was debated in Parliament. In July 2000, the government also registered the foundation Journalists for an Effective Economy and Against Corruption, which established a 10-year action plan of exposing corruption in the country. Overall, though, the government's anticorruption campaign has been implemented arbitrarily and often has been used against the opposition.
There is a general recognition that corruption and red tape undermine business confidence and keep foreign and local investors at bay. They also force many legitimate businesses into the shadow economy. According to the National Statistics Committee, the shadow economy accounts for 13-40 percent of the gross domestic product.
In November 2001, the Legislative Assembly adopted a draft Law on a Simplified Taxation System for Small-Entrepreneurship Subjects. The law is designed to simplify the taxation system and to provide greater protection for small businesses against arbitrary taxation and random inspections. Since its passage, though, there reportedly have been inconsistencies in the law's enforcement. In August 2002, Prime Minister Tanayev formed a government commission to explore ways to legalize the country's shadow economy. However, even high-ranked government officials acknowledge that many earlier measures and campaigns have been, in the words of one former prime minister, "a total disaster."
The business community and self-employed persons complain that they are unable to conduct legitimate business and are forced to bribe dozens of officials at state agencies. Many contend that it is impossible to win state contracts without providing a regular share of the profits or a stake in the business to corrupt officials. In addition, the enforcement of regulations and payment of taxes remain very erratic and open to abuse.
Numerous complains to the media and to NGOs suggest that Kyrgyz citizens are forced to pay bribes for basic public services such as the processing of paperwork, passports, visas, and business licenses. For years there have been reports that people are able to buy various documents, permissions, or certificates, including diplomas and university degrees, directly from public officials. The situation is only slightly better in privatized educational institutions and medical centers, which generally provide services for a fixed fee.
Low salaries contribute to the problem. In 2002, average monthly salaries for civil servants ranged from 2,000 to 6,000 soms (US$42.50-$128). A sophisticated system of bribes and extortion flourishes, and civil servants routinely supplement their salaries through various forms of "gifts." There have been numerous reports about the sale of public positions, especially in such lucrative public service areas as customs and tax enforcements. Ordinary citizens, and especially entrepreneurs, confront a lack of respect for their property rights and increasing red tape and corruption in their everyday lives.
Some NGOs and independent mass media outlets make some effort to expose corruption and provide anticorruption education. For example, the organization Civil Society Against Corruption regularly launches campaigns to increase public awareness about citizens' rights and various means of fighting corruption. However, even widely publicized stories and complaints rarely lead to investigations.
There are no regular surveys of public sector corruption. Some Kyrgyz researchers privately admit that they refrain from conducting such surveys out of fear of retaliation by government officials. Some NGOs that focus their activities on increasing public awareness about corruption do conduct surveys and publicize their results. As result, people have started to bring more extortion before the courts.
In November 2002, the opposition newspaper Moya Stolitsa published the results of a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Public Opinion. The survey revealed that more than 42 percent of respondents declared high-ranking government officials were at the root of corruption in Kyrgyzstan. The respondents also believed that the most corrupt institutions in the country are the state customs control system (93 percent of respondents), the taxation office (92 percent), the police (90 percent), the tertiary education system (86 percent), the Ministry of Finance (70 percent), and the courts and judiciary (66 percent). Many respondents said that they personally faced corruption when they obtained public documents, purchased apartments, had their cars inspected, or appeared for court hearings.
In 1999, Transparency International ranked Kyrgyzstan 87th out of 99 countries surveyed, far behind China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. In 2001 and 2002, Kyrgyzstan was not included in Transparency's monitoring system.
The Kyrgyz governmental system was largely unstable during the period covered by this report. This could be seen in the lack of cooperation among various ministries and especially in the mismanagement of the Aksy crisis by law enforcement agencies. Additionally, there were several abrupt changes in the government in early 2002, followed by the resignation of the prime minister and whole government in May. Such radical changes had not been seen in many years. The new government led by Prime Minister Tanayev is considered weak and unstable, and there were expectations throughout the year of new dismissals and a heightened role for the military, police, and National Security Committee in the political life of Kyrgyzstan.
At the same time, though, Parliament exhibited its developing ability to balance the power of the executive by more effectively fulfilling its lawmaking and investigative responsibilities. Despite the fact that the legislature had been seriously undermined by regional rivalries in the past (locally referred to as the rivalry between "northern" and "southern" clans), in 2002 various fractions in Parliament were able to put aside their differences. Members of the Parliament have been quite successful in investigating the government's various missteps, including an examination in 2002 into the events in Aksy. On many occasions in 2002, members of Parliament sided with the opposition and set up independent commissions to review various government actions.
It was expected that Kyrgyzstan's legislature would strengthen its power vis-a-vis the executive branch under a constitutional referendum that was first scheduled in late 2002 (later postponed to February 2003). Between 1994 and 1996, a series of constitutional changes had weakened the legislature and disproportionately strengthened the power of the president. In 1994, a constitutional referendum replaced the 350-seat single-chamber Parliament with a 105-seat two-chamber body. In 1996, additional constitutional changes enhanced the power of the president at the expense of Parliament, giving him the power to appoint the prime minister and the heads of the Central Election Commission and the Central Bank.
Various revelations in 2000 and 2001 exposed the government's attempts to hide its actions from the public and the legislature, including the transfer of land to China and the land swap with Uzbekistan. Both deals provoked public outcry. Investigative journalists and members of the opposition contributed to a further expansion of transparency in 2002. Draft legislation is usually available to the public, and some debates in Parliament are televised. However, there is no clear-cut legislation on access to the information. In early 2002, the government attempted to increase secrecy and limit the public's access to information about government activities, but after the Aksy tragedy it refrained from such actions.
Local governments have gained power in recent years. The activities of local authorities and legislatures are regulated by the Law on Local Governance and Local State Administration in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, which was introduced in 1991 and modified in 1992, 1994, and 1998. Under the law, the president appoints oblast akims, or heads, and the leaders of the Bishkek state administration upon the recommendation of the prime minister and with the consent of the corresponding local keneshes (legislatures). However, an important step toward further decentralization was made in 2001, when direct elections of akims were conducted for the first time since independence. According to the opposition, though, these elections were neither free nor fair. Observers reported numerous cases of interference by local government officials in the voting process, manipulation of votes and ballots, and vote buying.
At present, there is limited decentralization at the oblast and raion levels. Local authorities have limited fiscal autonomy and power to carry out social and economic development projects within their budgets. They are also limited in their ability to impose fines and penalties within their jurisdiction, to protect the environment, and to raise additional revenues. Local executives are authorized to overrule most of the decisions of local keneshes, though the keneshes do have the right to call for a vote of no confidence in their respective heads of administration. Local governments also have their say on such issues as funding of non-Kyrgyz-language schools (Uzbek schools in the south; Russian, Uigur, and other schools in the north). In 2002, several draft laws were submitted to Parliament that if adopted would develop a better legal environment for local governments. The proposed legislation included a Law on Municipal Services in the Kyrgyz Republic and a Law on Financial and Economic Regulations of Local Self-Government.
Local governments, especially at the district and town levels, often lack the expertise and human resources to work effectively. Citizens regularly complain that local executives cannot address their needs and that civil servants lack adequate professional training to carry out their duties. Low salaries prevent the civil service from attracting young professionals and retaining the most experienced members of their staffs. Promotions often depend not on one's skills and abilities, but on connections. In addition, the civil service experiences some political interference, as civil servants are expected to be loyal to the president.