Nations in Transit
You are here
Democracy Score(1 = best, 7 = worst)
National Democratic Governance(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Electoral Process(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Society(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Independent Media(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Local Democratic Governance(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Judicial Framework and Independence(1 = best, 7 = worst)
Corruption(1 = best, 7 = worst)
There was great political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan in the first three months of 2005. Askar Akayev, the country's president since before independence, was ousted by widespread protests in the wake of the parliamentary elections. However, most of the members of Parliament, whose election sparked the social unrest, retained their mandates. The new leadership of former government officials now turned opposition leaders inherited the problems of growing poverty, corruption, the presence of "criminal elements" in the government, insecure borders, and a perceived gathering threat from Islamic fundamentalist groups. New president Kurmanbek Bakiyev promised sweeping reforms to address these concerns, but as 2005 ended, concrete actions were not much in evidence, leaving the situation in the country tenuous at best.
Since Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, many observers, especially in the West, have viewed the country as Central Asia's best hope for a democratic government. Western press generally portrayed the ouster of President Akayev in March 2005 as a positive step taken by a people tired of corruption and poor governance. But prior to the events of March, many of the same press outlets noted that Kyrgyzstan was, in terms of democracy, ahead of its neighbors. There were opposition parties and movements, opposition representatives were elected to the Parliament, people held demonstrations, and there was something of an independent media, though it found itself increasingly challenged. The country was poor, having little to export, but generally was peaceful.
As 2005 ended, the country remained poor, and protests and violence were rising, leading the International Crisis Group to release a report that Kyrgyzstan was becoming a "faltering state" and risked becoming "a failed state."
National Democratic Governance. With the change in leadership in March, the Parliament temporarily lost its voice. Kyrgyzstan already had a presidential form of government, but the president was forced to flee on March 24, leaving behind a Parliament packed with his supporters. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, prime minister from December 2000 to May 2002, led the opposition of the Kyrgyzstan's People's Movement and became acting president after Akayev's departure. Bakiyev was officially elected president in an early poll on July 10 and kept a promise to name another opposition leader--Feliks Kulov, chairman of the Ar-Namys party-to be prime minister. Both men were soon targets of protests. Three deputies were killed, and the Parliament voted to allow its members to carry firearms for personal protection. Evidence of criminal ties to officials in government emerged. The security situation in the southern part of the country deteriorated. Uzbekistan's internal problems once again spilled over into Kyrgyzstan. The new leadership promised changes, and discussion on these plans started. But the country was beset by problems after March, and even President Bakiyev said in early November that "we have to get down to the real economy, but instead we have been working like a rescue team since March." Kyrgyzstan's rating for national democratic governance remains at 6.00, as by year's end there was much talk about reforms and accountable government but little opportunity and very little progress toward fulfilling these pledges.
Electoral Process. Both parliamentary and presidential elections were held in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, in February-March and July, respectively. Suspicions that the parliamentary elections could be rigged appeared in January when the registration of candidates started. Several opposition figures were prevented from registering for residency reasons. Results showed that pro-presidential candidates (including two of President Akayev's children) won an overwhelming majority of the 75 seats in the Parliament. Protests that started before the elections against decisions to bar opposition candidates and perceived election fraud continued after the poll. On March 24, protesters stormed the president's building in the capital city of Bishkek, and President Akayev fled. Western media dubbed this the "Tulip Revolution," alluding to the 2003 "Rose Revolution" in Georgia and the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan People's Movement leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev became president, though only a few people selected him initially. International and domestic monitors judged the presidential election to be generally free and fair and an improvement over previous elections. Bakiyev needed a strong mandate at the polls to legitimize his sudden rise to power, but even international monitors questioned the nearly 89 percent of the vote he received running against five other candidates. Kyrgyzstan's rating for electoral process improves from 6.00 to 5.75 for presidential elections that international monitors agreed were an improvement over previous polls and laid solid foundations for future votes.
Civil Society. Civic protest, including disaffected voters, paid protesters, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and youth movements, played an important role in the changes of 2005. A campaign against foreign NGOs was under way as the year started but vanished after the events of March. NGOs helped organize rallies, both pro- and antigovernment, as did youth groups, notably KelKel, of which there were two: one opposition and the other pro-regime. Campaigns against suspect Muslim groups followed the same pattern. Members of the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir were detained in the first two months, but there were no reports of detentions after March. Neighboring Uzbekistan alleged that another Islamic group called Akramiya (whose existence some doubt) had established branches in Kyrgyzstan and set up terrorist training camps there, charges the Kyrgyz government denied. Since March, nearly all groups--NGOs, social movements and organizations, and suspect religious groups--have been unfettered in their activities. This probably reflects the number of pressing issues the new leadership was forced to confront rather than an introduction of more liberal policies. Kyrgyzstan's rating for civil society remains unchanged at 4.50 as the country continued to have the most vibrant civil society in Central Asia but at times seemed on the edge of anarchy.
Independent Media. The Kyrgyz independent media may be credited with starting events that led to the ouster of President Akayev. Articles about an alleged January secret meeting between Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev and governors and election officials to ensure that pro-Akayev candidates won seats in the Parliament helped create an atmosphere of mistrust among the electorate. Subsequent events seemed to bear out what the independent media were reporting. Harassment of independent media was evident prior to the February parliamentary elections. The independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa Novosti, which reported on the secret meeting, faced lawsuits from a pro-government newspaper at the start of the year. Following the change of power, the situation changed significantly. Previous pro-government media continued to be pro-government but switched to a more sympathetic view of opposition politicians, now the leaders of the country. Media that supported the previous opposition, people like Kurmanbek Bakiyev before he came to power, continued that support, thereby rendering most of the media in Kyrgyzstan effectively pro-government after March. There were no obstacles to reporting the numerous domestic and international problems that occurred after March 24. Kimmo Kiljunen, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) Election Observation Mission for the presidential elections, praised the role of the media the day after elections, saying they had allowed candidates to present their views. Bakiyev promised to eliminate state subsidies for the media, making all media in the country independent. By year's end, the media were starting to criticize Bakiyev and the government. If the economic situation in the country does not improve in 2006, Bakiyev and others may find themselves the targets of the same sort of disparaging press coverage that made political life difficult for their predecessors. Kyrgyzstan's rating for independent media remains at 5.75, although Bakiyev's pledge to support independent media and actual improvements in the safety and political and legal freedoms of journalists by year's end are first steps that may indicate an improving trend in 2006.
Local Democratic Governance. Local governance proved inept in 2005. Officials failed or refused to restrain demonstrators from holding unsanctioned protests, both before and after the events of March. The removal of the old regime left in place many local officials from that regime. There were serious breakdowns in law and order and little indication that authorities were able to cope, particularly in the southern part of the country. The degree of corruption in local governance was deep-rooted under President Akayev, and its current severity was only beginning to be understood toward the end of 2005. The government in Bishkek was beset by problems that demanded urgent action and did not have time to focus on problems of local governance or its officials. The new leadership promised to make amendments to the Constitution, including sections on local administration. But at year's end, the debate continued. President Bakiyev also appeared to waver on his pledge to implement constitutional reforms when he said in December that the amendments should be postponed for about four years. Despite stated intentions by the new government to amend laws and fight corruption, local governance was shown to be inept, sometimes unethical, and barely able to address the needs of constituencies; therefore the rating for local governance decreases from 5.75 to 6.25.
Judicial Framework and Independence. The court system was not as active in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections as it had been during the 2000 elections. The Central Election Commission (CEC) changed tactics in 2005 from charging opposition candidates to simply barring them from competing. However, CEC decisions were upheld when appealed through the courts--including the Supreme Court, which backed a decision barring former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva and other former ambassadors from running in parliamentary elections. The court system shifted with the change of power. Some officials from the Akayev government, including the CEC chairman, were brought to trial. The courts upheld decisions, stripping President Akayev's two children of their seats in the Parliament. Neither the president nor the prime minister was seen to be influencing the decisions of the courts. Despite an absence of evident pressure on the judiciary from the new leadership, the court system continued to render verdicts that were in line with the policies of the new authorities, so the rating for judicial framework and independence remains unchanged at 5.50.
Corruption. Corruption became the priority issue for the post-March 24 leadership once parliamentary deputies with alleged links to organized crime started to be killed. President Bakiyev addressed the Parliament in late September after a second legislator was killed and told the deputies that "the fact that criminal elements have merged with law enforcement agencies is not news to anybody. You all know this perfectly well, too. Among those sitting here are people who know perfectly well about it, who know who is connected to whom and how they are connected." However, even the Kyrgyz media started hinting that many of the people who came to power after the March unrest had links to criminal groups during preelection protests. Prison riots in October drew further links between members of the government and the criminal world. Also, many former officials, including former president Akayev and members of his family, were wanted for questioning about corruption before the events of March. Kyrgyzstan's rating for corruption remains unchanged at 6.00.
Outlook for 2006. The outlook for Kyrgyzstan in 2006 is not encouraging. Euphoria that accompanied the change of power in March 2005 cannot last if basic social problems, such as unemployment and poverty, do not show signs of improvement. The new government has as few resources to address these problems as the previous government, though some foreign governments restructured Kyrgyzstan's debt to alleviate strain on the country's finances. The depth of corruption and links between government and criminal organizations in the country were only just starting to become clear by year's end. Governments in neighboring Central Asian states were alarmed by the March unrest in Kyrgyzstan that chased longtime president Askar Akayev from power. These states do not want instability in Kyrgyzstan but have little reason to want Bakiyev's government to succeed, given that such an outcome might similarly inspire their own populations. Though parliamentary elections sparked the turmoil that led to Akayev's ouster, most of the deputies elected in the poll remained in the Parliament; however, there was a campaign to have that Parliament dissolved. Officials like former acting foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva did not receive positions in the new government after the presidential elections. Otunbayeva and her Ata-Jurt movement have said they will continue to be an opposition group. It was unclear at the end of 2005 just how much opposition they would provide to the new government. The problem of suspect Islamic fundamentalist groups is growing in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, with the government of neighboring Uzbekistan saying Islamic extremists were in the Kyrgyz part of the Fergana Valley. Authorities there have done nothing to address this situation.
Kyrgyzstan's original Constitution, written in 1993, enshrines the principles of democratic government. This is due in large part to the Kyrgyz government's willingness to accept advice from governments in the West while drafting the document. The policies of Askar Akayev, who inherited the leadership of his newly independent country, were liberal and enlightened relative to those of other governments that emerged in Central Asia during the same period.
But an ever increasing rift appeared between Akayev and the Soviet-era Parliament that still remains in Kyrgyzstan. The Parliament worked to strip power from the president's office and purposely held up Akayev's reform proposals. Two days before the new Constitution came into force (May 3, 1993), the Supreme Soviet voted to transfer the powers of the head of state from the president to the prime minister.
Akayev called for, and won, a referendum on confidence in the president as head of state in January 1994, but that didn't solve the problems. Deputies refused to attend sessions, saying the Parliament had become a house of intrigue. The government resigned in early September 1994, and when more than half the deputies boycotted a session of the Parliament, Akayev dissolved the body.
Referendums in October 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2003 changed more than half of the Constitution and transferred more power to the presidency. The system of checks and balances among the branches of power was drastically altered, and as a result, the Parliaments elected in 1995 and 2000 were much more compliant. The government became a clearly presidential state with a weak legislative branch and a subservient judiciary. Independent media outlets that criticized the government or government officials were brought to court on libel and slander charges, and several outlets were shut down. The right to freedom of assembly also suffered temporarily.
Demonstrations, some lasting months, were frequent in Kyrgyzstan in the last half of the 1990s. Groups demonstrated in support of opposition figures and the independent media outlets facing legal problems. But after protests during the 2000 parliamentary elections, restrictions were placed on the right to assemble and rally. Those rights were partially restored after the March 2002 protests in the southern Aksy district, when police opened fire on demonstrators supporting Senator Azimbek Beknazarov, who had been jailed in January of that year on charges of abuse of office while in a previous state post. At least five demonstrators were killed. Large protests followed against the authorities' apparent indifference and subsequent attempted cover-up, forcing out the government of then prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev in May 2002 and compelling the authorities to ease restrictions on the right to demonstrate.
In retrospect, those events of 2002 were a dress rehearsal for what would come in March 2005. President Akayev repeatedly pledged that he would not seek another term in the scheduled October 2005 presidential elections, which raised the stakes in the parliamentary elections for Akayev supporters in government.
Negative aspects of previous elections, such as registration obstacles for opposition candidates and pressure on voters in their workplaces and schools, reappeared at the start of 2005. Independent media reported on the "secret meeting" of Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev with governors and election officials to plan a strategy to ensure that Akayev loyalists would win an absolute majority in the Parliament, a meeting Tanayev denied ever took place. Opposition candidates who were able to register had problems meeting with voters and finding media outlets to spread their message to voters. Independent media outlets themselves encountered legal problems.
Isolated protests, mainly in support of individual candidates barred from the elections, gradually took on an anti-Akayev character. Prior to the poll, there was evidence that protests were spreading across the country and beginning to unify. The second round of elections was held in some 40 of the 75 districts on March 13. When results started to come in, it became clear that about 90 percent of the 75 seats in the Parliament went to people considered to be Akayev loyalists. Administration buildings were burned in southern parts of the country, major highways were blocked, and on March 24 a crowd stormed the president's building. An opposition made up mostly of former government officials, including Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Feliks Kulov (chairman of the Ar-Namys [Dignity] party and former Kyrgyz vice president, who was immediately freed from jail, where he had served four years of a combined 17 year sentence on charges of embezzlement and abuse of office), took power in the country. Few noticed in the euphoria at ousting Akayev that these opposition figures, now Kyrgyzstan's leaders, played a very small role in the events that led to the change of power. In other words, the crowds wanted Akayev out of office, but they did not take to the streets to put Bakiyev in power.
Bakiyev was named president in unclear circumstances. He attempted to bring the widespread protests under opposition control, but events happened too quickly for him or any other opposition figure to give the impression of actually directing the circumstances. For the first several hours after Akayev's departure, another opposition figure, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, was the country's new leader. A small group of opposition leaders apparently settled on Bakiyev as acting prime minister (constitutionally, Bakiyev could not be named acting president immediately). That decision was confirmed shortly thereafter by deputies in the new Parliament, many of whom at that time must have been questioning their own chances of political survival. The acting prime minister quickly, and constitutionally, filled the vacant office of the president.
The presidential poll scheduled for late October was moved forward, and Bakiyev was elected president on July 10, taking nearly 90 percent of the vote. His next closest competitor, in a field of six candidates, received less than 4 percent. The huge victory could be explained as the result of Bakiyev's pairing with Feliks Kulov. Some well-known opposition figures withdrew their candidacies, and many groups chose to throw their support behind the Bakiyev-Kulov team. Despite Bakiyev's victory, Kyrgyzstan's government was very shaky as 2005 came to an end. Most of the legislators remained the pro-Akayev candidates whose election helped spark the protests that ousted Akayev. These deputies kept a low profile in the months following the events of March, but they were reminded of their uncertain future by longtime opposition leader Topchubek Turgunaliyev, who started a campaign to collect signatures to call for a referendum on dissolving the Parliament.
It would be difficult to judge the performance of these deputies since they haven't had much opportunity to look at the longer-term business of government. Protesting did not stop in Kyrgyzstan after the events of March, and Bishkek hardly saw a day of peace for the rest of the year. In June, supporters of businessman Urmat Baryktabasov, who was barred from competing in the presidential elections, tried to storm the government building. Authorities later claimed it was an attempted coup and that the organizers of the demonstration planned to kill several of the new government officials. During an inspection of a prison facility outside Bishkek in October, parliamentarian Tynychbek Akmatbayev was killed in a riot. Though evidence showed Akmatbayev was killed with a gun taken from one of his bodyguards, protesters led by Akmatbayev's brother, Ryspek, demonstrated in Bishkek. They demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Kulov, whom they held responsible for the deputy's death. A special parliamentary commission ruled in early December that Kulov was not involved.
The events surrounding Akmatbayev's death and the assassination of two other members of Parliament (in June and September) established links between parliamentarians and organized criminal groups. In late September, following the murder of Deputy Bayaman Erkinbayev, President Bakiyev addressed the Parliament and said it was clear that law enforcement agencies and organized criminal groups had "become merged." He said there were deputies present at that emergency session of the Parliament who also had links to these criminal groups.
It was therefore difficult to glean a clear picture of the government's posture toward basic rights and civil liberties. There was debate in the Parliament (October-November) about placing a temporary ban on public demonstrations. Independent media worked unfettered after the event of March, possibly owing to the authorities' focus on the urgent issues already mentioned. But some media reports linked criminal groups and members of the new government, claiming these officials were indebted to criminal organizations for helping to organize or fund protests that ousted Akayev. In late September, Bakiyev's press service released a statement reading, "Some media outlets have recently launched a new round of propaganda to discredit the new authorities, which is openly timed to coincide with the formation of a new government." It continued, "The strategy of this PR campaign is not being concealed: it is aimed at accusing high-ranking officials and the president of corruption, links to the criminal world, involvement in some high-profile murders, and splitting the ranks of the revolutionaries by blaming some of them of betrayal and abandonment of the interests of the people's revolution of March." The statement concluded that Akayev loyalists were fueling this "PR campaign," but it also indicated the growing frustration of the president at the ability of Kyrgyzstan's media to report anything they wanted.
With all the problems in Bishkek, it may not have been surprising that to the south, in Kyrgyzstan's section of the Fergana Valley, there were increasing problems maintaining order. Murdered deputy Erkinbayev was involved in a "turf war" over the lucrative Kara-Suu bazaar near Kyrgyzstan's next largest city Osh. Media speculation linked Erkinbayev's assassination to that dispute. Less than three weeks before Erkinbayev's murder in September, the acting director of the Kara-Suu bazaar, Abdalim Junusov, was shot dead in his home. There were several riots at the bazaar prior to those killings.
That was not the biggest problem the new Kyrgyz leadership had in the Fergana Valley in 2005. In May, hundreds of Uzbek refugees streamed across the border to escape violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. The Uzbek government pressed hard to have all the refugees sent back, particularly as Uzbek authorities claimed that among those refugees were some of the people responsible for starting the violence in the Andijan area. Rights groups, including the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), pressed just as hard for Kyrgyz authorities not to send the refugees back to Uzbekistan.
Later, Uzbekistan accused Kyrgyz authorities of being too tolerant toward Islamic extremists. In September, Uzbekistan's prosecutor general said the "terrorists" involved in the Andijan violence trained at secret camps in Kyrgyzstan and received weapons there. When the first trials of Andijan "terrorists" were held in Uzbekistan in late September, 3 of the 15 defendants were citizens of Kyrgyzstan. Some of their testimony, greatly questioned by international rights groups, claimed they had received training, weapons, and money in Kyrgyzstan and that their extremist group had a branch in Osh. Kyrgyz officials denied this, but some media, including Kyrgyz media, were already warning about the growing problem with radical Islamic groups in the Kyrgyz section of the Fergana Valley.
As part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) along with Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan was put at the center of a controversy in July. The SCO demanded that the U.S.-led coalition operating in Afghanistan set a date for withdrawing from Central Asian countries where they were using military bases. One of those bases is at Manas airport, Bishkek's international airport. Another of those bases was at Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan. After the SCO summit, the Uzbek government, smarting over U.S. criticism of the Andijan events, ordered those coalition troops off its territory. By the end of 2005, operations from the last base in Tajikistan were scaling down, leaving the Manas air base (called Ganci by coalition troops) as the only significant coalition base in Central Asia and the center of the dispute between the SCO and the U.S.-led coalition. President Bakiyev said in December that Kyrgyzstan would raise the $2 million-per-year rent for coalition use of the Manas base by 100 times.
On November 24, a two-day conference was held on constitutional reforms. The conference was organized by the Kyrgyz Office of the President, the Kyrgyz Parliament, the Venice Commission, the United Nations Development Program, and the OSCE/ODIHR. A 289-member Constitutional Conference was already at work since after the events of March, but reports at year's end indicated there were at least nine versions of the amendments. President Bakiyev, who initially championed the idea of constitutional reforms, changed his stance in December, calling for putting the matter off until 2009. Bakiyev wanted to push forward with economic reforms and said, "The existing Constitution was adopted two years ago, and it is early to say that this Constitution is bad."
Compared with its Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has held the most democratic elections since all became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But international observers such as the OSCE/ODIHR have never judged any of the country's elections as meeting international democratic standards. Referendums in Kyrgyzstan increased the power of the executive branch and transformed the Parliament from the unicameral Supreme Soviet to a bicameral legislature (1995 and 2000) and then back into a unicameral body again in 2005. Though a handful of opposition figures won seats in the Parliament in 1995 and 2000, they were a minority in a body that was rarely able to influence presidential decisions. The new leadership of Kyrgyzstan vowed to carry out constitutional reforms to better distribute power among the government branches and provide for free and fair elections.
As the year started, there were more than 40 registered political parties and movements in Kyrgyzstan (more than in all the rest of Central Asia), but only about one-third of these were active. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, many of the problems international rights groups complained about during previous polls were again evident. One of the first indications that the parliamentary election might not be free and fair came on January 6. Roza Otunbayeva, former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and founder one month earlier of the opposition Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) movement, attempted to register as a candidate in a Bishkek district. Otunbayeva was registered, then just hours later her registration was revoked. The reason given was the constitutional requirement, approved in the 2003 referendum, that anyone wishing to compete in public elections must have "permanently resided in the Republic for no less than 5 years prior to the election." Otunbayeva had worked as the assistant special representative of the UN secretary-general to Georgia (in Abkhazia) in 2002-2003. Adding to suspicion over the decision was the fact that the district in which the popular Otunbayeva wished to run was the same district where Bermet Akayeva, daughter of President Akayev, was a candidate. Other former ambassadors, recently returned and also intending to compete in elections, were refused on the same grounds.
A campaign sideshow developed as the Legislative Assembly (lower house of the Parliament) debated the restriction. On January 18, an amendment to lift the residency restriction failed to pass for lack of a quorum but succeeded two days later. Yet on January 26, presidential press secretary Abdil Segizbayev said the Legislative Assembly broke procedure and that the names of several lawmakers who were not present during the vote appeared on the list of those backing the bill. The same day, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Abdygany Erkebayev, said the deputies should not have voted on the bill two days after it failed to pass, citing a recently passed law stating that a bill rejected by deputies cannot be reconsidered for six months. Central Election Commission chairman Sulaiman Imanbayev echoed Erkebayev's comments two days later, also criticizing Erkebayev for allowing the second vote to take place. In the end, none of the former ambassadors were allowed to run.
On January 18, Edil Baisalov, president of the NGO For Democracy and Civil Society, complained about the selection of people for district election commissions. Baisalov said representatives of two pro-government parties-Alga Kyrgyzstan (Bermet Akayeva's party) and Adilet-dominated the leadership of district commissions.
Other opposition candidates were denied registration or had problems getting registered. On February 22, some 3,000 people in the village of Kochkor (Naryn province) protested a decision barring two opposition candidates by blocking the highway. The same day in the northeastern Issyk-Kul province, some 2,500 protesters blocked the road to protest the refusal to register two popular candidates running in separate districts (Tong and Tyup). Also that day, police in Osh closed down the local campaign headquarters of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and about 500 protesters turned out to demonstrate. Except for a brief lifting of the blockade in Naryn province, the roads stayed blocked through the elections. The poll couldn't be held in one of the Issyk-Kul districts because of the protests.
The day after elections, the OSCE Election Observation Mission released its preliminary report finding that "these elections were more competitive than previous ones, but sadly this was undermined by vote buying, de-registration of candidates, interference with media, and a worryingly low confidence in judicial and electoral institutions on the part of voters and candidates." That day in the southern Osh province, there were protests in the Nooken district involving some 4,000 people and another demonstration in the Aravan district involving some 5,000 people. All through March, protests spread through the country and local administration buildings were seized and occupied by protesters, but there appeared to be little, if any, coordination of these events by opposition leaders until the very end.
The unrest culminated in the events of March 24. Kurmanbek Bakiyev was named acting prime minister the next day. Ar-Namys leader Feliks Kulov, once seen as Akayev's strongest challenger and jailed on corruption charges in 2000, was freed from prison and joined the new government. At first Kulov, a longtime Interior Ministry official, worked to rein in the lawlessness that gripped parts of Bishkek in the wake of Akayev's ouster. Kulov and Bakiyev agreed not to compete with each other but instead formed a "tandem" that lasted through the year. Despite reports in the Kyrgyz media in the last months of 2005 that the two were growing apart, both Bakiyev and Kulov continued to deny there were any serious differences between them.
The events of March necessitated a new presidential election, so the already scheduled October poll was moved forward to July 10. Given the events of March, Bakiyev needed, and received, an overwhelming mandate from voters to remain head of state. Of the roughly 75 percent of voters who cast ballots, nearly 89 percent voted for Bakiyev, assuring his formal legitimacy. The OSCE preliminary assessment of that poll said it made "tangible progress." But it continued that while the poll was "for the most part free of serious problems&the quality of the process deteriorated during the vote-counting and the results-tabulation phases." Some politicians inside and outside Kyrgyzstan also questioned such a landslide victory.
Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has exhibited the most vibrant civil society among all Central Asian states. The events of March 2005 demonstrated how active social organizations are in the country. NGOs played key roles in the events leading up to March 24 and continued to do so throughout the year. These groups represented widely divergent points of view.
As with political parties in Kyrgyzstan, there were both pro-government and opposition NGOs and social groups prior to the events of March. Kyrgyzstan's laws ban extremist or intolerant NGOs. The country is mainly Muslim but still has a sizable Eastern Orthodox population despite the emigration of many thousands of Slavic peoples since 1991. Kyrgyzstan is also home to more than 80 ethnic groups, and a strong clan system still exists.
There is evidence of a growing presence of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the southern provinces. There were incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan by militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summers of 1999 and 2000, but the group's goal was the overthrow of the Uzbek government. The area around Osh, in particular, seemed to be increasingly frequented by suspect Islamic groups. The group Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example, is banned across Central Asia. Thousands of alleged members are in Uzbekistan's prisons, hundreds in Tajikistan's, and some in Kazakhstan's and Kyrgyzstan's. But the Kyrgyzstan ombudsman, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, has called for legalizing and registering the group, a fact that explains why, allegedly, some of the group distributed Bakir Uulu campaign leaflets prior to the presidential elections.
Toward the end of the year, there was a campaign by a group called the Headquarters for the Protection of the State Language to strip Russian of its official status in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government under Akayev had made great efforts to convince the Slavic population not to leave the country, which is one of the reasons the Russian language enjoyed such a privileged status. President Bakiyev spoke out against any change to the language's status.
It was not difficult for most opposition social groups to be registered under Akayev. NGOs and nonprofit groups are limited more by finances than by government interference. Also, as is true with Kyrgyzstan's political organizations, the sheer number of NGOs prevents any one organization from gaining much influence. Foreign NGOs obviously have a financial advantage here, but after the "colored revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine, in which foreign NGOs were alleged to have played key roles, foreign NGOs in Kyrgyzstan were under suspicion at the start of 2005. As was equally true in Georgia and Ukraine with the so-called revolutions, in Kyrgyzstan those who came to power seemed to share that view and did nothing to obstruct the work of these outside groups.
The legal rights of such groups also seemed to be fairly well protected. The court systems have been used against opposition figures and independent media, but rarely has an NGO or nonprofit group come before the courts.
The independent media were possibly the biggest facilitators of the events of March, publishing widely read reports on Prime Minister Tanayev's alleged secret meeting and news about the problems faced by opposition candidates. President Bakiyev campaigned on ending state subsidies to media and making all media outlets in the country independent. Modest steps toward that goal were made at the end of 2005, but there were signs that the new authorities would be no more patient toward some reporting than the previous regime.
The line between the former pro-government media and those outlets considered independent was blurred after the events of March. The pro-government media continued to produce positive stories about matters of state, except now the leadership was the former opposition, who were already supported, generally speaking, by the country's independent media.
In the first weeks after the events of March, the euphoria among the people influenced the way the country's media treated stories. For state media, that meant the rioters and unruly protesters of days before were suddenly patriots ousting an unpopular regime. Opposition media naturally trumpeted the success of the opposition in a long struggle against an unfair and corrupt government.
The new leadership has had no time to bask in its surprising success. The violence in Uzbekistan's eastern city of Andijan and the refugee problem that followed strained ties between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. International condemnation of the Uzbek government's methods of restoring order in Andijan helped earn refugee status from the UNHCR for many of those who fled Andijan. In late July, amid objections and criticism from the Uzbek government, the UNHCR oversaw the evacuation of 439 refugees to Romania. In September, Uzbek deputy prosecutor general Anvar Nabiyev accused Kyrgyz authorities of showing too much tolerance toward extremist organizations.
When three members of Parliament were murdered, allegations of criminal ties to government surfaced and were further supported by the October prison riots. Protests and demonstrations continued after the events of March, some demanding the dismissal of government officials, some calling for dismissed officials to be reinstated, some calling for access to land, and others demanding that the murders of state and local officials and businessmen be solved.
Kyrgyz media reported on all these issues, and by September the reporting of some media outlets had aggravated the new president. The president's press office released a statement saying that "some media outlets have recently launched a new round of propaganda to discredit the new authorities, which is openly timed to coincide with the formation of a new government." The statement blamed Akayev loyalists, saying that "the supporters of the previous regime can't resign themselves to the convincing victory of the new democratic forces in the presidential elections and the process of political reform nearing its logical completion, and therefore they are making another desperate attempt to destabilize the situation in the country."
In early December, some 20 people entered the independent television station Pyramida, claiming they were the new owners and had plans to switch the station's format from news and information to purely entertainment. The station had aired critical reports about Bakiyev and the Kyrgyz government. Human rights activisits and parliamentary deputy Kabai Karabekov led a group of some 100 people to chase out the intruding group. Days later, Bakiyev ordered an investigation into the affair.
Kyrgyzstan's new leadership is therefore faced with the same problem Akayev's regime had--how much media criticism is too much? At what point does it so undermine confidence in government officials or hurt state policy that measures must be taken? Bakiyev wants a country with a 100 percent independent media, but recent examples of corruption in government and ties to organized crime raise suspicions about who would have the money to finance independent media outlets and how they might use such a resource to promote their own interests. The Kyrgyz leadership is aware of the Russian government's experience with businessmen such as Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who the Kremlin claimed were using their media outlets to further their personal political interests.
By the end of 2005, the Kyrgyz government was in no position to relinquish all controls over the media established under Akayev. Still, Bakiyev did make an effort to start the process when he ordered the privatization of state newspapers Kyrgyz Tusuu and Slovo Kyrgyzstana and several local newspapers in December. However, the government may still be forced to start imposing Akayev-era restrictions and censorship on the media to prevent losing support and risking more civil unrest.
Use of the Internet continued to be restricted by finances and access more than by any conscious effort of authorities to curtail or monitor the medium. Large cities in Kyrgyzstan have Internet cafés, and their charges, at least in Bishkek, were reportedly dropping. It was also possible to secure Internet connections in homes, with some providers offering a monthly pass costing the equivalent of US$10 for Internet access between 6:00 p.m and 8:00 a.m. NGOs have also been providing free Internet access, especially to students.
Though the government does not monitor Internet sites, this is partly because of a lack of funds for such a special service. Internet users in Kyrgyzstan have wide access to Web sites and at the end of 2005 could, if they wished, visit pro-Akayev Web sites. However, most of the population is rurally based and does not have the money, or often the electricity, to make use of the Internet, even if they could afford a computer.
The Kyrgyz Constitution provides only the most basic guidelines for local governance. Only two articles (76 and 77) deal with "local state administration." Local administrations are naturally bound to uphold the country's Constitution, though the heads of these administrations, whether they are governors or akims (mayors), are not elected but usually chosen for their loyalty to the president or because they can obey orders from the capital. Kyrgyzstan is more than 90 percent mountainous, and communications among regions, especially between north and south, are not good. Therefore, local officials not only have to be trustworthy, they must be able to react to problems quickly and independently, as help may be a long time coming.
In the run-up to parliamentary elections, it was clear that links between the capital and regions and towns had broken down. Local officials simply allowed unsanctioned protests to happen, and in cases where crowds stormed local administration buildings, officials fled the area if they could (some in the south were briefly held by demonstrators).
The slaying of Deputy Bayaman Erkinbayev in September demonstrated the links between criminal figures and some local politicians. Erkinbayev had large interests in the Kara-Suu bazaar and owned a hotel in Osh. He was a member of Parliament from the area and would be expected to be well acquainted with the local officials there. The latter obviously turned a blind eye to Erkinbayev's business dealings.
The new government has not had the opportunity to address problems with local governance; in fact, most of the officials placed by President Akayev remained at their posts during 2005 under President Bakiyev. Changes at the provincial and local levels seemed inevitable at the end of 2005, but the new government was officially sworn into office only on December 20.
As 2005 drew to a close, the new leadership stated its intention to radically amend the Constitution and change the balance of power gradually from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government and hopefully embrace a truly independent judiciary. In reality, however, the country continued to operate under the legal guidelines of the previous regime.
According to the Constitution, the judicial branch of government is independent. In actuality, it has almost always worked in favor of the authorities, both during Akayev's period as president and through the end of 2005 under Bakiyev and his government.
Under former president Akayev, the judicial system was the primary means of silencing government critics. Though it is constitutionally a separate branch of government, in practice its decisions seemed to support the administration. Opposition politicians, journalists, and newspapers were often fined, jailed, or shut down. The man who became prime minister after the events of March, Feliks Kulov, also seen as Akayev's leading challenger, was in jail serving a lengthy prison term for abuse of office when Akayev was chased from power. The opposition newspaper Moya Stolitsa Novosti was facing four lawsuits during the campaigning for parliamentary elections, one of them filed by President Akayev. Former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva was barred from competing in the February-March parliamentary election and took her appeal unsuccessfully all the way to the Supreme Court.
After the events of March, the court system switched sides. Former opposition figures, now the country's leaders, were acquitted of past convictions. An appeal by Bermet Akayeva to regain her lost seat in the Parliament was rejected. A warrant was put out for the arrest of her husband, Adil Toigonbayev, a citizen also of Kazakhstan, who was in charge of supplying the U.S.-led coalition base at Manas with fuel. Kyrgyz prosecutors alleged that he embezzled much of the money made from this deal. An investigation was launched against Aidar Akayev, son of the former president and MP, and there was a move among some former opposition politicians, notably former acting prosecutor general Azimbek Beknazarov, to lift Akayev's constitutional immunity from investigation or prosecution.
On December 18, Kyrgyzstan's Kabar news agency reported that the Office of the Prosecutor General had documents showing that Akayev, his family, and his friends stole some 400 million som and US$20.2 million from the state. Former prime minister Tanayev returned to Kyrgyzstan on August 22 to answer questions, was caught trying to cross the border into Kazakhstan in early September, and was placed under house arrest "at night" in Bishkek. He may also face charges despite what he claims were guarantees made ahead of his return that he would not be put on trial or imprisoned. Notably, the former chairman of the CEC, Sulaiman Imanbayev, was acquitted of charges of abuse of office in November.
Corruption has always been one of Kyrgyzstan's biggest problems, but the change in power in March brought the issue out into the open. The killing of the three parliamentary deputies with alleged ties to criminal organizations highlighted the problem. Connections between state officials and such criminal organizations became impossible to ignore or deny. Following the killing of Bayaman Erkinbayev, the second deputy murdered in 2005, President Bakiyev told a session of the Parliament there was ample evidence to suggest that many of the lawmakers were tied to criminal groups. In late November, National Security Service chief Tashtemir Aitbayev alleged Erkinbayev's murder was connected to narcotics trafficking.
More disturbing were the stories appearing in the media that some in the new leadership were also tied to criminal groups. Stories emerged that the events of March were partially funded by criminal groups, or at least that some underworld figures used their local influence to start or support protests in their regions. The number of people at demonstrations--who were obviously paid protesters, at times bused in from other areas of the country both before and after the events of March--could be seen as supporting such accusations.
President Bakiyev denied having any such ties, and no stories about government-criminal relations ever mentioned Bakiyev. But the deaths of the deputies and comments like that made by Ramazan Dyryldayev from the Kyrgyz Human Rights Commission--that criminal groups in the country supported the events of March in return for Kyrgyzstan's aluminum and gold reserves--focused attention on a government that already was dealing with an overload of priority tasks.
The killing of Deputy Tynychbek Akmatbayev during a prison riot in October brought an entirely new side of systemic corruption to light. The riot at the Moldovanka prison spread to other penitentiaries, thanks to inmates having access to cell phones and e-mail. At Moldovanka, the authorities inexplicably ordered all guards and other staff to leave the facility. Interior Ministry troops and police ringed the prison for more than a day before guards returned. Not unexpectedly, prisoners took the opportunity presented by the absence of any law enforcement officials to arm themselves, and this required a forceful and deadly reentry into the prison by guards.
It then came to light that one notorious criminal incarcerated in that prison occupied 16 rooms on the top floors and that his opulent lifestyle and ability to continue his illegal dealings was little affected by being imprisoned.
The new government necessarily started to address the issue. On October 22, President Bakiyev signed a decree creating a National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and a National Council for the Struggle Against Corruption. But the new Kyrgyz authorities were still trying to uncover the corruption of the previous regime, investigating former president Akayev and his family and friends, while at the same time being forced to confront the fact that some of the new government officials were also involved in illegal activity.
The publicity around these events had a trickle-down effect. In early December, highway police went on strike over alleged corruption by their boss, Raimkul Kasymbek. Kasymbek responded that it was the highway police who were corrupt and merely angry at his recent introduction of a limit on how long police could stop minivans making the long runs between cities. Kasymbek said his insistence that such document checks be done quickly prevented highway police from having sufficient time to collect bribes.