Nations in Transit

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

Nations in Transit 2013

2013 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.96

Regime Classification

Semi - Consolidated Authoritarian Regime

National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.50

Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.50

Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.75

Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.25

Local Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.25

Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.25

Corruption
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6.25

PDF versionPDF version

Capital: Bishkek
Population: 5.5 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$2,200

Source: The data above are drawn from The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2013.

 

* Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.

Executive Summary: 

Over the past decade, Kyrgyzstan has seen the return of authoritarianism and weathered two violent regime changes. In March 2005 opposition groups ousted President Askar Akayev, accusing him of centralizing political power and concentrating control over economic resources in his own hands. In April 2010 Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was forced to flee the country because of his ruthless suppression of opposition voices and even greater levels of corruption within his regime. To prevent the emergence of another dictator, the leaders of the post-Bakiyev interim administration designed a new constitution that increased the parliament’s powers and limits presidents to a single six-year term. In 2010–11 Kyrgyzstan held its first genuinely competitive parliamentary and presidential elections, becoming the first country in Central Asia to transfer political power by means of elections.

Despite initial concerns about its viability, Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary system has functioned for over two years with relative calm. President Almazbek Atambayev has displayed a tendency to try to consolidate power, and in 2012 he secured the appointment of a loyalist, Jantoro Satybaldiyev, as prime minister; the parliament speaker since 2011, Asilbek Jeenbekov, is a member of the president’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). Nevertheless, the parliament remains strong and represents all of the country’s most powerful political forces. The president is particularly challenged by the opposition Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party, whose leader, Kamchybek Tashiyev, organized protests in Bishkek in early October and demanded Atambayev’s resignation on the grounds that he had failed to nationalize the country’s largest gold mine, Kumtor. Tashiyev was placed under arrest, and other members of parliament (MPs) criticized him for instigating unrest without first exhausting all available peaceful means for challenging the president.

During the first two years under the new constitution, the parliament produced four different ruling coalitions. The most recent reorganization occurred in August 2012, when Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov resigned amid accusations of corruption and inefficient economic policies. The subsequent coalition included the SDPK, Ar-Namys (Dignity), and Ata-Meken (Motherland), with Babanov’s Respublika party joining Ata-Jurt in the parliamentary opposition.

It remains to be seen whether Kyrgyzstan’s new decentralized political system will lead to better governance, more consolidated democratic institutions, and better economic policies. As of late 2012, economic growth continued to be sluggish, and government reforms were moving slowly. At the same time, although many MPs still put their individual interests ahead of those of their constituents and form alliances based on patronage networks, parliamentary debates have become more consistent and substantive.

The country is split along regional lines, with a more politically liberal north—featuring a high concentration of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets in the capital, Bishkek—and a southern region where local governments pursue nationalistic policies that discriminate against ethnic minorities.

MPs and government officials from all factions have generally avoided addressing the issues of ethnic equality and human rights. For example, the perpetrators of the June 2010 ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, which took the lives of nearly 470 people, predominantly ethnic Uzbeks, still have not been brought to justice. Using foreign donor funds, a number of Kyrgyz NGOs have conducted their own investigations into the violence, alleging that the police and armed forces distributed weapons to the ethnic Kyrgyz population and failed to protect ethnic Uzbeks. Uzbeks are not represented in the local governments of southern Kyrgyzstan and are scarcely represented at the national level, although some attempts to restore Uzbek-language media were made during 2012, mostly with the support of international donors.

Local governments gained independence from the national authorities in 2012 thanks to competitive elections for local councils. The SDPK and Respublika performed well in the balloting in March and November, though they faced strong challenges from local parties. In Osh the national parties were outpolled by controversial mayor Melis Myrzakmatov’s nationalist Uluttar Birimdigi (Unity of Ethnicities) party. In Bishkek they contended with a smaller party called Zamandash (Contemporary).

Kyrgyzstan’s civil society sector continues to diversify and expand its reach to vulnerable groups, while the growing number of online media outlets and newspapers offer a greater range of views. However, most of these positive developments take place in Bishkek, whereas access to media outlets and NGO activity is still limited in rural areas. Furthermore, the prosecution of Vladimir Farafonov, an ethnic Russian journalist, demonstrated in 2012 that justice is selective and tends to protect the ethnic majority. Farafonov was accused of politically motivated extremism after he published a series of articles that criticized rising Kyrgyz nationalism in the media and politics. None of the many journalists openly promoting the dominance of ethnic Kyrgyz or inciting hatred against minority groups in the aftermath of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 has ever been arrested for similar charges.

National Democratic Governance.  Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has been able to function under the new constitution for over two years. The country’s political system remains decentralized and competitive. In 2012 the parliament demonstrated that it is able to hold meaningful political debates around issues of national concern. However, in a sign that power may again be concentrating in the executive branch, President Almazbek Atambayev secured the election of a loyal prime minster, while opposition MPs were selectively prosecuted for alleged corruption. Kyrgyzstan’s rating for national democratic governance remains unchanged at 6.50.

Electoral Process.  Elections for local councils were held throughout country in March and November 2012. The balloting was inclusive and highly competitive, continuing the trend set during parliamentary elections in 2010 and the presidential election in 2011, though several parties complained of widespread irregularities on election day. In some parts of the country, local parties prevailed over those represented in the parliament. The competition among national and local parties was particularly fierce in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan’s rating for electoral process remains unchanged at 5.50.

Civil Society.  Kyrgyzstan’s civil society operates for the most part without political pressure, and although mutual distrust remains a problem, NGOs, MPs, and government officials frequently find areas for cooperation. In 2012 NGOs played an active role in designing police reforms, investigating crimes committed by army and police personnel during the Osh violence in 2010, and lobbying the legislature to crack down on the kidnapping of women for marriage. Civil society organizations continue to depend heavily on foreign funding, and most activity is concentrated in the capital. Activists encounter greater challenges in the southern parts of the country. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan’s rating for civil society remains unchanged at 4.75.

Independent Media.  Kyrgyzstan’s mass media remain mostly free from government control, though public media tend to portray the president in a neutral or positive light. A growing number of people are gaining access to the internet, including through mobile devices. While online content is not censored, the authorities have announced plans to restrict access to unspecified “extremist” websites. In July 2012, ethnic Russian journalist Vladimir Farafonov was convicted and fined for inciting ethnic hatred through his online articles. Following the shutdown of Uzbek-language mass media outlets in 2010, at least one radio station and several local newspapers in the southern parts of the country have begun to publish their content in Uzbek. Urban populations continue to enjoy greater access to mass media than those living in rural areas. Kyrgyzstan’s rating for independent media remains unchanged at 6.25.

Local Democratic Governance.  The competitive local elections throughout the country in 2012 showed that earlier reforms have strengthened local government institutions, increasing their independence from the national authorities. Several new local parties emerged to compete in the elections, some of which were able to gain significant support among voters. Despite these gains, the quality of local governance remains poor in many places. Local authorities are rarely subject to media scrutiny and typically unaccustomed to consultation with civil society. The powerful mayor of Osh continues to rule with the assistance of an informal private security force. Kyrgyzstan’s rating for local democratic governance improves from 6.50 to 6.25.

Judicial Framework and Independence.  Kyrgyzstan has launched several efforts to reform the judicial sector and law enforcement bodies. NGOs and experts with various backgrounds participate in the process. However, progress has been slow. Some judges elected to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court by a special committee composed of MPs and NGO representatives have dubious credentials and might be allied with political forces. The judicial system still has not provided justice to the victims of ethnic violence in 2010. Kyrgyzstan’s rating for judicial framework and independence remains unchanged at 6.25.

Corruption.  President Atambayev announced a new anticorruption campaign in 2012. He pledged that no one in the country would be immune from prosecution, including members of his own party. Some progress has been made in improving the work of the financial police. In practice, however, most prosecutions for corruption have been selective and targeted opposition MPs. Kyrgyzstan’s rating for corruption remains unchanged at 6.25.

Outlook for 2013.  The main question for Kyrgyzstan in 2013 is whether the parliament, government, and president will be able to collaborate effectively without challenging one another’s constitutionally allocated powers or allowing the concentration of power in one person’s hands. To date, all branches of government have withstood efforts to increase or reduce their authority despite multiple changes in the composition of the governing coalition and the cabinet. Meanwhile, the parliament has learned how to conduct debates on policy issues and seek broad compromises.

The country’s stability in 2013 will largely depend on the ability of elected officials to design viable economic policies. Specifically, if the government fails to deal with issues of energy and food security faced by the majority of the population, it is likely to face new mass protests, both spontaneous and organized by opposition leaders. Kyrgyzstan will also be tested as to whether its decentralized political system can produce good governance, and whether the current leadership can advance law enforcement reforms that began in 2010.

The political process in Kyrgyzstan has often been delayed by political and personal bickering between MPs and government officials. In the best-case scenario for the remainder of the parliament’s current five-year term, the chamber will develop more stable political alliances. In the worst case, the president could dissolve the parliament for failing to form or sustain a ruling coalition and government.

National Democratic Governance: 

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has functioned under the new constitution for over two years. Following the October 2011 presidential election, the parliament formed a new ruling coalition that included four of the five parties represented in the chamber. Ata-Jurt, the largest faction, was pushed into opposition. This enlarged coalition made it easier for the government to pass legislation. Following the ouster of Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov in August 2012, his Respublika party left the government, joining Ata-Jurt in the opposition. Meanwhile, President Almazbek Atambayev was able to strengthen his hand by supporting the parliament in replacing the powerful and popular Babanov with the loyal and weak Jantoro Satybaldiyev, the president’s former chief of staff.

The parliament demonstrated during 2012 that it could conduct meaningful political debates around issues of national concern. However, these debates often lack an ideological foundation, and members of parliament (MPs) rarely display in-depth knowledge of the issue under discussion. Still, they are becoming accustomed to public oversight and mass media coverage of their work.[1] A number of MPs have introduced legislative initiatives to fight corruption, improve the business climate, and promote social justice in the country. Since most lawmakers are more concerned with maintaining voter support in their parties’ regional strongholds, they tend to focus on local issues or procedural matters, as opposed to representing nationwide interests.[2]

The parliament ostensibly forced Babanov’s resignation in August for alleged corruption and poor economic performance. However, the underlying reasons for the move were personal disagreements between Babanov and a number of MPs and his growing popularity, particularly among Bishkek residents.[3] As prime minister, he received more frequent media coverage than Atambayev and was regarded as a reformer. Some MPs reportedly did not like Babanov and preferred to keep Respublika outside the ruling coalition. Moreover, with the help of his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), the president convinced the parliament to ensure that he becomes the only decision maker on the course of foreign policy. The president also actively backed the SDPK in local elections in March and November. Despite these moves, Atambayev has not yet matched his predecessors in their zeal and ability to centralize political control in the presidency.

With the president strengthening his own powers, all parties except the SDPK have suffered internal splits. To a large extent, this is a consequence of the fact that they are not built on—or held together by—shared values and ideologies. In moves that were seen mostly as indicators of intraparty divisions, both Ata-Jurt and Ar-Namys voted to replace their leaders in 2012. Furthermore, some MPs elected with Ata-Meken and Respublika have resigned their party membership. However, the current constitution is unclear about what status MPs acquire after leaving their factions and whether they are still considered part of the ruling coalition.

The coalition-building efforts and the appointment of a new cabinet in September proceeded smoothly, compared with previous attempts. Importantly, as MPs point out, the removal of the prime minister, the formation of the new coalition, and the appointment of the new ministers proceeded within the limits of the law.[4] None of the factions resorted to street violence or other illegal, destabilizing activities to prevail in the political competition. With the exception of Ata-Jurt’s leaders, most MPs apparently prefer to maintain stability across the country despite the intense, ongoing political jockeying in the parliament. This comes as a sharp contrast to the period after the March 2005 regime change, when opposition leaders marginalized by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev resorted to street protests to challenge his regime.

In early October, the leader of the Ata-Jurt party, Kamchybek Tashiyev, organized a rally of some 400 supporters to demand the nationalization of the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold-mining company, which has been operating in Kyrgyzstan since 1997. Although Tashiyev’s demonstration reflected the public perception that the company enjoys highly favorable terms and should be brought under state control, the opposition leader seized on the issue as a pretext to advance his own political agenda. After calling for the ouster of the president, Tashiyev and his supporters scaled a fence and stormed the parliament building. Police officers dispersed the crowd, and Tashiyev was arrested for attempting to overthrow the government.

Although the Ata-Jurt leader has little chance of ousting the current elected leadership, protesters in Osh demanded his release.[5] Tashiyev’s aggressive political move was widely condemned by other MPs and the Kyrgyz media, which questioned why he would return to street politics and mass protests when there are other, more peaceful means of achieving his goals.[6]

It is unclear why certain parties joined the latest ruling alliance and others were left out, which suggests that the relevant deals were cut behind closed doors. Kyrgyz media outlets and observers have offered various explanations, including interpersonal rivalries among faction leaders and allegations that certain parties were willing to pay bribes to be included in the coalition. Nevertheless, the frequent changes in the composition of the ruling coalition and cabinet indicate that the parliament, president, and government are still learning how to function under the new constitution. Uncertainties remain over which branch of government has more power, with the greatest competition emerging between the president and the parliament.

Two years after the June 2010 ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the country remains stable, but discrimination continues. Ethnic minorities, especially ethnic Uzbeks, are underrepresented in the parliament and the government compared with previous years. Furthermore, all political forces avoid discussion of interethnic relations, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan, leaving the burden of peace building and reconciliation to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Justice has not prevailed, and the perpetrators of the 2010 violence remain free.

Electoral Process: 

Between 2010 and 2012 Kyrgyzstan held two national elections and one constitutional referendum. The international community praised the referendum and parliamentary elections in 2010 for their competitiveness and inclusiveness. During both the parliamentary and presidential elections, candidates were able to register and campaign freely, and their fundamental freedoms were respected. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted problems with voter registration lists, while the work of the Central Elections Commission (CEC) sometimes lacked transparency. These shortcomings did not affect the overall outcome, according to election observers.

Almazbek Atambayev won the 2011 presidential election with 63 percent of the vote. While he was regarded as the strongest candidate, he was still dogged a year later by accusations that he had used administrative resources and greater media coverage to prevail over his competitors. According to opinion polls, Atambayev’s support stood at roughly 50 percent a few days before the election.

In March and November 2012, Kyrgyzstan held local elections based on a proportional system that requires parties to overcome a 7 percent vote threshold to receive seats in local councils. According to the new system, if no party is able to earn more than 7 percent, the mandates are distributed among the three parties that received the most votes. Following the elections, the SDPK and Respublika emerged as most powerful parties on the local level. They gained the most votes in Bishkek, Tokmok, and Karakol, but finished behind Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov’s Uluttar Birimdigi (Unity of Ethnicities) party in Osh.

The local elections in Bishkek were extremely competitive. Sixteen parties registered to run, including all five parties represented in the national parliament as well as several new ones. Four parties were able to overcome the 7 percent threshold, but none secured a majority in the council, with the largest, the SDPK, gaining 47 percent of the seats. Among those that won seats was Zamandash (Contemporary), which has a strong base of support among Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia and their families.

Several months prior to the elections, some Bishkek entrepreneurs and local party leaders argued that the voting process should include elements of a majoritarian system, but their arguments were rejected. Discouraged business leaders have moved to form their own party, Za Zhizn bez Baryerov (For Life without Barriers), marking the first grassroots-organized political party that united members based on common values, as opposed to support for particular leaders. The party advocates less government control over public life and greater reliance on the private sector.

All interested parties had the opportunity to register with the CEC and compete in the elections. None of the parties reported difficulties with the registration process. However, Ar-Namys and Za Zhizn bez Baryerov, which were unable to win enough votes for representation, complained about widespread election fraud and low voter turnout.

The question of whether mayors should be elected directly by voters or indirectly by city councils continues to be a contentious one. Several NGO activists and MPs, including Dastan Bekeshev of Ar-Namys, supported the idea of directly electing the mayor of Bishkek, while other MPs, like Omurbek Tekebayev of Ata-Meken, argued that mayors should be selected by the parties that prevail in local councils.[7]

All of the local elections were closely monitored by NGOs and representatives of the OSCE. The NGOs noted the poor preparation of local observers representing competing parties. They also reported some instances of repeat voting in Osh and Karakol. Protests against the election results were held in Tokmok and Karakol, and the CEC agreed to a recount in several disputed precincts.

Civil Society: 

Kyrgyzstan’s civil society has become more vibrant and diverse over the past two years, and it continues to be actively involved in the country’s political life. In 2012, NGOs played a key role in the oversight of local elections. The government did not introduce any laws that would either limit or foster civil society activities, though former prime minister Babanov declared that Kyrgyzstan needs to restrict foreign-funded NGOs that work on political issues, much as Russia did in July. Babanov’s proposal has not found broader political support.

It is easy to register a civil society group in Kyrgyzstan and to organize public events and campaigns. Both the government and the parliament are slow to react to NGO recommendations and criticism, and the relationship between state institutions and civil society is often filled with distrust and mutual accusations. Nevertheless, the government and the parliament at times collaborate with civil society groups in designing policy programs and election monitoring efforts, and NGOs regularly generate discussions in mass media on human rights, political reforms, and other issues.

In early 2011, then president Roza Otunbayeva, with the financial support of international donors, formed Public Advisory Councils (PAC) to monitor the work of various government agencies. PACs are composed of independent experts, academics, NGO leaders, and entrepreneurs. They have access to all relevant government documents. Today, some PACs continue to actively supervise the work of the ministries, while others have become dormant.

Kyrgyz NGOs registered several noteworthy achievements in 2012, including on the issues of the 2010 Osh violence, police reform, and women’s rights. Some of these projects were the result of local NGO collaboration with donor organizations. Others were initiated through support provided by local companies and individual entrepreneurs.

In September, NGO activists published a detailed review of the actions of law enforcement agencies and the military during the ethnic violence in Osh on June 11, 2010. According to the report, the armed forces opened fire on civilians and violently dispersed a gathering of 10,000 people in central Osh.[8] The report also detailed how representatives of local and national government, police, and the armed forces failed to carry out their main duties, namely easing tensions in Osh and other parts of southern Kyrgyzstan. It alleged that security forces brutally suppressed civilians and covered up the actions of criminal groups and businessmen in connection with the Osh violence. Finally, the report raised many questions as to why, two years later, the prosecutor general’s office and some MPs continue to conceal information about misconduct by soldiers and police during the unrest. The report deepened the public understanding of the way the violence was handled by the interim government and generated discussion among civil society groups and mass media. The report’s findings, however, received little reaction from either the government or the parliament.

At least two civic organizations have played an active role in formulating plans for police reform. The NGO Nashe Pravo (Our Right) and the Central Asia Free Market Institute joined a special working group comprising government officials, two MPs, and OSCE representatives to draft the concept paper for police reform. Both NGOs insisted that they participate in the OSCE-led process, given that the Interior Ministry has failed to overhaul police procedures despite a decade of efforts. It took over a year for the working group to design the concept paper. It is now up to the government and the parliament to implement the proposed reform.

In early 2012, a group of NGOs successfully lobbied against a law banning casinos in Bishkek. Furthermore, in October, NGOs organized petitions and rallies in support of women’s rights on the day the parliament passed a bill—on its second reading—that increased the criminal penalty for bride kidnapping. Lawmakers granted final approval to the measure in December despite strong opposition among some male MPs. Under the new rules, the crime carries a maximum of seven years in prison, up from the previous three-year maximum or a fine. A 10-year prison term is now authorized if the victim is younger than 17, the legal age for marriage.

The country’s civil society organizations are still overly dependent on the international community, with the vast majority of NGOs largely relying on foreign grants. The NGO sector at times resembles a marketplace competition for donor funding and not ideas. However, there are emerging signs of local financial support for NGOs. The financing mainly comes from individual entrepreneurs, large corporations, or political leaders. For the most part, local funds are targeted at organizing one-time projects or public events, such as filming an advocacy video or organizing a charity campaign. Most of these locally generated NGO activities are concentrated in the capital. Very few local resources are spent on promoting interethnic dialogue related to communal conflict in various parts of the country.

Local civil society activities that have arisen since 2010, particularly in Bishkek, include fund drives by environmental groups, recycling programs, nonprofit shops selling goods made by elderly or disabled people, and TEDx events (conferences on technology, entertainment, and design). Art installations in public spaces to draw attention to issues such as women’s rights and substandard public education are becoming more popular in the capital. Furthermore, Bishkek-based feminist and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community networks are among the most active in the region. These groups are involved in projects that promote the rights of sexual minorities, help LGBT youth cope with societal stereotypes, and advocate against domestic violence.

In the absence of government-initiated programs for interethnic reconciliation, MPs and state officials in 2012 sought to promote a civic identity through higher education, in keeping with a decree entitled “On measures for deepening studies of the historical and cultural legacies of the people of Kyrgyzstan and formation of civic patriotism.”[9] The government encouraged universities to create a special class devoted to the centuries-old Manas epic, a key component of the Kyrgyz national identity. Some universities introduced the class in September 2012, but it will take time before every school offers instruction on the epic poem.

Independent Media: 

Kyrgyzstan’s mass media remain mostly free from government control. Despite occasional proposals from the prosecutor general and the parliament to ban “extremist” content, the trend since 2010 has been toward greater media openness and more affordable access to the internet, including via third-generation (3G) mobile telephones. According to available data, internet penetration increased to over 30 percent of the population in 2011, with 57 percent using the internet on a daily basis.[10] Mobile-phone penetration reached nearly 100 percent, with over 25 percent of customers using mobile internet.[11] Most users access the internet through public venues (Wi-Fi zones and cybercafés). Personal modems are also widely available, but they are not always affordable.

The government has sought to increase the independence of the country’s public television and radio broadcaster, KTRK, by appointing an outside board of directors. Throughout 2012, the outlet provided access to a wide variety of voices from politics and civil society. While President Atambayev was almost always portrayed in a positive or neutral light, this was due more to self-censorship and ingrained habits among journalists than direct pressure from the state.

The online universe remains mostly free, and a few news sites do publish criticism of the president, the parliament, and the government. Online forums and social-networking sites are untouched by the authorities. More public officials are joining online social networks, and some of them even interact with their followers. Any difficulties accessing specific online content is related to Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on telecommunication lines that pass through Kazakhstan and Russia.

Maintaining an independent press remains financially challenging in Kyrgyzstan. Most newspapers are privately owned, and only a handful, such as Super Info and Vecherniy Bishkek, are sold across the country and feature commentaries criticizing the authorities. The mass media mostly publish news and analysis, while investigative journalism is virtually nonexistent.

Officials have sometimes sought to block access to specific media that they perceive as anti-Kyrgyzstan or extremist. In 2011, for instance, some MPs suggested shutting down Fergana.ru for allegedly fueling interethnic confrontations in southern Kyrgyzstan. In 2012, authorities banned access to the controversial online video Innocence of Muslims as well as a screening of the film I Am Gay and Muslim.[12] Finally, in September, the prosecutor general announced that the government would monitor and limit access to an unspecified list of sites accused of spreading extremist ideas.

In late 2011, the authorities prosecuted an ethnic Russian journalist, Vladimir Farafonov, for allegedly inciting hatred against ethnic Kyrgyz. He was convicted of extremism, and prosecutors initially sought a sentence of eight years in prison. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the charges against Farafonov “politically motivated.”[13] Following strong condemnations by the international community, the court gave Farafonov a relatively lenient punishment, fining him 50,000 soms ($1,060). None of the many journalists who have openly promoted the dominance of ethnic Kyrgyz or incited hatred against ethnic minority groups in the aftermath of the 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan has ever been arrested on similar charges.

Uzbek-language media outlets that were shut down in the wake of the ethnic violence in 2010 have still not reopened. In 2012, however, there were attempts to create radio channels broadcasting in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek. At least one radio station, Yntymak, began to broadcast news in Uzbek thanks in large part to assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has supported efforts to expand media coverage in the Uzbek language.[14] According to Internews data, over 8 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population listens to Uzbek-language radio content.[15]

Furthermore, the Kyrgyz-language newspaper Aalam began publishing some of its issues in the Uzbek language in March, specifically to promote interethnic peace. The move was met with opposition from other newspapers based in Osh that interpreted it as an attempt to widen the gap between the majority and minority ethnic groups.[16]

Overall, however, any shortage of information in southern Kyrgyzstan and other remote areas of the country are not unique to a specific ethnic group, but are rather a sign of poor general access to television, radio, and print media. These shortages are due to the lack of stable internet connections and weak television and radio signals. It is not financially feasible to establish independent media resources outside of the capital city without external support. Only a few online outlets generate enough advertising revenue to be financially independent. The Russian television and print media are often more accessible throughout the country than Kyrgyz media.

Many ethnic minorities are able to understand at least basic Russian and Kyrgyz. But information sources in these languages are scarce in remote parts of Kyrgyzstan and often biased. Russian television channels transmit mostly pro-Kremlin views of events in Russia and other former Soviet states, while news on Kyrgyz-language channels is limited to overviews of events in Bishkek and rebroadcasts of Russian media.

Local Democratic Governance: 

Elections to local councils in 2012 demonstrated the growing independence and importance of local governments. Throughout Kyrgyzstan, the elections were highly competitive, with both large, nationwide parties and local political forces seeking representation. The voting in Osh, Tokmok, Karakol, and Bishkek produced varied results, with the SDPK and Respublika dominating in some contests and local parties winning in others. The elections showed that these large national parties could face a tough challenge when competing with parties representing local political elites and focused on local issues.

In Osh, Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov’s party, Uluttar Birimdigi, won 47 percent of the vote, securing 21 out of 45 seats on the city council. Myrzakmatov retained his position as mayor with the support of Adakhan Madumarov’s Butun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) party and members of the Ata-Jurt party who are mostly popular in southern parts of the country. The SDPK and Respublika earned 24 percent and 17 percent of the vote in Osh, respectively. Overall, seven parties competed for seats.

Despite fears of violence, the voting in Osh proceeded peacefully, with hundreds of police personnel guarding polling sites on election day.[17] However, the results suggest that most voters were members of the ethnic majority. Aside from Osh, where interethnic divisions are still easily exploited by political forces, most voters were able to choose their local leaders without government pressure. Because the elections were so competitive, political parties welcomed monitoring as a way to prevent falsifications by their competitors.

The SDPK garnered 20 percent of the votes in Karakol, leading all other parties. A total of six parties were able to surpass the 7 percent threshold, including four local parties.[18] In Tokmok, Respublika prevailed with 28 percent, while the SDPK came in fourth with less than 9 percent. In both Tokmok and Karakol, election day ended in a verbal skirmish between the electoral commission and local political parties. Representatives of smaller parties forcefully demanded that the commissioners annul election results for alleged fraud.

Bishkek’s elections in November were particularly competitive. Sixteen parties registered, including the five represented in the parliament. Most parties began to prepare months ahead the vote. Since the parliamentary parties had a greater chance of succeeding, many smaller parties and individual candidates tried to get onto their lists. The SDPK led the voting, winning 21 of 45 seats (47 percent), while Respublika earned 11 seats. Parties that did not win any seats complained about widespread fraud on the election day. Respublika in particular was accused of participating in fraud after videos of its members busing voters to various precincts across the city emerged online.[19]

Local elections have become more important as a way for major political parties to increase their chances in the next parliamentary elections. They have also gained prominence as a result of a law adopted in 2008 that ensures that local government officials have the necessary material and political resources to meet the needs of the local population.

The degree of independence of local authorities from the national government varies. Bishkek’s government is the most independent, with the mayor able to make autonomous decisions on the city’s development. Of all other local leaders, Myrzakmatov enjoys the greatest independence, thanks to his business connections and support from the informal grouping of young men who belong to his martial arts club. In late 2011 he suggested creating municipal police units in Osh in addition to the national police, which most experts saw as an attempt to legalize his private security forces.[20] Myrzakmatov’s proposal was ignored by the national government.

Outside of election season, local governments receive little media attention. With occasional exceptions for developments in Osh and Bishkek, the mass media are mostly concentrated on the work of the national government. Likewise, local government officials are not accustomed to working with civil society, business owners, or other groups on important policy issues.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Kyrgyzstan’s new constitution provides protections for fundamental political, civil, and human rights. The chapter postulating equality before law and the significance of human rights was developed by the interim government in 2010 with the help of NGO experts. Since the April 2010 change of regime, NGOs have been actively involved in overseeing judicial reform. The judicial system and law enforcement agencies continue to be a major source of human rights violations and corruption. Yet unlike in the era of widespread political prosecutions under former president Bakiyev, today the prosecutor general and the National Security Committee (KNB) rarely use their powers to selectively arrest politicians.

Over the past two years, the government has launched several efforts to reform the judicial sector and law enforcement bodies. NGOs and experts with various backgrounds participate in the process, but progress has been slow. One initiative backed by Otunbayeva in early 2011 sought to clean up corruption and nepotism in the judicial system and increase the professionalism and impartiality of judges. However, the effort has come under attack by NGO activists who argue that in selecting new judges, both MPs and the president rank loyalty ahead of qualifications.

In early 2012 the parliament approved amendments to the law “On selection of judges” that allow elected officials to participate in choosing judges. Kyrgyzstan’s civil society community spoke out against the changes and urged the president not to sign the legislation. NGO leaders argued that politicians would inevitably favor individuals with whom they had connections.[21] The president sided with the parliament on this issue.

Following a two-month process of reviewing 66 candidates for the newly formed Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, a special council chose 25 judges in September.[22] The council was composed of 24 members, including government employees, NGO experts, and MPs from the five parties represented in the parliament. Some members of the special council complained that they were given only 30 minutes to assess each candidate’s qualifications.[23] Experts also argued that most of the judges were political allies of or related to either the president or MPs. Finally, according to legal expert Nurbek Toktakunov, most of the selected judges have previously been accused of corruption.[24] The council, however, was not able to vet the candidates’ past economic and political activities aside from what the candidates themselves submitted as part of the formal application process.

Both the president and the parliament can influence politicized judges with possibly corrupt backgrounds to take favorable decisions. In the past, former presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev used the Supreme Court to facilitate approval of political decisions and to prosecute political opponents. But compared with these regimes, it would be more difficult for the current leadership to manipulate the Supreme Court. Furthermore, shortly after the April 2010 regime change, the interim government disbanded the Constitutional Court, which authoritarian presidents had used to manipulate the constitution and expand their own powers.

The judicial reform has not brought any changes to the infamous case of Azimzhan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights activist who continues to serve a life sentence in prison. Askarov was arrested in 2010 and found guilty of complicity in the murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz policeman. His lawyers proclaim his innocence, but their appeals to the Supreme Court were denied in late 2011. In 2012, two more ethnic Uzbeks were sentenced to life in prison on charges related to violence in Osh.[25] The latest cases add to the dozens of ethnic Uzbeks who have received maximum punishment since 2010.

In October, the parliament voted to form a special Center on the Prevention of Torture as part of Kyrgyzstan’s obligation to establish national preventive mechanisms under the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.[26] This followed widespread criticism by the international community on the use of torture in the country’s detention centers. In particular, concerns have been expressed about ethnic Uzbek detainees arrested on allegations of instigating violence in June 2010. Kyrgyz human rights activists have uncovered several cases of ethnic Uzbek inmates who were tortured to death.

Corruption: 

In early 2012, President Atambayev announced a new anticorruption campaign. He pledged that no one in the country would be immune from prosecution, including members of his own SDPK. At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister Joomart Otorbayev vowed that his government would double the size of the state budget within two years and double the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in five years.[27] The new income would largely come from improving the government’s ability to collect taxes and moving much of the shadow economy into the open.

In March, then prime minister Omurbek Babanov disbanded the Financial Police, which was infamous for having especially high corruption rates within its ranks. The government then launched a televised campaign to recruit new members for a special agency that would investigate economic crimes. Following new screening tests, roughly 40 percent of former Financial Police personnel were rehired along with new candidates. NGOs have played an active role in this reform.

While the new government has indeed made substantial steps toward greater transparency, a number of the subsequent arrests on corruption charges were unexpected and controversial. One of the first officials to be prosecuted was an MP from Ata-Jurt, Nariman Tuleyev. He was arrested in June 2012 for allegations of corruption during his tenure as a mayor of Bishkek before the 2010 regime change. Tuleyev was placed under house arrest until October, diminishing his chances to run in the local elections. He still enjoys wide popularity in both the capital city and southern Kyrgyzstan, and was regarded as a strong candidate who could damage the prospects of the SDPK and Respublika in the Bishkek council balloting.

In early 2012, Atambayev boasted that thanks to lower levels of corruption and the fight against organized crime, the government was able to increase pensions and salaries. He criticized political officials who are willing to collaborate with leaders of organized criminal groups for the purposes of personal enrichment.[28] The president also pledged to rid law enforcement agencies and the judicial sector of corruption.

These statements appeared to clash with the decision to grant the premiership to Jantoro Satybaldiyev, a political insider who is infamous for allegedly embezzling funds designated for reconstruction efforts in the wake of the 2010 ethnic violence, when he served as a special representative in southern Kyrgyzstan. Satybaldiyev was able to survive in government during both the Akayev and Bakiyev periods. According to political veteran Azimbek Beknazarov, Satybaldiyev was involved in large-scale corruption schemes under both regimes.[29]

In one of the more positive achievements in the fight against corruption, Kyrgyzstan’s special services uncovered bribery surrounding international adoptions. The minister of social development and his deputy were arrested in July 2012 for allegedly taking thousands of dollars in bribes from international adoption agencies seeking local accreditation. The international adoption sector has proven to be a lucrative source of informal revenue. Edil Baisalov, a former NGO activist and opposition leader, was appointed as the new deputy minister.

Other ministries have seen a decrease in corruption levels. Both the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Transportation, previously among the most corrupt in the country, are known to have reduced—but not eliminated—the corruption schemes within their ranks.[30]

In October, Maksim Bakiyev, son of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was arrested in Britain on charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and obstruction of justice in United States.[31] Although the Kyrgyz government had little to do with Bakiyev’s arrest and has pending charges against him that are unrelated to the U.S. case, it nevertheless was willing to collaborate with the British and U.S. governments on this matter. Maksim Bakiyev is wanted in Kyrgyzstan for large-scale corruption during his father’s tenure, while the pending charges against him in the United States are related to his activities after he fled Kyrgyzstan in April 2010.

Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies boast that they arrested a record number of organized crime figures in 2012. Kamchy Kolbayev, reputedly the country’s top crime boss, was extradited from the United Arab Emirates in December and placed in pretrial detention. However, Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov admits that Kyrgyzstan still faces the challenge of organized criminal networks that seek to influence politics in the country.[32]

Kyrgyz entrepreneurs agree that the level of corruption has decreased, and today there are no informal “taxes” imposed by government affiliates similar to the levies that existed when Maksim Bakiyev controlled most sectors of economy. However, businessmen still encounter small-scale corruption while dealing with the state bureaucracy.[33] In Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, Kyrgyzstan ranks 154th in the world, with a score of 24 on a 0-to-100 scale, with 0 as the worst possible performance. At the same time, the World Bank’s Doing Business 2013 report indicates that Kyrgyzstan ranks 70th among 185 economies.

Author: Erica Marat
Erica Marat is a Eurasia analyst based in Washington, DC.
Notes: 

[1] Interview with several MPs, meeting at the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington, DC, August 2012.

[2] For more details see Erica Marat, “Kyrgyzstan: A Parliamentary System Based on Inter-Elite Consensus,” Demokratizatsiya (Autumn 2012): 225–244.

[3] Pavel Dyatlenko, “Kyrgyz Elite Ousts Over-Independent Premier,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 13 September 2012, http://iwpr.net/report-news/kyrgyz-elite-ousts-over-independent-premier.

[4] Presentation by Asiya Sasykbayeva, MP from Ata-Meken party, at the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington, DC, August 2012.

[5] “Митинг за освобождение лидеров ‘Ата-Журта’ в Оше перешел в голодовку” [Rally for the release of the leaders of ‘Ata-Jurt’ in Osh became a hunger strike,” Kloop.kg, 11 October 2012, http://kloop.kg/blog/2012/10/11/storonniki-ata-zhurta-sobirayutsya-na-miting-v-oshe/.

[6] Anna Yalovkina, “Кожобек Рыспаев: Я не понимаю, зачем Ташиев перелазил через забор” [Kozhabek Rispayev: I don’t understand why Tashiyev climbed the fence], Vecherniy Bishkek, 4 October 2012, http://www.vb.kg/doc/201712_kojobek_ryspaev:_ia_ne_ponimau_zachem_tashiev_perelazil_cherez_zabor.html.

[7] Anna Yalovkina, “Эксперт: Мэра Бишкека горожане должны избирать напрямую” [Expert: The mayor of Bishkek should be directly elected], Vecherniy Bishkek, 6 June 2012, http://www.vb.kg/doc/191014_ekspert:_mera_bishkeka_gorojane_doljny_izbirat_napriamyu.html.

[8] Abdumamun Mamahaimov, “Азиза Абдирасулова: Мы попытались определить роль органов власти во время июньской трагедии” [Aziza Abdirasulova: We tried to define the role of government during the June tragedy], Voice of Freedom Central Asia, 19 September 2012, http://vof.kg/?p=6605.

[9] “В школах Киргизии с нового учебного года введут манасоведение “ [In the schools of Kyrgyzstan the Manas will be introduced starting this school year], For.kg, 16 March 2012, http://www.for.kg/news-175519-ru.html.

[10] “Исследование поведения и восприятия медиа аудитории Кыргызстан 2012” [Study of the behavior and perceptions of media audiences, Kyrgyzstan 2012], Internews, 27 July 2012, http://www.internews.kg/en/library/literature/2740-issledovanie-povedenija-i-vosprijatija-media-auditorii-kyrgyzstan-2012.

[11] BuddeCom, Kyrgyzstan—Telecoms, Mobile, Internet and Forecasts (Bucketty: BuddeCom, 2012), http://www.budde.com.au/Research/Kyrgyzstan-Telecoms-Mobile-and-Internet.html.

[12] “Kyrgyzstan Decides to Block Internet Access to Anti-Muslim Film,” Inform.kz, 19 September 2012, http://www.inform.kz/eng/article/2495876.

[13] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Kyrgyzstan Must Drop Charges against Journalist,” news release, 29 February 2012, http://www.cpj.org/2012/02/kyrgyzstan-must-drop-charges-against-journalist.php.

[14] Bakyt Ibraimov, “New Radio Station Brings Kyrgyz, Uzbeks Closer Together,” Central Asia Online, 10 September 2012, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2012/09/10/feature-01.

[15] A reported 73 percent listened to radio in the Kyrgyz language and 58 percent in Russian. For more see “Исследование поведения и восприятия медиа аудитории Кыргызстан 2012” [Study of the behavior and perceptions of media audiences, Kyrgyzstan 2012], Internews, 27 July 2012, http://www.internews.kg/en/library/literature/2740-issledovanie-povedenija-i-vosprijatija-media-auditorii-kyrgyzstan-2012.

[16] Dastan Umetbai uulu, “Ош: Кыргызоязычная газета издала первый за 20 лет выпуск на узбекском” [Osh: A Kyrgyz-language newspaper published the first issue in Uzbek in 20 years], Kloop.kg, 15 March 2012, http://kloop.kg/blog/2012/03/15/osh-ky-rgy-zoyazy-chnaya-gazeta-izdala-pervy-j-za-20-let-vy-pusk-na-uzbekskom/.

[17] Almas Ysman, “Ош: в лидерах ‘Улуттар Биримдиги’ [Osh: In the leadership of ‘Uluttar-Birimdigi’], Radio Azzatyk, 4 March 2012, http://rus.azattyk.org/content/kyrgyzstan_osh_election_2012/24504206.html.

[18] Shirin Torogeldiyeva, “В Караколе после завершения подсчета голосов по всем избирательным участкам лидирует СДПК” [In Karakol after counting the votes in all polling stations, SDPK is in the lead], Kabar.kg, 12 March 2012, http://www.kabar.kg/rus/politics/full/29192.

[19] Zarema Sultanbekova, “ЦИК изучает видео ‘Карусель от партии Республика’” [CEC is investigating ‘Respublika party’s carousel’ video], Kloop.kg, 27 November 2012, http://kloop.kg/blog/2012/11/27/tsik-rassmatrivaet-video-karusel-ot-partii-respublika/.

[20] Kairat Zhaparov, “М. Мырзакматов: Мы сказали, что можно создать муниципальную милицию, они раздули из этого скандал” [M. Myrzakmatov: We said that a municipal police force could be formed, they made a big scandal out of this], Gezitter.org, 9 February 2012, http://www.gezitter.org/politic/8770_m_myirzakmatov_myi_skazali_chto_mojno_sozdat_munitsipalnuyu_militsiyu_oni_razduli_iz_etogo_skandal/.

[21] Mirlan Alymbekov, “Судебная реформа в Кыргызстане: пять вопросов эксперту” [Judicial reform in Kyrgyzstan: Five questions for an expert], Kabar.kg, 29 March 2012, http://kabar.kg/rus/kabar/full/30347.

[22] For the full list see Kaliya Duyshebayeva, “В парламенте новые судьи Верховного суда Кыргызстана приносят присягу” [In parliament, new judges of the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court take their oaths], 24.kg, 15 September 2012, http://www.24kg.org/parlament/136886-v-parlamente-novye-sudi-verxovnogo-suda.html.

[23] Askar Aktalov, “Сарылбек Борбашев: ‘Отбор судей в Кыргызстане превращается в их аттестацию’” [Sarylbek Borbashev: ‘The selection of judges in Kyrgyzstan becomes their certification’], K-news.kg, 27 July 2012, http://www.knews.kg/ru/sudebnaya_reforma/19617.

[24] Darya Podpolskaya, “Нурбек Токтакунов: Отбор кандидатов в судьи Верховного суда Кыргызстана проводится” [Nurbek Toktakunov: The selection of candidates for judges of the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court proceeded ineffectively], 24.kg, 9 August 2012, http://www.kyrgyzonline.com/content/694281.

[25] Human Rights Watch, “Kyrgyzstan: Skewed Justice over Osh 2010 Conflict,” news release, 28 October 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/28/kyrgyzstan-skewed-justice-over-2010-conflict.

[26] Freedom House, “Kyrgyz Republic Takes Key Steps to Combat Torture,” news release, 18 June 2012, //www.freedomhouse.org/article/kyrgyz-republic-takes-key-steps-combat-torture.

[27] “Вице-премьер Кыргызстана рассказал о программе его правительства ‘100 дней’” [The deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan discussed his government’s ‘100 days’ program], Voice of America, 20 April 2012, http://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/hundred-days-otobayev-2012-04-20-148306435/664597.html.

[28] “Президент Кыргызстана Алмазбек Атамбаев: ‘Коррупция достигла астрономических масштабов, чиновники вступают в сговор с бандитами, лишь бы набить свою мошну’” [President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev: ‘Corruption has reached astronomical levels, officials collaborate with criminals just to fill their pockets], Kyrtag.kg, 30 January 2012, http://www.kyrtag.kg/?q=ru/interview/15811.

[29] Vadim Nochevkin, “Новый премьер Жанторо Сатыбалдиев: компромисс ценой…застоя?” [New prime minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev: Is the price of compromise…stagnation?], Nomer, 13 September 2012, http://delo.kg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4201:2012-09-13-12-05-19&catid=46:2011-05-19-19-45-19&Itemid=127.

[30] Nate Schenkkan, “Kyrgyzstan: Energy Sector Reforms Show Promise, If Sustained,” Eurasianet, 21 October 2011, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64354.

[31] U.S. embassy statement on the arrest of Maksim Bakiyev in London, October 13, 2012.

[32] “Шамиль Атаханов: ‘Возвращение Камчы Кольбаева в Кыргызстан не повлечет за собой обострение криминогенной ситуации’” [Shamil Atakhanov: ‘The return of Kamchy Kolbayev to Kyrgyzstan will not worsen the situation with crime’], Kant.kg, 25 December 2012, http://kant.kg/2012-12-25/shamil-atahanov-vozvrashhenie-kamchyi/.

[33] Author’s multiple interviews with entrepreneurs in Bishkek, May to June 2012.