KYRGYZSTAN: ‘The citizens' choice in the referendum will be decisive for our future’

Ulugbek AzimovCIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights speak to Ulugbek Azimov, legal expert at the Legal Prosperity Foundation, about the protests that took place in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and subsequent political developments. The Legal Prosperity Foundation (previously the Youth Human Rights Group) is an independent civil society organisation that has worked to promote human rights and democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan since 1995. The organisation carries out educational programmes, conducts human rights monitoring, interacts with international human rights mechanisms and promotes respect for human rights in the context of legal reforms.

Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy. How close to truth is this depiction?

It is true that in the early 1990s, that is, in the first years of independence, democracy sprouted and began developing in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was characterised by a higher level of citizen participation, a more developed civil society and more favourable conditions for the functioning and participation of political parties in the political process. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan was called an ‘island of democracy’ in Central Asia.

However, during the 30 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has faced serious challenges. Attempts by former presidents to preserve and strengthen their hold on power by putting pressure on the opposition, persecuting independent media and journalists, restricting the freedom of expression, using public resources in their favour, bribing voters and falsifying the results of elections have resulted in major political upheavals on several occasions. In the past 15 years, the government has been overthrown three times during the so-called Tulip, April and October revolutions, in 2005, 2010 and 2020, respectively, with two former presidents being forced to flee the country, and the third forced to resign ahead of time.

Each upheaval has, unfortunately, been followed by developments undermining previous democratic gains. It is therefore not surprising that Freedom House has consistently rated Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partially free’ in its annual Freedom in the World survey. Moreover, in the most recent survey published this year, Kyrgyzstan’s rating deteriorated to that of ‘not free’ because of the fall-out of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which were marred by serious violations. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is now in the same category in which other Central Asian countries have been for many years. 

Were pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the run-up to the 2020 elections?

In response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020, the Kyrgyzstani authorities adopted emergency measures and introduced a lockdown in the capital, Bishkek, and in several other regions of the country, which led to restrictions on the right to the freedom of movement and other, related rights. All public events, including rallies, were banned.

Measures taken in the context of the pandemic also gave rise to concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information. The authorities seriously tightened the screws on critical voices in response to widespread criticism of those in power, including then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, for their failure to fight the pandemic effectively. Law enforcement authorities tracked down inconvenient bloggers and social media commentators, visited them in their homes and held ‘prophylactic’ discussions with them. In some cases, social media users were detained for allegedly posting false information about the pandemic and forced to apologise publicly under threat of prosecution.

The law on ‘manipulation of information’, which parliament passed in June 2020, is of particular concern. Although the initiators of the law claimed that it was solely intended to address the problem of fake online accounts, it was clear from the start that this was an attempt by the authorities to introduce internet censorship and close down objectionable sites on the eve of the elections. Following an avalanche of criticism from the media community and human rights defenders, then-President Jeenbekov declined to sign the law and returned it to parliament for revision in August 2020. Since then, the law has remained with parliament. 

What triggered the post-election demonstrations in October 2020? Who protested, and why?

The main reason for the October 2020 protests, which again led to a change in power, was people’s dissatisfaction with the official results of the parliamentary elections held on 4 October. 

Out of the 16 parties running for seats in parliament, only five passed the seven per cent electoral threshold required to get into parliament. Although then-President Jeenbekov publicly stated that he did not support any party, the one that received most votes – Birimdik (Unity) – was associated with him since his brother and other people from the ruling elite were running on its ticket. The party that ended up second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), was also viewed as pro-government and was associated with the family of former high-ranking customs service official Raiymbek Matraimov, who was implicated in a high-profile media investigation into corruption published in November 2019. Jeenbekov’s government ignored the findings of this investigation and failed to initiate a criminal case against Matraimov, despite public calls to this end.

It was predictable that Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan would fare well in the elections given the use of public resources and reported vote-buying in favour of their candidates. These two parties, which took part in parliamentary elections for the first time, received almost half of the votes and therefore an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. The methods used by the two winning parties to secure control over parliament caused indignation among other political parties that participated in the elections, their voters and even apolitical people.

The elections took place against the backdrop of growing discontent with the social and economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as growing anti-government sentiments among the population.

The ‘dirty’ elections, characterised by an unprecedented scale of violations, became a catalyst for subsequent events. Protests began immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results on the evening of election day, 4 October, and continued throughout the next day. Young people played a decisive role in them: most of those who took to the streets to protest and gathered in the central square of the capital were young people. Unfortunately, most of those who were injured, as well as the protester who died during the October events, were young people too.

What was the government’s reaction to the protests?

The authorities had the opportunity to take control of the situation and resolve it peacefully, but they did not take it. Only in the evening of 5 October did then-President Jeenbekov announce that he would meet with the leaders of the different parties that competed in the elections. He set up a meeting for the morning of 6 October, but this turned out to be too late, as in the night of 5 October the peaceful protests devolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials in Bishkek, ending with the seizure of the White House (the seat of the president and parliament) and other public buildings by protesters. During the clashes, law enforcement authorities used rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas against the protesters. As a result of the clashes, a 19-year-old young man was killed and more than 1,000 people needed medical attention, including protesters and law enforcement officials, with over 600 police officers injured. During the unrest, police cars, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other property were also damaged, to an estimated value of over 17 million Som (approx. US$200,000).

Did the snap presidential elections held in January 2021 solve the problems raised by the protests?

The main demand of the protesters was to cancel the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections and hold new, fair elections. This demand was partly satisfied on 6 October 2020, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the election results invalid. However, up to now, no date has been fixed for the new parliamentary elections. The CEC initially scheduled them for 20 December 2020 but parliament responded by promptly adopting a law that suspended the elections pending a revision of the constitution and extended the terms in office of the members of the outgoing parliament until 1 June 2021.

In its assessment of this law, the Venice Commission – an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent constitutional law experts – concluded that during the current transitional period parliament should exercise limited functions and refrain from approving extraordinary measures, such as constitutional reforms. However, the outgoing parliament has continued its work as usual and approved the holding of a constitutional referendum in April 2021. Newly elected President Sadyr Japarov has suggested holding new parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2021, which would mean that members of the outgoing parliament would continue in their positions even after 1 June 2021.

In accordance with other demands of the protesters, the country’s electoral legislation was amended in October 2020 to reduce the electoral threshold from seven to three percentage points for parties to gain representation in parliament and to reduce the electoral fee from 5 to 1 million Som (approx. US$12,000). These amendments were made to facilitate the participation of a larger number of parties, including newer ones, and to promote pluralism and competition.

The protesters also expressed resentment about the inadequate measures taken to fight corruption. They demanded that the authorities bring to justice corrupt officials, particularly Matraimov, and return stolen property to the state. Speaking in front of the protesters before he became president, Japarov promised that Matraimov would be arrested and punished.

To be fair, Japarov kept his word. After Japarov rose to power in October 2020, Matraimov was arrested in connection with an investigation into corruption schemes within the customs service, pleaded guilty and agreed to compensate the damage by paying back more than 2 billion Som (approx. US$24 million). A local court subsequently convicted him, but handed him a mitigated sentence in the form of a fine of 260,000 Som (approx. US$3,000) and lifted freezing orders on his property, since he had cooperated with the investigation. This extremely lenient sentence caused public outrage. On 18 February 2021, Matraimov was arrested again on new charges of money laundering, but after a few days he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility where he was being held to a private clinic to undergo treatment for health problems. After that, many labelled the anti-corruption measures of the current authorities as ‘populist’.

In January 2021 Kyrgyz citizens also voted in a constitutional referendum. What were its results, and what consequences will they have for the quality of democracy?

According to the results of the referendum, which took place on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021, 84 per cent of voters supported a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

Based on comparative experience, many lawyers and civil society activists do not view this change as negative per se, provided that a well-functioning system of checks and balances is put in place. However, they are seriously concerned that the authorities are attempting to push through the transition at an unjustifiably quick pace using questionable approaches and methods that do not correspond to generally accepted principles and established legal rules and procedures.

The first draft constitution providing for a presidential system of governance, put forward in November 2020, was dubbed a ‘khanstitution’ in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia. Critics accused Japarov, who has advocated for this change since taking office in October 2020, of trying to usurp power.

The draft constitution granted the president practically unlimited powers, while reducing the status and powers of parliament to a minimum, thereby jeopardising checks and balances and creating the risk of presidential abuse of power. It also provided for a complicated impeachment procedure that would be impossible to implement in practice. Moreover, while it did not mention the principle of the rule of law even once, the text repeatedly referred to moral values and principles. Many provisions of the current constitution that guarantee human rights and freedoms were excluded.

Because of harsh criticism, the authorities were forced to abandon their initial plans to submit the draft constitution to referendum on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021 and agreed to organise a broader discussion. To this end, a so-called constitutional conference was convened and its members worked for two and a half months, in spite of facing accusations that their activities were illegitimate. At the beginning of February 2021, the constitutional conference submitted its suggestions to parliament.

It should be acknowledged that as a result of the discussion and proposals submitted by the constitutional conference, parts of the draft constitution were improved. For example, the reference to the principle of the rule of law was restored, and significant amendments were made to the sections on human rights and freedoms, including with respect to protecting the freedom of expression, the role of independent media and the right to access information. But it remained practically unchanged with respect to the provisions that set out unlimited powers for the president.

In March 2021, parliament adopted a law on holding a referendum on the revised draft constitution, setting the date for 11 April 2021. This sparked a new wave of indignation among politicians, lawyers and civil society activists, who pointed out that this was against the established procedure for constitutional change and warned again that the concentration of power in the hands of the president might result in authoritarian rule. Their concerns were echoed in a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, issued in March 2021 at the request of the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan.

The draft constitution has two other problematic provisions. One allows for restrictions to be imposed on any events that contradict ‘moral and ethical values’ or ‘the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’. These concepts are not defined or regulated, so they might be interpreted differently in different cases, creating the risk of overly broad and subjective interpretation and arbitrary application. This, in turn, might lead to excessive restrictions on human rights and freedoms, including the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

The other provision requires political parties, trade unions and other public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of recent attempts to step up control over civil society organisations (CSOs), there are concerns that it might be used to put pressure on them. On the same day that parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum on the draft constitution, some legislators accused CSOs of allegedly undermining ‘traditional values’ and posing a threat to the state. 

Civil society activists continue to call on the current parliament, which in their eyes has lost its legitimacy, to dissolve and on the president to call new elections promptly. Activists are holding an ongoing rally to this end and, if their demands are not met, they plan to turn to the courts on the grounds of the usurpation of power.

The president, however, has rejected all concerns voiced about the constitutional reform. He has assured that Kyrgyzstan will remain a democratic country, that the freedom of expression and the personal safety of journalists will be respected, and that there will be no further political persecution. 

The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must make their choice. The upcoming referendum on the current draft constitution may become another turning point in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and the choice made by citizens will be decisive for the future development towards stability and prosperity.

Civic space in Kyrgyzstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
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