Kyrgyz Army Bill Sparks Fears of Crackdown
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||30 January 2009|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Kyrgyz Army Bill Sparks Fears of Crackdown, 30 January 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/498703ca11.html [accessed 18 September 2014]|
Civil groups warn that new legislation could allow authorities to deploy military to crush public protests.
By Mirgul Akimova in Bishkek (RCA No. 564, 30-Jan-09)Civil society representatives have expressed alarm that the Kyrgyz authorities are pushing through legislation that would allow them to use the army to quell protests at a time when tensions between the government and opposition are deepening.
A group of non-government organisations is calling on President Kurmanbek Bakiev not to give his assent to the law, which contains a clause allowing the armed forces to assist police in maintaining "public order and security" as well as in rescue and disaster relief operations.
The bill, which sets out a framework under which Kyrgyzstan nationals are conscripted into the military and offers the option of alternative forms of service, was passed by parliament in December and now only needs the president's signature to become law.
In a January 27 letter to Bakiev, the Kyrgyz parliament and the human rights ombudsman, 18 NGOs outlined their fears that as Kyrgyzstan's economic problems deepened, the authorities were trying to tighten their grip by reserving the right to deploy the army on the streets.
"The economic situation is deteriorating, and the number of dissatisfied people is growing," said the letter. "Peaceful assembly and religious freedoms are either limited or banned in the country.... There are rumours that freedom of expression may also be restricted or banned."
The petition said the bill ran contrary to the constitution, which says the armed forces cannot be used to resolve domestic and political issues.
The adoption of "unconstitutional" laws at a time of political and economic instability could have "serious and unpredictable" consequences, the NGOs warned.
Earlier in January, a number of other civil society organisations issued a statement protesting against the law. Another petition was sent to the president on January 20, by the Voice of Freedom group and the Association of Civil Society Support Centres, urging Bakiev to veto the law.
Analysts interviewed by IWPR agree the legislation could radically reshape the way the security forces are used in Kyrgyzstan.
"Public order is [constitutionally] the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, not that of the army," said Isa Omurkulov, a member of parliament from the Social Democratic Party.
Dinara Oshurakhunova, who heads the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, told IWPR that the police and army - which come under the interior and defence ministries, respectively - must be kept separate.
"Each institution has specific roles - the army's role is to defend the state from external enemies, while that of the police is maintain law and order inside the country. The roles of these two institutions should not be confused," she said.
Oshurakhunova said she believed that the authorities were planning to use the army to rein in the opposition.
The draft law comes at a time of growing political tension in Kyrgyzstan, which has been deeply shaken by the global financial crisis.
In December last year, opposition groups joined forces against a backdrop of soaring unemployment and fuel shortages, and presented a list of radical demands, including the resignation of the president.
On January 12, at its first formal meeting, the United People's Movement, UPM, announced that it planned to hold nationwide protests demanding an improvement to the economic crisis in the country.
Oshurakhunova said that as financial turmoil continued, people were expecting conditions to get worse.
"Many people expect the prices for basic services and food to rise in the near future, which will cause living conditions to deteriorate," she said.
She said that the country's leaders should focus on tackling the underlying problems such as energy shortages and the soaring cost of food and basic services, which are driving people into the arms of the opposition.
"Instead of drafting anti-crisis plans and measures to overcome the financial and socio-economic crisis, officials are introducing tighter measures to suppress potential public unrest," she said.
Abdygul Chotbayev, a former member of Bishkek city council and before that the first commander of Kyrgyzstan's National Guard force, is concerned that the authorities are responding to public discontent by introducing greater restrictions.
"By engaging the army in domestic affairs, the authorities are trying to become stronger," he said.
Chotbayev cited the so-called revolution of March 2005, when the then president Askar Akaev was ousted after people took to the streets to protest against his authoritarian regime. He warned that if the legislation was passed, such a revolt would be crushed by the army,
"If the army were to become involved in such a situation, whom should it defend, the authorities or the people? The answer is quite obvious - the army would have to defend the authorities," he said. "What we are witnessing today is the authorities striding towards an authoritarian regime"
Omurkulov, whose Social Democratic Party opposed the law in parliament, where it is a tiny minority against the governing Ak Jol party, said he thought the government had grown alarmed by the opposition's new-found unity and assertiveness.
"The authorities are concerned about the consolidation and radicalisation of the opposition, whose ideas and proposals on reforms have been ignored," said Omurkulov.
He said he believed the authorities were preparing to clamp down on opposition activities, pointing out that the government has been buying defence and security equipment and has earmarked more money for the presidential bodyguards in this year's budget.
"They have bought modern weaponry including night-vision devices, eavesdropping equipment, and water-cannons. The authorities are preoccupied with militarising the state in order to remain in power, instead of using the money to pay wages and pensions," he said.
However, the authorities have dismissed these concerns.
Asanbek Baytikov, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Security, Law and Order, and Legal Reform, confirmed that more money had been spent on providing bodyguards for the president and procuring modern weapons. But he said there was nothing sinister about this.
"Increasing spending on defence capacity is a good thing, and it's also important to support the state bodyguards, who are paid out of the government budget like anyone else," said Baytikov. When budget funds are allocated for any sector, it's a sign the country is growing and developing."
During a parliamentary debate on January 26, Defence Minister Baktybek Kalyev insisted there was nothing ominous in the bill's wording.
"There are many situations when we employ our conscript soldiers in various peaceful activities as set out in defence ministry regulations. These activities do not include dealing with domestic political matters," he said.
Begaly Nargozuyev of the ruling party Ak Jol said Kalyev's speech convinced him that the army would deploy only in emergencies, such as an outbreak of inter-ethnic fighting or looting.
"We have enough [interior ministry] personnel - about 17,000 policemen - to maintain public order. Rallies [against Bakiev] in 2006 showed us that the police can successfully deal with thousands of people," Nargozuyev told IWPR.
Major Kurman Nasirov, deputy head of the defence ministry's legal department, also argued that the law was uncontroversial, adding, "I think certain politicians and human rights activists want to play up this bill for PR purposes. This clause is not a new one, as it was earlier included in rules for army service approved in August 1998."
Yet Ismail Isakov, a former defence minister who recently defected to the opposition, said the president should refuse to sign the bill.
Allowing the army to intervene in public order matters could prove highly dangerous, he said.
"The army is not the police. It will use live ammunition because it doesn't have batons or rubber bullets like the police," he said.
Isakov said soldiers had a right not to disobey their superiors if their conscience so dictated, and could also be held accountable for harm done to civilians even when they were carrying out orders.
"Despite the fact that every soldier must follow his commander's orders, the [army] rules include a clause stating that he has a right not to do so if the order is wrong," he explained. "If something happens, the individual who fired the shot will be accused, not the person who gave the order."
Mirgul Akimova is a pseudonym for an independent journalist in Bishkek.
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