2001 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 5.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 6

Ratings Change he Kyrgyz Republic's political rights rating changed from 5 to 6, and its status from Partly Free to Not Free, due to the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections that were neither free nor fair, and the further consolidation of power by the country's president.

Overview

Once regarded as Central Asia's greatest hope for democracy, the Kyrgyz Republic saw its reputation increasingly tarnished by seriously flawed February parliamentary and October presidential polls. President Askar Akayev's government stepped up its efforts to silence critics of the regime by barring opposition candidates and parties from competing in both elections, and by bringing politically motivated criminal charges against the most influential opposition figures. In an widely anticipated victory, President Akayev was overwhelmingly reelected to another five-year term in what international observers and opposition groups condemned as an undemocratic election marred by widespread irregularities.

Populated by nomadic herders and ruled by tribal leaders for centuries, the Kyrgyz Republic was conquered by Russia in the mid-1800s and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1924. Following a declaration of independence from the U.S.S.R. in August 1991, Askar Akayev, a respected physicist, was elected president two months later in the country's first direct presidential vote. While Akayev introduced multiparty elections and pursued economic reforms in conjunction with International Monetary Fund (IMF) requirements, he faced strong resistance from a Communist-dominated parliament elected in 1990.

The 1995 parliamentary elections, which were contested by more than 1,000 candidates representing 12 political parties, saw voting occur largely along ethnic and clan lines. No single party won a clear majority, with a mix of governing officials, intellectuals, and clan leaders capturing 82 out of 105 seats. Later that year, Akayev was reelected president in early elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. In a February 1996 referendum, 94 percent of voters endorsed constitutional amendments that substantially increased the powers of the presidency.

A series of constitutional amendments proposed by Akayev, including restructuring the parliament and providing for private ownership of land, were adopted by public referendum in October 1998. In December, the entire cabinet resigned after Akayev accused its members of mishandling the country's growing economic difficulties. Zhumabek Ibraimov, the former head of the property fund responsible for privatization, was subsequently appointed the new prime minister.

After just three months in office, Ibraimov died of cancer in April 1999 and was replaced by Armangeldi Muraliyev, a former governor of the southern region of Osh. Later that month, Felix Kulov, the mayor of Bishkek and an outspoken critic of Akayev, resigned in protest over supposed allegations that he was part of a plot to overthrow the government.

In August, armed Islamic militants entered the southern region of the Kyrgyz Republic twice from bases in neighboring Tajikistan, seizing several villages and holding their inhabitants hostage. Most of the rebels appeared to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a radical group claiming to seek the overthrow of the secular government of Uzbekistan and replace it with an Islamic state. Among their proclaimed goals for the August incursions were the release of their supporters from Uzbek prisons and passage into Uzbekistan. However, many analysts believe that the IMU's primary aim is to expand its lucrative drug trafficking route north into Uzbekistan. After weeks of negotiations with, and military attacks against, the rebels, many of whom escaped back to Tajikistan, the last of the hostages was released in October.

In the highly flawed February 2000 parliamentary poll, opposition parties, including the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (PDMK), El Bei-Bechora (The People's Party), and Ar-Namys (Dignity), were barred from the vote over minor legal technicalities widely regarded as politically motivated charges. The El Bei-Bechora leader, Danier Usenov, was banned from running in a single-mandate constituency in the March 12 second-round runoff for allegedly failing to declare accurately his personal assets. Ar-Namys chairman Felix Kulov, who ran as an independent candidate, lost in the runoff by a suspiciously large margin despite having enjoyed a secure lead in the first round.

According to official election results, the Communist Party received the largest percentage of votes, 27 percent, followed by the pro-government Union of Democratic Forces with 19 percent, the Democratic Party of Women, 13 percent, the Party of War Veterans, 8 percent, the Fatherland Socialist Party (Ata-Meken), 6 percent, and the Party of My Country, 5 percent. International election observers, including representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), noted numerous serious irregularities such as interference by state officials in the electoral process, attempts to bribe voters, the stuffing of ballot boxes, violations in tabulating the votes, the forging of ballots, and an overt bias in state media in favor of pro-government parties.

Shortly after the second-round runoff, Kulov was arrested on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power allegedly committed while national security minister in the mid-1990s. Most analysts regarded Kulov's arrest as an attempt to prevent him from running against Akayev in the October presidential election. Following more than four months in detention and a closed military trial, Kulov was acquitted in August and immediately declared his candidacy for president.

For the second successive year, armed militants believed to be members of the IMU crossed from Tajikistan into the southern Batken province of the Kyrgyz Republic in mid-August. After several months of intense battles between the rebels and Uzbek and Kyrgyz troops, the fighting appeared to have ceased with the onset of winter.

The October 29 presidential election was contested by six candidates, including the heavily favored incumbent, Akayev, who received nearly 75 percent of the vote. Omurbek Tekebayev, deputy speaker of parliament and leader of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, came in a distant second with 14 percent, while industrialist Almazbek Atambayev received 6 percent. The other three candidates received less than two percent each. Akayev's main rival, Kulov, had been denied registration as a candidate for refusing to take a mandatory Kyrgyz language exam. Kulov, who acknowledged that Russian was his first language, and other critics of the test requirement maintained that it violated election laws and the constitution, had been introduced that year to eliminate certain candidates from the race and ensure Akayev's reelection, and included arbitrary methods for evaluating language proficiency. As with the parliamentary elections, international monitors and opposition figures cited widespread irregularities, including the exclusion of candidates for political purposes, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and biased media coverage.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic cannot change their government democratically. International election observers described the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections as neither free nor fair. The 1996 constitution codifies strong presidential rule and a weak parliament, and the post of prime minister is largely ceremonial. The bicameral legislature is composed of a 45-member upper chamber, which meets only occasionally to approve the budget and confirm presidential appointees, and a 60-seat lower chamber. The constitution limits the president to only two terms in office. However, President Akayev was allowed to run in 2000 after the constitutional court ruled that his first term began in 1995, rather than in 1991, when he effectively ran unopposed.

The government increased its crackdown against critics of the regime in 2000, including its conviction of opposition leader Danier Usenov on assault charges and its trial of Felix Kulov on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement. In August, the head of the Guild of Prisoners of Conscience, Topchubek Turgunaliyev, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on politically motivated charges of attempting to assassinate President Akayev.

While there is some degree of press freedom in the Kyrgyz Republic, state and private media are vulnerable to government pressure, which causes many journalists to practice self-censorship. All media are required to register with the ministry of justice, and an article in the criminal code regarding libel is used to prosecute journalists who criticize government officials. The Kyrgyz authorities increased their repression of the media leading up to the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections. In January, the independent newspaper Res Publica was fined several thousand dollars for an article alleged to have violated the honor and dignity of a government official. In June, independent journalist Moldosali Ibrahimov was fined and sentenced to two years in prison for libel over a report that a judge had engaged in bribery. After having spent five weeks in jail, Ibrahimov was released and had his fine reduced following an appeals hearing. In August, three staff members of the independent weekly paper Delo No reportedly were harshly treated during interrogation over an article printed on the closed trial of Felix Kulov, which authorities claimed divulged state secrets.

Freedom of religion is generally respected in this largely Muslim country, although at times the government has infringed upon these rights. All religious organizations must register with the State Commission on Religious Affairs and the ministry of justice to obtain status as a legal entity. In 2000, the government increased its repression of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir Islamic movement, which it claims to be a dangerous group of religious extremists, convicting dozens of its members on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred.

Freedom of assembly and association is respected inconsistently, with local authorities sometimes using registration requirements for demonstrations to inhibit this right. Immediately following the second round of the 2000 parliamentary poll, dozens of protesters took to the streets in weeks of public demonstrations to condemn the flawed elections and the subsequent arrest of Felix Kulov and other opposition figures on politically motivated charges. Police reportedly responded by arresting and beating many of the participants. Most of the approximately two dozen political parties in the country are small and weak, and many were prohibited from fielding candidates in the last parliamentary election.

While some nongovernmental organizations operate with little or no state interference, the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR), which has defended independent media and publicized government pressure on the judiciary, has faced ongoing harassment by the authorities. In July, police sealed the offices of the KCHR and issued an arrest warrant for its director, Ramazan Dyryldayev, who had fled abroad.

A 1992 law permits the formation of trade unions and the right to bargain collectively. Most workers belong to the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan, the successor to the Soviet-era labor organization.

Despite various legislative reforms in the court system, the judiciary is not independent and remains dominated by the executive branch. Corruption among judges is reportedly widespread, and courts of elders continue to operate in remote regions of the country. Police frequently use violence against suspects during arrest and interrogation. Conditions in the country's prisons, which suffer from overcrowding, food shortages, and a lack of other basic necessities, remain very poor.

Personal connections, corruption, and organized crime limit business competition and equality of opportunity. In December, parliament voted to allow Kyrgyz citizens to own land for agricultural use. Women are active in the workforce and educational institutions, although they are underrepresented in government and politics. Domestic violence, rape, and trafficking of women and girls into forced prostitution abroad are serious problems.

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