Nations in Transit - Kyrgyzstan (2005)

  • Author: Eugene Huskey, Askat Dukenbaev
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    15 June 2005

Capital: Bishkek
Population: 5,100,000
Status: Not Free
PPP: $290
Private Sector as % of GNI: na
Life Expectancy: 68
Religious Groups: Muslim (75 percent), Russian Orthodox (20 percent), other (5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Kyrgyz (64.9 percent), Russian (12.5 percent), Uzbek (13.8 percent), Ukrainian (1 percent), other (8 percent)

NIT Ratings1997199819992001200320042005
National GovernanceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A6.00
Electoral Process5.
Civil Society4.504.504.504.504.504.504.50
Independent Media5.
Local GovernanceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.75
Judicial Framework and IndependenceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.50
Democracy RatingN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.64

Executive Summary

It is difficult to separate the fate of independent Kyrgyzstan from the leadership of its first and only president, Askar Akaev, who initially assumed office in 1990. In the first years of post-Communist rule, Akaev set the country on an unusually rapid course of democratization and liberalization. The promise of Kyrgyzstan as an oasis of democracy in Central Asia faded, however, by the mid-1990s. In response to the criticism of his more authoritarian neighbors, mounting economic crises, and attacks on his leadership by a vigorous national press, President Akaev began to limit electoral competition and to rule around the legislature by referendum. The result was the consolidation of a superpresidential order, which alienated segments of Kyrgyzstani society that were not part of the presidential team. Despite the constraints that Akaev has imposed on the political opposition, he has allowed some space for civil society and has limited the state's role in the economy. He has also expressed his commitment to stepping down in 2005 when his term expires. Thus, although Akaev has failed to live up to the hopes engendered by his early political career, he has pursued a far softer authoritarianism than leaders in several neighboring states.

Preparations for the Akaev succession dominated political developments in Kyrgyzstan in 2004. The latest electoral cycle began with local elections in October and will continue into 2005 with parliamentary elections on February 27 and presidential elections on October 30. The local elections, which form part of a campaign to decentralize state administration in Kyrgyzstan, represent the first time that new technologies, such as transparent ballot boxes, have been used in Kyrgyzstani elections and the first time that political parties have participated actively in local campaigns, through either the offering of candidates or the placement of representatives on election commissions. The promised retirement of President Akaev in 2005 has prompted a flurry of maneuvers by politicians and political parties to position themselves for the elections. Some observers are optimistic that the fissures in the ruling elite and the new linkages between opposition politicians and renegades from the president's team will bring about the first democratic transfer of power in post-Communist Kyrgyzstan; other observers remain convinced that the president will either remain in office by extending his term or transfer power à la russe to a member of his political "family."

National Democratic Governance. Despite the presidency's domination of state institutions in Kyrgyzstan, the Parliament in 2004 exhibited its willingness to challenge presidential power by seeking to revise the draft law On the Government to allow deputies to confirm ministers individually, which would limit presidential patronage power. The Parliament also showed its independence by holding investigations into the executive's use of the security services to spy on parliamentary deputies. Furthermore, the limits of Akaev's hold on the country were evident in the defection from the presidential team of the head of the Security Council, Misir Ashirkulov. Significant divisions within the ruling elite suggest that Akaev has not succeeded in consolidating a superpresidential order. Kyrgyzstan's rating for national democratic governance is 6.00, based on the limitations on presidential power that a vocal parliament and an invigorated opposition represent and on the absence of turbulent events in 2004 that challenged the authority of the state.

Electoral Process. Local elections were held across the country in October 2004 under new legislation that mandated multimember districts, the use of new voting technologies, and an enhanced role for the local assemblies. Although party competition was not as vigorous as anticipated, it represented a considerable improvement on previous local elections, when most seats on local councils were uncontested. Critics of the election point to the low turnout in the capital (36.5 percent) and some irregularities on election day, such as double voting, but overall the elections took place with surprisingly few serious problems. Moreover, in a region of the world where false reporting of electoral results is the norm, the willingness of the authorities to admit low turnout is itself encouraging. Preparations for the following year's parliamentary and presidential elections continued without serious incident through the end of 2004, and President Akaev did not renege on his promise to step down from power. As the year drew to a close, however, President Akaev issued statements about the threat of extremist disruptions of the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. These statements were a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the opposition and rally the population behind the ruling elite. The rating on electoral process in Kyrgyzstan remains 6.00, but the relative success of the local elections of 2004 and the formation of what may prove to be viable electoral alliances among opposition parties in anticipation of the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections offers potential for improvement next year.

Civil Society. As indicated by the number and level of engagement of social groups and political parties, Kyrgyzstan continues to sustain a civil society that is vibrant by Central Asian standards. The first notable trend in 2004 was an intensification of the press campaign against foreign-supported nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Pro-government newspapers often published venomous anti-American and anti-Western articles that found NGOs guilty by association. The second trend was the hardening of state policy toward Hizb ut-Tahrir, a clandestine Muslim organization that espouses a return to a caliphate. Some Kyrgyzstani Muslims, especially ethnic Uzbeks in the South, have viewed the proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir as an unjustifiably harsh approach to a component of Muslim civil society. Kyrgyzstan's rating for civil society remains unchanged at 4.50, reflecting a continuing standoff between a state intent on limiting opposition behavior and a society unwilling to be cowed into submission.

Independent Media. The independent media in Kyrgyzstan remain in a precarious position owing to the difficult economics of the newspaper industry in a developing society, the dominant position occupied by state-owned or state-supported media outlets, and official efforts designed to impede the development of alternative voices in the media. In 2004, these latter measures included threats to sanction an opposition newspaper for selling its issues at below market prices and a campaign that accused the independent press of being agents of Western governments. Despite these continuing constraints on the press, compared with previous years, conditions for the independent media did improve somewhat in 2004. During 2004, there were no beatings, jailings, or killings of journalists and fewer lawsuits against opposition newspapers. This is not to say that no journalists' rights were violated, merely that fewer extreme measures were employed against journalists. Moreover, a private printing press supported by foreign organizations now offers an alternative to the single state-run printing house, Uchkun. Finally, President Akaev supported changes to the criminal code that would eliminate criminal libel, though as yet the Parliament has refused to adopt this legislation. Given the gradual movement in the direction of greater freedom for the press, the rating for independent media for 2004 improves from 6.00 to 5.75.

Local Democratic Governance. Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of a major reshaping of state administration at the local level. Laws addressing the election of local assemblies, the selection of the heads of local executives, the relations between local government and regional and central power, and the budgetary and policy powers of local institutions were being put into practice in 2004. With the assistance of international aid agencies, Kyrgyzstan has begun to transform local government from a poorly funded appendage of regional power to a more efficient and self-sufficient level of government. It is still too early, however, to render a firm judgment about the success of this experiment. Because decentralization efforts are in progress, and many elements of the traditional system of local government are still in place, the new rating for local democratic governance is set at 5.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The major structural change in the Kyrgyzstani legal system in 2004 was the integration of the commercial courts into the courts of general jurisdiction. One purpose of this reform was to eliminate what had become the most corrupt branch in the Kyrgyzstani judiciary. However, without major changes in personnel and a diminution of clan and financial influences on judicial decision making, it is not clear that the organizational revamping of the court system will alter judicial behavior. The president has also approved several changes in the country's criminal code, including a reduction in the number of crimes for which the death penalty may be applied, but those revisions are unlikely to reduce appreciably the cultural and procedural biases to which accused persons are subjected in the criminal process in Kyrgyzstan. Given the absence of significant changes realized in 2004 in judicial framework and independence in Kyrgystan, the rating remains at 5.50.

Corruption. President Akaev placed corruption at the center of the national agenda in 2003 by forming a National Council on Good Government and launching a press campaign to condemn corruption. Numerous exposés of official misconduct followed, as did selective prosecutions aimed primarily at low- to middle-level functionaries in areas such as law enforcement. Unfortunately, corruption remains endemic in Kyrgyzstan and there is no firm evidence from 2004 that this latest anticorruption drive has had any effect. One encouraging development is the introduction of the position of state secretary in the ministries, a post designed to limit corruption and cronyism in the hiring of government employees. Because this measure took effect only at the end of 2004, it is too early to assess its impact on corruption in government hiring. As a result, Kyrgyzstan's rating for corruption remains at 6.00.

Outlook for 2005. At the end of 2004, Kyrgyzstan was at a tipping point in its political development. The current electoral cycle, which culminates with parliamentary elections on February 27,2005, and presidential elections on October 30,2005, could push the country into a deeper authoritarianism or result in a democratic breakthrough. It appears unlikely that the current semiauthoritarian equilibrium, which has been in place for several years, can be maintained. Set against the presidential "family" desperate to maintain its power and perquisites is a growing opposition that is drawn not just from the ranks of the permanently disillusioned, but from leading governmental officials. This contest between two irreconcilable forces sets up the possibility, although not the likelihood, of a "yellow" revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Much will depend on the opposition's tactics and organizational skills and the response of the population to the electoral manipulation that the ruling elite will employ to keep itself in power.

National Governance (Score: 6.00)

Unlike most Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan had a leadership at independence that embraced the values of an open society and democratic politics. Although its first president, Askar Akaev, had worked for a short time in the republic's conservative Communist Party apparatus, he was by profession a physicist whose support for political and economic reform was unusually passionate for a member of the Kyrgyz ruling class. In his first years in office, Akaev worked closely with Western governments and international financial institutions to pursue policies designed to make Kyrgyzstan an oasis of democracy in Central Asia.

Under Akaev's leadership, Kyrgyzstan introduced its first Constitution in 1993, and its opening provisions espoused broad freedoms for the individual and a commitment to democratic government. However, the detailed articles governing state institutions created the potential for an authoritarian order by elevating the president above the other branches of government. Although the principle of a separation of powers is enshrined in the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan, the formal head of the executive branch is not the president, but the prime minister. Thus, while there is a poorly functioning system of checks and balances among the three branches of government, there is no effective institutional restraint on presidential power. The president is free to act as a republican monarch who towers above legislative, executive, and judicial institutions.

The first clear signs that Akaev would use the formal powers of his office to erode democratic development appeared in 1994, during a period of worsening economic conditions and rising criticism of Akaev's policies by Parliament and the press. During that year, the president closed two opposition newspapers, encouraged the dissolution of Parliament, and called a referendum to amend the Constitution, which should have been done by parliamentary action rather than by plebiscite. In the intervening decade, the president has repeatedly employed the referendum to amass additional powers and undermine legislative authority. Moreover, as detailed below, the president has employed numerous means to limit contestation in presidential elections. Therefore, since the mid-1990s the governmental system of Kyrgyzstan has not been democratic.

Unlike several of its neighbors, however, Kyrgyzstan has a semiauthoritarian rather than an authoritarian order. One important reason for this distinction is the continuing vitality and independence of the legislature. Although the legislature is not an especially effective lawmaking body, it does serve to challenge the powers and policies of the president and the executive branch. It therefore fulfills one of the key functions of parliaments in democratic regimes: it subjects the activities of the president and the executive branch to public scrutiny and criticism. In recent years, for example, members of Parliament have attacked the president and his government for concessions made to China and Uzbekistan on the delimitation of the country's borders. The legislature also refuses at times to acquiesce to presidential proposals, thus forcing the president to circumvent the Parliament through popular referendums. In discussions in 2004 over a new law, On the Government (Council of Ministers), the Parliament insisted on a provision that would give the legislature the right to confirm ministers individually rather than as an entire cabinet, which would subject presidential appointees to far greater scrutiny. Moreover, at the end of 2004 the Parliament refused to ratify a treaty with Kazakhstan signed by Akaev, and it did not approve the privatization of the energy sector, a measure that had been backed by the president.

To argue that the legislature has not been fully captured by the president, however, is not to say that it is fully accountable to the public. Because elections in many legislative districts are not free and fair, a significant percentage of parliamentary deputies do not have a genuine democratic mandate from their constituents. Instead of being accountable to the public, many deputies are accountable to powerful business interests, to governors and networks of local political power, or to the presidential administration.

In semipresidential regimes such as Kyrgyzstan's, the prime minister and his cabinet should be accountable to the public through a democratically elected parliament. The reality, however, is that they are accountable primarily to the president. Although the Parliament retains the formal right to replace the prime minister through a vote of no confidence, it is the president who hires and fires the leader of the government as well as the ministers. Much like the apparatus of the Communist Party in Soviet-era Kyrgyzstan, the current presidential administration shadows government ministries, and therefore the lines of authority and responsibility between the two are not always clear. Public access to official information has increased somewhat in recent years because of the "electronic government" initiative, which is placing more government information on the Internet. However, much legal material remains available only to paying clients, and a "digital divide" exists between the capital and the regions.

Unlike in some other regions of the world, the military as an institution has not challenged civilian authority in Kyrgyzstan. This is not to say, however, that those in uniform remain detached from politics. Although the "militarization" of personnel policy has not been as pronounced in Kyrgyzstan under Akaev as in Russia under its president, Vladimir Putin, recent years have witnessed the recruitment of a larger share of prominent officials in the government and presidential administration from security service backgrounds.

In 2004, there was a major scandal that implicated the security services in the surveillance of parliamentary deputies for political purposes. The bugging of the offices of opposition-oriented deputies prompted a parliamentary investigation, which produced a report in May 2004 that was highly critical of the security services. In the wake of this report, the Parliament created a permanent committee to monitor the surveillance activities of the security services, which was another example of the Parliament's willingness to challenge executive authority.

One positive development in the realm of civil service reform was the presidential decree of November 3,2004, which creates state secretaries in each government ministry. Unlike other deputy ministers, the state secretary is a permanent civil servant who does not change when the minister is replaced. Based on the German model of administration, this institution is designed to combat corruption and cronyism by vesting key responsibilities for personnel policy – and the protection of the neutrality of the civil service – in the hands of the state secretary. As part of a broader reform of the Kyrgyzstani civil service, this decree was followed by the December 17 announcement of the first competitive hiring under new civil service legislation. If implemented faithfully, these measures, taken together with the new Law on the Civil Service, would improve governance in Kyrgyzstan by reducing corruption and developing a civil service that is more accountable, professional, and politically neutral, noted pro-government daily Slovo Kyrgyzstana.

For several reasons, Kyrgyzstan is less stable today than in the 1990s. First, there is growing discontent with the Akaev presidency, which has split the educated classes in Kyrgyzstan into two warring factions: pro-presidential and anti-presidential. Attempts by the president to bridge these factional differences through mechanisms such as a national roundtable have not succeeded, and not all opponents can be bought off with sinecures and perquisites. As a result, incidents such as the killing in 2002 of peaceful protesters in Aksy by the district police can quickly escalate into a national governing crisis, in which some opposition leaders use popular protests to demand an end to the Akaev era. In the case of the tragedy in Aksy, a district in the Jalal-Abad region of southern Kyrgyzstan, the president sought to defuse the crisis by reshuffling his government.

A second reason for the unstable atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan is the uncertainty surrounding the presidential election scheduled for October 30,2005. On numerous occasions, President Akaev has insisted that he will not run for a further term of office, but unlike President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, who groomed Putin for the presidency, Akaev has not signaled his intention to select an heir. With extraordinary power concentrated in the hands of the presidency, the contest to replace the country's first and only leader is likely to produce a succession crisis. If Akaev does remain true to his word, so much will be at stake in next year's presidential election including the wealth, jobs, political muscle, and physical protection provided by the reins of state power that some in the president's entourage may resort to almost any means to retain their hold on power. Suspending or postponing the election could call into question the very governability of the country. One factor that may mitigate the dangers posed by a blatant interference with the electoral process is the lack of a popular consensus on democracy as the basis for the country's political system. In the minds of many ordinary Kyrgyzstanis, democracy has become associated with poverty and uncertainty, so the democratic consensus that is at the center of political culture in the West is fragile at best in Kyrgyzstan.

Intraethnic and interethnic tensions also raise concerns about government stability in Kyrgyzstan. The most potent social divide is that between northern and southern Kyrgyz. The north is not only better off economically, but its native sons and daughters have dominated Kyrgyzstani politics throughout the period of independence, in contrast with the late Soviet era, when southerners were in charge. The resentment of southerners toward the current administration has been evident during presidential elections, in which Akaev fares far less well in the south than in his native north. Southerners continue to insist on a politics of inclusion and a more equal distribution of investment and government spending across the country, including, for example, the transfer of several government ministries to the main southern city of Osh. The country's leadership, however, has not yet gone beyond a rhetorical or symbolic commitment to a redistribution of political and economic power from north to south.

The interethnic tension that continues to pose the most formidable challenge to social and political stability is that between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. Although Uzbeks, who live primarily in the south, have held their own in the economic transition, they have fallen further behind the Kyrgyz in the political transition. Uzbeks are now dramatically underrepresented in the halls of power. Even in the most benign environment, the failure to integrate into the political system a minority that represents more than 15 percent of a country's population would be unwise, but in Kyrgyzstan it could be explosive. Through their exposure to relatives, textbooks, and media outlets from neighboring Uzbekistan, ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are drawn toward the political community of Uzbekistan as well as that of Kyrgyzstan. Even without an overt politics of irredentism on the part of the government of Uzbekistan, ethnic Uzbeks living in southern Kyrgyzstan have reason to withhold some support for a Kyrgyzstani political community. As a prominent ethnic Uzbek observer recently complained in Slovo Kyrgyzstana, "Southern youth only have a chance to work in government at the local level. We want Uzbeks to work in the central organs of power."

Specialists in the region and beyond remain divided over whether radical Islam poses a serious threat to the stability of Kyrgyzstan. Beginning in 1999, the country's southwestern region, Batken, was the site of armed conflict between the armies of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, on the one hand, and Uzbek rebels from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU, now known as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan), on the other. Although the latter's aim was to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan, the IMU's presence in Batken served to destabilize that region of Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, the American invasion of Afghanistan ended major military operations by the IMU, which had used Afghanistan as a base of operations. Whether Islamist values were a flag of convenience for the IMU or a genuine source of inspiration remains in dispute. In the view of the Kyrgyzstani government, the current threat lies in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party whose avowed long-term goal is the introduction of a new caliphate. In trying to crush this largely clandestine movement by using extraordinary policing measures, the government of Kyrgyzstan has produced a backlash from some devout Muslims that may prove more destabilizing than Hizb ut-Tahrir itself. The backlash has been particularly prominent among ethnic Uzbeks.

Electoral Process (Score: 6.00)

Most of the formal electoral procedures in Kyrgyzstan differ little from those found in fully democratic states. There is universal and equal suffrage and few legal or administrative barriers to the formation of political parties. Moreover, changes to the electoral rules made in 2004 promise to create additional safeguards for the conduct of free and fair elections. Among these are the introduction of transparent ballot boxes, the use of indelible ink on voters' fingertips (to prevent multiple voting), and the appointment of representatives of political parties and social organizations to two thirds of the seats on the country's electoral commissions, which in the past were poorly monitored extensions of executive power. The most recent figures show that eight political parties have taken advantage of this opportunity.

Despite a normative framework for elections that corresponds to democratic requirements, electoral practice in Kyrgyzstan severely limits political competition. As the country's ruling group has gained experience with the mechanisms of democratic elections, it has learned how to manage the electoral process to stymie the opposition. Although Kyrgyzstan does not have elections of acclamation, barriers are placed in the path of regime opponents who seek elective office. These were clearly evident in the 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections, which did not correspond to "standards for equal, free, fair, and accountable elections," according to international observers and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In the presidential election, for example, President Akaev's political allies used criminal prosecution, a language exam, technicalities in the registration process, and the offering of plum executive and ambassadorial appointments to prevent the president's most serious contenders from running against him. During the campaign against lesser political figures, President Akaev's team mobilized state officials at all levels behind the reelection effort and imposed a virtual information blockade on the opposition. Where Akaev was the subject of 600 hours of coverage on the main national television channel, almost all of it positive, his main opponent received less than 5 hours of coverage, about half of which had a negative slant. Finally, the voting itself was marred by irregularities, especially in university precincts, where students were often denied the right to a secret ballot.

Although it is too early to assess the fairness of the October 2004 local elections, preliminary reports in Slovo Kyrgyzstana indicate that a new form of voting fraud has emerged: having others vote for the significant number of Kyrgyz guest workers now resident in Russia. An additional restraint on transparency in electoral campaigns was added in 2004 to the Law on Elections, which now forbids the publication of "public opinion polls, projections of the electoral outcome, or other studies relating to elections" once candidates for office have registered with election officials. Moreover, changes to the electoral code introduced in January 2004 further restrict competition by increasing the deposit required of presidential candidates to 1,000 times the country's state-regulated monthly salary and by limiting the parliamentary campaign to 25 days and the presidential campaign to 35 days.

In 2004, Kyrgyzstan had 43 political parties, several of which boasted over 10,000 members, though official figures on party membership are disputed. Despite the presence of multiple parties, however, Kyrgyzstan lacks a well-organized opposition in the Parliament as well as in the country. Parties play only a minor role in the national legislature owing to a lack of internal discipline and the fragmentation of party representation in the Parliament. At several points in the last decade, President Akaev has approved the formation of parties of power that would support his agenda in the Parliament, but no party has a parliamentary majority, and many seats are occupied by independents who are tied to purely local interests. In regional and local assemblies, parties have been virtually nonexistent. However, in 2004 the government openly encouraged parties to compete in the October 10 local elections, in part as a means to mobilize support for the newest party of power, Alga, Kyrgyzstan! (Forward, Kyrgyzstan!). On average, there were 1.6 candidates for each seat in the local elections across the country and 6 per seat in the capital of Bishkek, according to ITAR-TASS, Moscow, and BBC Monitoring International Reports.

To further hinder the formation of an effective bloc of opposition parties, the presidential administration uses tactics designed to co-opt selective members of the opposition and sow dissension among the rest. This policy of divide and rule is facilitated by the unchecked personal ambitions of many opposition politicians, the dearth of organizational skills within opposition parties, and the lack of social capital carried over from the Soviet era.

These impediments to party cooperation notwithstanding, the unpopularity of the Akaev administration served in 2004 as a catalyst for the expansion and at least temporary unification of most of the country's opposition forces. In the summer of 2004, in anticipation of the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, nine opposition parties formed an electoral bloc, the Popular Movement of Kyrgyzstan, which plans to advance a common slate of candidates for parliamentary seats as well as a single candidate for the presidency, former prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiev. Three other opposition blocs also emerged in 2004: the Civic Union for Fair Elections, whose leader, Misir Ashirkulov, had previously been Akaev's Security Council chair; Jany Bagyt (New Course), headed by former foreign minister Muratbek Imanaliev; and Ata-Jurt (Fatherland), led by another former diplomat, Rosa Otunbaeva. This fracturing of the ruling elite presents new dangers for Kyrgyzstani politics, but it also creates the potential for new alliances to emerge, which can break the dominance of the Akaev "family" and usher in a period of greater political pluralism.

Kyrgyzstan's political culture and electoral system have severely limited the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the Parliament. At present, women occupy only 6 of the 105 seats in the national legislature. Single-member districts, where voters are often forced to choose between a man and a woman, pose a formidable barrier to female legislative representation, especially in more traditional societies. Women are more likely to be elected in multimember districts or in proportional representation systems with a closed list, in which party officials can construct the party list so that it includes underrepresented groups. The latter system existed in Kyrgyzstan, but only for 15 of the Parliament's 105 seats. Under new legislation that takes effect with the February 27,2005, parliamentary elections, Kyrgyzstan's 105-seat bicameral legislature will be replaced by a single chamber of 75 deputies, each elected in single-member districts. Thus, in less than 15 years of independence, the citizens of Kyrgyzstan have seen the size of their national legislature shrink from its original 350 members to 105 and now to 75.

Although there is no optimal size for legislative bodies, multiethnic societies like Kyrgyzstan tend to dilute the minority vote when they have small assemblies that use single-member districts and majoritarian voting. The new rules will do nothing to reverse this trend. In the current Parliament, elected in 2000, Uzbeks claim only 4 percent of the seats, even though they represent more than 15 percent of the country's population. Given the unfortunate history of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, and the tense relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the continued dilution of the ethnic Uzbek vote could threaten political stability in Kyrgyzstan. Legislation introduced at the end of 2004 makes it more likely that this pattern of minority vote dilution will continue in the 2005 parliamentary elections. In the past, deviations from the principle of one person/one vote in the drawing of constituency boundaries were limited to 5 percent in most regions and 10 percent for distant locales. The new legislation, however, gives those who draw the country's electoral boundaries more leeway for gerrymandering districts for partisan or ethnic purposes by allowing a deviation of 10 percent for most districts and 15 percent for remote districts.

Replacing the 105-seat bicameral legislature with a smaller single chamber will slightly reduce the cost of government. However, it also will further strengthen presidential power. Future legislation sought by the president will pass through one chamber instead of two, presidential aides responsible for assuring a friendly composition in the Parliament will concentrate on 75 rather than 105 races, and the number of deputies to mobilize to the president's side for key parliamentary votes will drop to less than 40, which represents half of the 75-person assembly. Therefore, the reduction in the legislature's size conserves the presidential administration's energy as well as political and other capital that may be exchanged for votes. It also makes it possible for a majority of the Parliament to be composed of an intimate circle of relatives and associates of the president.

Civil Society (Score: 4.50)

In the Western tradition, political autonomy is the essence of civil society. Although it is common in democracies for private associations to deal directly with government and, in countries where corporatism reigns, for certain privileged interest groups, known as "peak associations," to enjoy a special standing in the corridors of state power most institutional components of civil society jealously guard their independence from the state. However, like many other post-Communist societies, Kyrgyzstan has resisted the formation of a dense network of social organizations that might serve as a buffer between the state and its citizenry. Although the Kyrgyzstani government has not insisted on the transformation of all social groups into "transmission belts of state policy," to use Vladimir Lenin's phrase, it has used policies of co-optation and intimidation to restrain the growth of civil society.

Just as students of authoritarian regimes speak of "pocket parties," which are institutional extensions of a leader's personal power, one may describe many social organizations in Kyrgyzstan as "pocket groups," whose leaders are faithful to the ruling elite rather than their memberships. The most prominent "pocket group" in Kyrgyzstan is the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan, a consultative body comprising several hundred members drawn from all of the country's ethnic communities. Originally created in 1994 by Akaev as an alternative source of legitimacy to a recalcitrant parliament, the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly exhibited sycophancy toward the president. For example, in 2000 it openly supported the nomination of Akaev as president and called on other groups to do the same. It is at least partly funded by the presidential apparatus.

There are some independent associations and unions, such as the Journalists Association and the Council of Free Trade Union, but the dominant labor organization in the country, the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan, is a pocket group. The political forces surrounding President Akaev have also co-opted solidarity groups (such as clans) and traditional institutions (such as the aksakaldar, or village elders) into the ruling elite. For example, the government has mobilized village elders as arbiters of political and even legal matters in portions of the countryside. Aksakal courts now serve as something akin to the old comrades courts in villages, hearing minor criminal matters and civil disputes.

With the collapse of Soviet power and the economic crises of the 1990s, clans and other solidarity groups enjoyed a revival. Clans based on lineage remain a key part of an intricate network of political patronage and employment opportunities that the Akaev administration uses to legitimate and solidify its rule. By relying on clan support during electoral campaigns, for example, politicians from the ruling caste are able to turn the debates away from a politics of interest toward a politics of identity. In a report issued by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, one female candidate lamented that when she sought to challenge a politician from the dominant clan in her district, it was difficult to counter the power of the appeal made by her opponent's supporters: "He's our guy; let's not embarrass him." The danger of clan politics for the ruling elite is that on some matters politics is a zero-sum game and the victory of one clan means the defeat of another. As noted in the section on governance and stability, the dominance of northern clans associated with President Akaev has alienated many citizens of southern Kyrgyzstan.

At the end of 2004, Kyrgyzstan had over 5,000 registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including 1,825 public foundations and 220 religious groups, according to Slovo Kyrgyzstana. Because many of these groups pursue policies that are antithetical to the interests of the ruling elite, President Akaev has recently created the Agency for Relations with Society, which is designed to monitor and, if possible, co-opt independent social organizations. For those in power, some of the most troublesome social groups are the NGOs that receive direct or indirect financial support from the West. Because these organizations do not depend on government financing or patronage, they are freer to pursue policies that are at odds with the official policies of the state. In addition to their focus on projects addressing poverty alleviation, gender issues, and environmental protection, NGOs take an active role in human rights matters, election monitoring, and political party development. Financial independence does not provide a complete shelter from government intimidation, which has taken forms ranging from inspections by the tax police to direct physical threats against NGO activists. In 2004, many NGOs were also the subject of critical articles in the pro-government press. It is not surprising, then, that a widely reported study done by Russian pollsters found that the majority of Kyrgyzstan's citizens regarded NGO human rights activists and the independent media as a Trojan horse for the West.

Religious groups pose a special challenge for the Kyrgyzstani state. By most indicators, Kyrgyzstan now has several vibrant religious communities, with 1,592 mosques, 21 foreign religious missions, 830 Christian missionaries, and 240 Islamic missionaries from such countries as Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. In 2004, approximately 300 citizens of Kyrgyzstan were studying in Islamic schools abroad. At times, tensions arise among these communities, and incidents of violence against Christians have been widely reported, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan. Slovo Kyrgyzstana reported that from 1999 to 2003, law enforcement organs registered 347 instances of religious persecution of one citizen by another.

The major focus of state policy, however, is not on the protection of individuals from religious discrimination, but on the containment of Islamic groups that the regime regards as dangerous. Since the incursion of troops from the IMU into the country's southwestern province in 1999, Islamic groups that do not exhibit allegiance to religious organizations aligned with the state have been carefully monitored and in some cases suppressed by the authorities. As previously noted, the prime subject of this state crackdown on Islamic groups is Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party that in 2003 had 1,522 registered members in Kyrgyzstan. Although Hizb ut-Tahrir's adherents claim that its methods are peaceful and lawful, the authorities regard it as an extremist group and have pursued an aggressive policy of arresting anyone in possession of its literature. In 2004, alleged adherents of Hizb ut-Tahrir were tried in criminal cases in Osh and Jalal-Abad regions, and on November 20 in the city of Osh, a young man linked by the authorities to radical Islamist groups used a grenade to kill himself and a security service officer as he was being arrested.

Along with several nationalist parties founded by Uighurs, a Turkic people concentrated in China's Xinjiang province, Hizb ut-Tahrir was proscribed by a decision of the Supreme Court in October 2003. Whether actions such as these represent a restraint on religious freedom that will drive devout Muslims into the political underground or a necessary campaign against a serious threat to political and social stability remains a topic of fierce debate in Kyrgyzstan and the West. What is clear is that some devout Muslims in southern Kyrgyzstan have reacted angrily to what they regard as unequal treatment of Muslim and Christian proselytizing groups: where Hizb ut-Tahrir is suppressed, Christian evangelists are allowed to convert ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to Christianity. The passions aroused by Christian conversions among some Muslims could lead the government to adopt a more restrictive policy toward evangelizing Christian churches in the country.

Independent Media (Score: 5.75)

In terms of the laws relating to the mass media and the number of media organizations, Kyrgyzstan appears to enjoy an enviable position among Central Asian countries. In 2004, a total of 628 media organizations were registered with the Ministry of Justice 500 were newspapers or periodicals, and 128 were broadcast outlets. In addition, more than 800 Web sites based in Kyrgyzstan provide information electronically to the population. However, the number of registered media organizations bears little resemblance to the number of functioning newspapers and television and radio stations, which are 45 and 15, respectively.

By themselves, these figures would not be cause for concern. In a relatively poor country of 5 million persons, 45 newspapers and 15 television and radio stations could serve the information needs of the population. The problem is not in numbers, but in the lack of media competition and the difficulty of some citizens, especially those in rural areas, in gaining access to multiple media sources.

Two important factors contribute to the dominance of the media by political and economic forces that are closely allied to the ruling president. The first is financial. Government and government-related press outlets receive mailing and tax privileges that are not in place for the independent media, which must pay regular mail rates as well as a 20 percent value-added tax. In return for this privileged status, the press service of the government or president places articles under pseudonyms in Akaev-friendly newspapers. Second, the government-owned enterprise Uchkun has traditionally been the major printing press in the country, and the government has used the threat of nonpublication to intimidate opposition-oriented publications.

The government and powerful financial interests have subjected independent media personnel to various means of intimidation. These include physical assaults carried out by unknown thugs, pressure on companies that advertise in the independent media to halt their patronage, and lawsuits against the media. In the wake of the "gold scandal" of 1994, in which various officials were accused of wrongdoing by the press, investigative journalists and their editors were subjected to criminal prosecution and civil suits. In the most celebrated case, a journalist and an editor of the independent newspaper Res Publica were found guilty of criminal libel and imprisoned. In the decade since the gold scandal, politicians and businessmen have regularly turned to the courts to silence their critics in the press. In 2003, successful civil suits against the newspaper Moia Stolitsa Novosti, widely known as MSN, imposed such heavy damages that the paper was forced to close, though it managed to reopen under a new name within months. Although in most instances the civil libel cases are nuisance suits, the necessity to defend the papers in court saps the resources of a financially vulnerable press, and this has a chilling effect on investigative reporting.

Unwelcome pressure on the independent media appears to have decreased somewhat in 2004. During the year, there were no beatings, jailings, or killings of journalists and no lawsuits against the most prominent opposition newspapers, though the government did threaten the independent newspaper MSN with violating antimonopoly laws for selling their issues for less than those of their government-backed competitors. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan's national communications agency sought to keep the independent television station Pyramida permanently off the air after it closed temporarily for technical repairs to its transmitter. Only the intervention of George Soros led to a lifting of the ban on Pyramida. In some regions, local authorities continued to harass independent journalists. In July 2004, in Karakol, the regional procurator threatened to close down a local newspaper, Faktor, for having published a list of the country's 100 richest persons, an action that allegedly defamed President Akaev and his family.

At the end of 2003, a new printing house opened with financial support from the international community; and in 2004, this operation began to serve as a reliable alternative to Uchkun for many independent publications. The independent newspaper MSN is now printing press runs of 50,000 copies weekly at the new facility. Moreover, under intense pressure from the West to create a more hospitable environment for independent media in Kyrgyzstan, President Akaev submitted a bill to the Parliament in 2004 that would have removed the articles on criminal libel (Articles 127 and 128) from the country's criminal code. Deputies refused, however, to adopt the legislation, which represented the third attempt in less than a decade to remove criminal libel from the statute books. Justifying his vote against the measure, one member of Parliament was quoted in Slovo Kyrgyzstana as arguing that to remove the criminal sanction for defamation would lead to "dictatorship" of the press.

The one new source of concern for the independent media in 2004 was the intense campaign in the pro-government press to condemn independent media as stooges of the United States and other foreign states or as supporters of extremism. Reviving the language and tactics of Soviet-era antiforeign campaigns, some critics accused the independent media of "ideological diversion," thereby associating media opposition with treason. President Akaev himself accused certain papers of becoming "destabilization manuals." The targets of this campaign are not just domestic Kyrgyzstani publications with close ties to the West, but also Radio Liberty's Azattyk radio service, which broadcasts from Prague, and media from the Russian Federation that are critical of the Akaev government. As a means to restrict press coverage of the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, the Parliament introduced revisions to the Law on Elections in 2004 that make it illegal for foreign media to engage in "electoral agitation," a prohibition that the Central Election Commission is likely to use to prevent unfavorable coverage of "official" candidates by the foreign radio and press. Under the new law, a simple interview with a candidate that is published by a foreign newspaper is illegal and could lead to the candidate's disqualification.

Local Governance (Score: 5.75)

Until recently, Kyrgyzstan was a unitary government that concentrated virtually all power in what are called "organs of state" meaning central and regional governments as distinct from "organs of local self-administration." Instead of being elected, chief executives in the country's cities, districts, and villages were appointed by the chief executive at the next higher administrative level. In this system, local councils were largely decorative institutions that lacked real authority and autonomy. Critical decisions affecting local matters were made either by officials in the capital or by regional governors and their staffs. There was also a single national taxation system controlled from the capital, from which local government was funded. Thus, until 2004 direct local taxation was limited to minimally remunerative sources such as a hotel tax, a tax on dog owners, hunting and fishing licenses, and a tax on garbage removal.

Legislation introduced in 2003 promised to give greater political and fiscal autonomy to local government. President Akaev even claimed that under the new national strategy to decentralize the state administration, local governments will be able to "resolve all key socioeconomic problems of their communities." This initiative had two primary components. First, it called for directly elected local soviets to select village, district, and city chief executives, thus breaking the dependency on bonds of patronage that had existed between the regional governors and local officials. Second, it provided for greater budget autonomy by allowing cities and villages to form their own budgets and to raise some taxes locally. Whether these attempts to decentralize administrative power enhance popular participation in government should become clear once the new executives assume their duties in 2005.

In part, this devolution of power may be viewed as a response to the inefficiency of local administration. But it is also part of a larger political struggle between the two key levels of power in Kyrgyzstan central government and regional governments. In championing greater autonomy for local administration, political officials in Bishkek appear to be attempting to weaken the regional governors' offices, which have been the most potent check on presidential power in the Kyrgyzstani political system. With an invigorated layer of political institutions in the country's villages, districts, and cities, regional authorities will find themselves sandwiched between presidential and local power.

Competitive elections for local councils were conducted across Kyrgyzstan in October 2004 using new electoral rules designed to enhance competitiveness and transparency. By introducing competitive elections with national parties, the government did raise the profile of local government and enhanced the bonds between voters and local leaders. However, because two pro-presidential parties, Adilet and Alga, Kyrgyzstan!, gained a disproportionate share (88 percent) of the seats won by party candidates in local government races, it is unlikely that local councils will soon emerge as an effective check on the powers of local executive officials.

For the first time, local elections in Kyrgyzstan were held in multimember districts, usually with four seats in each. Such districts tend to benefit underrepresented groups in society, such as women and minorities, by avoiding one-on-one contests between majority and minority groups or men and women. However, in Kyrgyzstan the use of multimember districts in local elections did nothing to undermine the dominance of ethnic Kyrgyz in local government institutions. Although they represent only 70 percent of the country's population, ethnic Kyrgyz candidates claimed 85 percent of the seats in local council elections. Ethnic Uzbeks were left with 6.2 percent of the seats, far lower than their 15 percent share of the total population, while Russian candidates won 4.3 percent of the contests, again much less than their 12 percent share of the population.

Judicial Framework and Independence (Score: 5.50)

According to the Constitution, courts in Kyrgyzstan are independent and subject only to the law. The reality, however, is that the president and other executive officials exert considerable influence on judges. The first source of influence is the patronage power of the president, who appoints all Kyrgyzstani judges. Where justices on the country's highest courts, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, must be confirmed by the Parliament, other judges are selected by the president alone. The relatively short terms of office for regional and local-level judges make it difficult for them to assert their independence, as does their vulnerability to recall. Judges in regional and local courts may be removed from office not only for reasons of criminal malfeasance, but also for failing a professional performance review, which may be influenced by the political authorities. Reviews of judges are conducted by an "attestation commission," which is formed by, and subordinate to, the president. The performance review, which consists of an oral exam, may be administered at any time.

The second source of political influence on the Kyrgyzstani judiciary is financial. The relatively low pay for judges makes them dependent for basic goods and services on executive authorities in their district, city, or region. Given the difficulty of surviving on a judicial salary, judges rely on the state to provide subsidized housing and other benefits, which gives mayors and governors levers of influence over the courts. The precarious financial position of judges, and their lack of professionalism, also makes them vulnerable to bribes from the business sector. In part because of high levels of corruption, Kyrgyzstan eliminated its separate system of commercial courts in 2004 and folded it into the courts of general jurisdiction.

In theory, justices serving in the country's two highest courts are more protected from economic and political pressure because of better pay, longer terms of office, and the requirement that two thirds of the Parliament approve their removal from office. However, even higher-court justices are subject to pressures from the country's political leadership; and in 1999, the chairman of the Supreme Court resigned after the authorities launched a campaign to discredit him. An indication of the attitude of judges toward presidential power was provided recently by a justice on the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court, Kurmanbek Osmonov, who was quoted in Slovo Kyrgyzstana as saying that "as an instrument of state policy, he is obligated by his position to introduce reforms announced by the president of the country.... " This subordination of the courts to presidential power often discourages an impartial interpretation and enforcement of the Constitution.

It would be wrong, however, to regard the courts as mere puppets of the president. At times, they render decisions that do not accord with the interests of the ruling elite. In the fall of 2004, for example, the Constitutional Court struck down a provision of a new Law on Meetings that would have required demonstrators to receive permission to march. The court ruled that Article 16 of the Constitution required demonstrators only to inform the authorities of their plans to march.

Several structural features of the legal system undermine due process for defendants and impede the availability of reliable remedies for civil litigants. First, In civil cases, the absence of a well-developed institution of court bailiffs, akin to the newly created pristavy in Russian law, means that the decisions of courts are often unenforced. Second, in criminal cases, although the criminal procedure code accords all needy defendants a right to legal representation, the state has been unwilling to finance a public defender's office. The result is a defense bar that is obligated to take criminal cases pro bono or for a very modest fee, which frequently denies defendants a vigorous and well-prepared defense.

Third, the criminal process in Kyrgyzstan continues to be dominated by the largely unreconstructed procuracy that was inherited from the Soviet era. This institution is charged with investigating, prosecuting, and then overseeing the legality of judicial decisions in criminal cases, which ensures that prosecutorial misconduct is rarely revealed and that an accusatorial bias infuses the criminal process. Instead of acquitting defendants when criminal charges are not substantiated in court, judges frequently return the case to the procuracy for supplementary investigation. There are no jury trials in Kyrgyzstan that might serve as a check on this accusatorial bias.

Unlike Kyrgyzstan's legal institutions and legal culture, the country's legislation appears to exemplify rule of law principles. The Constitution and subordinate normative acts provide for freedom of expression, religion, and association, property rights, and equality for all under the law. However, the declaratory principles set out in the Constitution and other legal acts are not matched by legislation that would allow citizens to seek timely and adequate remedies through the law. As a result, defendants are denied early habeas corpus hearings that would spare them lengthy periods of incarceration while the procuracy or other law enforcement organs investigate the charges.

Because the future of Kyrgyzstan's legal system is dependent to a great extent on the quality of legal education received by judges, advocates, and procurators, some observers have become alarmed recently by the proliferation of law schools. Slovo Kyrgyzstana reported that in 2004, there were more than 50 law faculties across the country, in which 22,000 students are enrolled. This is several times more than the number of lawyers in Finland, a country with a similarly sized population. The inability of most new law faculties to recruit highly qualified instructors, along with a poorly developed system of professional examinations and continuing legal education, raises the specter of a growing generation of Kyrgyzstani lawyers that is less professionally qualified than the Soviet-era jurists who now dominate the legal system. This possibility would pose a particular threat to the quality of justice and legal practice in provincial areas and in the less attractive and less highly paid fields of law.

Corruption (Score: 6.00)

Corruption is endemic to Kyrgyzstan and most other post-Soviet states. The privatization of the nation's wealth, the erosion of pay and professionalism in law enforcement organs, the loss of a national belief system, and a lack of political will by the country's leadership: These and related factors encourage self-aggrandizement at the expense of the state and the commonweal. Examples of corruption in Kyrgyzstan range from the mundane, such as the police's regular request for bribes from drivers at checkpoints on the Bishkek-Osh highway, to the involvement of highly placed politicians in intricate kickback schemes. Although comparative levels of corruption are notoriously difficult to assess, it is clear that Kyrgyzstan has one of the most corrupt societies in Eurasia. In 2004, Transparency International ranked Kyrgyzstan seventh from the bottom in its corruption index of 146 countries.

On the surface, at least, the commitment of the government to anticorruption measures appears impressive. As early as 1995, President Akaev convened a special meeting of his ministers to upbraid them for not rooting out corruption in their ranks. After exclaiming, "It's enough, it's enough ... stop it!" Referring to the legendary founder of the Kyrgyz nation, he concluded the meeting by reminding the assembled officials that "the spirit of Manas will curse you!" In April 2003, Akaev began the fifth anticorruption campaign of his presidency by forming a National Council on Good Government, which includes representatives from the presidential administration, the ministries, the Parliament, NGOs, and the business community. This was followed by a barrage of articles in the press that exposed the wrongdoing of lower- and middle-level officials in law enforcement organs. Akaev's admonitions to executive officials about the need to eliminate corruption continued in 2004, but there is little indication that these initiatives will reach the higher levels of power or represent a sustained attack on the system of incentives that encourages wrongdoing. One of the most effective ways to resist these anticorruption measures was clearly demonstrated in May 2004, when the top anticorruption official in the Ministry of Internal Affairs was assassinated in Bishkek.

Compared with other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has taken significant legislative steps to reduce registration requirements and other controls that increase opportunities for profit-making behavior by government officials. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan was the first country in the region to adhere to the UN Convention Against Corruption, and it has passed numerous laws designed to expose wrongdoing by state personnel and agencies, such as the Law on the Declaration of Income by High-Ranking Government Officials, which takes effect in May 2005. It has also created institutions to fight corruption, such as the ombudsman's office and the Audit Chamber, and, as noted earlier, President Akaev signed a decree in 2004 that promises to create the office of state secretary in each government ministry. This office is designed as a buffer against the intrusion of personal and political influence in hiring and promotion. Yet the government continues to suffer a massive loss of revenue due to the corrupt practices of its officials. In 2003, President Akaev estimated that the state lost US$18 million out of a total annual state budget of US$250 million because of contraband that evades state duties. Although some officials are brought to justice for abuse of office or bribe taking, the government has failed to prosecute any cases under Article 303 of the criminal code, which was introduced in 1997 specifically to target corruption.

Accounts of corruption do reach the public through the Kyrgyzstani media, but they are usually "sanctioned" stories that are part of an anticorruption campaign or a settling of scores among competing elites rather than the product of independent investigative journalism. Such journalism depends on legal and political protections not just for the reporter, but also for the whistle-blowers who serve as sources. The lack of a mature legal system, the dearth of alternative sources of employment for those exposing wrongdoing, and the cultural and psychological costs of betraying the collective make it difficult for individuals to join the fight against corruption. A further impediment to any anticorruption drive in Kyrgyzstan is the public's high tolerance for corruption. In Kyrgyzstan, the incentives for the political leadership to tackle corruption come primarily from the international community rather than from a domestic audience.


Eugene Huskey is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He writes on politics and legal affairs in the USSR and the successor states of Russia and Kyrgyzstan. He was assisted in the preparation of this report by Askat Dukenbaev, research assistant.

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