External Affairs

Constitutional Referendum Awaits Central Asian ‘Island of Democracy’

As Kyrgyzstan prepares for another referendum for constitutional reforms on December 11, The Wire analyses what lies ahead for the former Soviet republic six years after its revolution.

View of Bishkek. Credit: ADB/Flickr CC 2.0

View of Bishkek. Credit: ADB/Flickr CC 2.0

Bishkek (Kyrgyz Republic): “Can I click a photo of the airport?” I hesitantly asked Bakhtiiar Igamberdiev, a lecturer at the International Ataturk Alatoo University. He had come to receive me at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, capital of the Kyrgyz Republic. “Of course,” he replied, “This is Kyrgyzstan, not Turkmenistan.”

The picturesque, landlocked, tiny former Soviet republic is very particular about its image as an “island of democracy,” amidst neighbouring authoritarian regimes. Officially known as the Kyrgyz Republic, an otherwise poor country of only 5.5 million people, Kyrgyzstan is unique in many ways, most important being the democratic upheavals it has witnessed over the past twenty-five years.

And things have not yet settled as is clear from the referendum to be held on Sunday, December 11 to amend the third Constitution since independence. If approved, the new statute will eventually strengthen the office of the prime minister and weaken the judiciary.

Central Asia has largely been forgotten by the international media today, except for occasional news about its authoritarian rulers – like after the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov on September 2, or corruption charges or new deals related to the energy reserves of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan.

Literally meaning the land of forty clans (Kyr in Turkic means forty, Kyrgyz ‘We are forty’; while stan in Persian means country/land), of the legendary hero Manas, the country is one of the many Turkic nationalities that populate the heart of Asia.

The Arab Spring’s first wave might have begun from Tunisia in December 2010, but its precursor was surely in this Central Asian republic, where in April that year a movement by political activists and the broad masses forced Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was Kyrgyz president at the time, out of the country.

‘Unwanted freedom’

When the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed in 1991, each republic embarked on its own trajectory of development. While a system of client networks made sure that former first secretaries of the Communist party of each republic in the region  continued to stay in power albeit as new national faces, in Kyrgyzstan, a physician, Askar Akaev, won popularity as he promised democratic reforms and was elected by parliament as president in 1990 itself.

Map of Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Wikimedia

Map of Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Wikimedia

The country opened itself to structural reforms as it needed western aid in order to sustain itself – being devoid of natural resources, unlike its neighbours. Consequently, it sought to liberalise its economy very early and was the first country from the region to become a member of the World Trade Organisation, as early as December 20, 1998.

According to Chinara Esengul, an expert on international relations, the lack of natural resources is a blessing in disguise. “It’s good we don’t have lot of natural resources (as) then you become dependent on them. When you don’t have anything, you start being creative and innovative,” she said, pointing to the country’s success in creating small and medium sized enterprises.

Many feel that the level of corruption would have been worse if the country had big mines or oil fields.

Several key components of a neo-liberal economy may still be missing, and laws and regulations are mostly on paper, as most of the lawmakers and businessmen have a Soviet mindset and are used to a system of centralised economy. But as far as politics goes, Esengul believes there has been a “genuine drive” for democracy since 1991 and particularly after 2010, and that there can be no going back on the issue of freedom.

Revolution or coup?

In 2005, the first Kyrgyz Revolution – the Tulip Revolution – led to the overthrow of President Akaev, who was increasingly seen as authoritarian and corrupt. Kurmanbek Bakiyev replaced Akaev. Many suspect that this change at the top was done at the behest of the United States.

People soon realised that the ‘revolution has ended in a coup’ as Bakiyev was as corrupt and authoritarian if not more than his predecessor. In April 2010, the wheel made a full circle when another coup was staged. Many suspect this time the change wa at the behest of Russia. Roza Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister who played a key role during 2005 coup as well, led the proceedings.

Physically disabled persons protesting outside the presidential office in Bishkek. Credit: M. Reyaz

Differently abled persons protesting outside the presidential office in Bishkek. Credit: M. Reyaz

Otunbaeva won popular respect like no other political leader in the region in the last century after she announced that she would serve only as interim president and would not contest the presidential polls that followed. Her deputy and interim prime minister, Almazbek Atambayev thus became a frontrunner in the 2011 polls.

Kyrgyzstan has also become the first country in the region to legislate to weaken the office of the president and shift towards a parliamentary system of governance.

Nascent democracy but paid news

One of the most interesting monuments in Bishkek is a memorial dedicated to protesters of the April 2010 ‘revolution’ outside parliament. It shows three bronze men pushing a black block signifying the corrupt, evil rule of Bakiev, with a white block.

The culture of vibrant protests and debate remains. This writer found a group of differently-abled persons demanding their rights on the day he visited that area. With a score of 38, Kyrgyzstan ranks as ‘partly free’ according to Freedom House and is a ‘hybrid regime’ according to rhe Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2015.

If nothing else, people are happy that they have the freedom to say or do what they want and face no restriction as such in their everyday life, at least compared to their neighbouring countries. In recent weeks, however, there have been reports of attempts to regulate social media in the name of protecting national symbols like the national anthem, flag as well as the president.

Sulman Abdykadyr Dardanovich, chairman of the Union of Journalists of Kyrgyz Republic says, “In Kyrgyzstan journalists are free to write anything and cover everything,” adding, “There is no pressure from the government.” He, however, accepts that content in the media is often paid for by different political players. In fact, a report by an international observer group had noted that nearly 77-95% of airtime allocated for the 2015 election-related programmes in Kyrgyzstan was paid for.

Esengul, too, agrees and points to the “culture” of client systems that still exists. “We are an open society, no doubt, but democratic values are at a very primary level.” Kyrgyzstan is a small, close-knit country and journalists compromise their positions at times to “investigate only up to a point and not beyond,” she says.

She adds that several civil society organisations “scream just to be loud”, without much substance.

A newspaper stall in Bishkek. With more than 1,500 registered media; 125 newspapers and magazines, 26 radio and 25 TV channels Kyrgyzstan appears to have a vibrant public space. But the content is not so varied. Credit: M. Reyaz

A newspaper stall in Bishkek. With more than 1,500 registered media; 125 newspapers and magazines, 26 radio and 25 TV channels Kyrgyzstan appears to have a vibrant public space. But the content is not so varied. Credit: M. Reyaz

Which is supreme: parliament or the office of the president?

The switch to a parliamentary system is not smooth or complete yet and confusion remains as who is the real authority. Dinara Oshurahunova, chairperson of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society (CDCS) says, “After 2010, when we accepted the parliamentary system, we now have a situation when parliament is trying to play a bigger role.”

According to her, Kyrgyzstan is still on the “first step” and hence there is “confusion”, as people are not sure who the go-to person is. Unlike earlier, when the entire power was vested in one office, the decentralisation of power is still not complete as parliament is evolving as an institution.

The October 2015 parliamentary election has been the most fair the region ever saw with international observers calling it “competitive” and “keenly contested”; but after corruption charges in April, earlier this year, Prime Minister Temir Sariyev was forced to step down. He was replaced by Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who is seen as a staunch loyalist of President Atembaev.

Constitutional referendum

One of the most interesting monuments in Bishkek is a memorial dedicated to the memories of protesters of April 2010 ‘revolution’ outside the Parliament. Credit: M. Reyaz

One of the most interesting monuments in Bishkek is a memorial dedicated to the memories of protesters of April 2010 ‘revolution’ outside the Parliament. Credit: M. Reyaz

After months of manoeuvring, Sunday’s referendum will be the seventh in the country’s 25 years of independence. It will seal the fate of over two dozen amendments by a single Yes or No vote. In all likelihood, the referendum will sail through smoothly with an overwhelming majority, as in the past.

Several opposition parties have expressed stiff resistance to the referendum but are now battling a telecom scam scandal, presumably at the behest of the ruling dispensation.

Of all proposed amendments, what has caught most people’s attentions are the those that will strengthen the office of the prime minister and weaken the judicial branch. Many see this as disturbing the ‘checks and balances’ in the current mixed system.

While its proponents argue that it is important to further consolidate parliamentary democracy, many are worried that this might be a ploy by President Atambaev to come back to power like Vladimir Putin did in Russia when his term ends in October next year, although he has been publicly denying such plans. The present constitution, passed in 2010, mandated that a president can serve only one term and cannot seek re-election.

There is speculation that as his party, the SDPK, remains prominent in parliament, the party will continue to hold the prime minister’s post even of it even it fails to win the next presidentil election. Everyone thus agrees that the proposed amendments are stacked in favour of the ruling dispensation. The haste with which the referendum is being conducted also raises  suspicions about its motive.

Dinara Oshurahunova, Head of Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. Credit: M. Reyaz

Dinara Oshurahunova, Head of Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. Credit: M. Reyaz

People losing hope as economy remains cause of concern

If Machiavellian politics is making people disenchanted with the system, they also see little hope as corruption remains high. Kyrgyzstan ranks 28th in the global corruption perception index, according to Transparency International.

Most people have learnt to manage on their own and are not really too dependent on the government. “Revolutions, coups or whatever; it has not really impacted the life of common people like us. Corruption, unemployment, low salary and rising prices remain a cause of concern for us,” Nurzhamila, a single working mother in the capital, told this writer.

Kyrgyzstan’s economy remains weak at $3,321 GDP per capita. After Tajikistan, it is second most dependent country on remittances, mainly from Russia and Kazakhstan. National debt has reached an all time high of $4.80 billion.

Nonetheless, Kyrgyzstan wants to emerge as a hub of economic activities in the region, leveraging its relative freedom, ease of doing business and easy visa rules. It wants to attract more tourists and organised the Second World Nomad Games at Issyk Kul from September 3-8. With the second largest saline lake  in the world (the tenth overall lake in size) at Issyk Kul, the Tian Shan mountains, Sulayman-Too, the historical city of Osh and Jalalabad in the Fergana valley and a European style capital, Kyrgyzstan has all the potential to emerge as an important destination for tourists and businesses alike.

A former journalist, M. Reyaz is a research scholar on Central Asia at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and also teaches at Aliah University. He tweets @journalistreyaz