Features Commentary by IRI’s Jeff Lilley

Kyrgyzstan: Risking A Repeat of Recent History?
By Jeffrey Lilley

In October 2006, a prominent US democracy activist visiting Kyrgyzstan tried to explain to high-ranking Kyrgyz government officials that democracy is a messy system, but it provides the best chance for long-term stability. In effect, it was an appeal to Kyrgyz leaders to stick to a reform course that began with 2005’s ouster of former president Askar Akayev.

The US activist encouraged the officials to adopt a new constitution, via an inclusive process, that would strengthen checks and balances, and in so doing, rebalance a lopsided system in which the executive branch held the preponderance of authority. That appeal fell on deaf ears, and today Kyrgyzstan, once described in Washington as a “bulwark” of democracy in Central Asia, is backsliding into authoritarian ways. Over the past three months, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who rose to power as the leader of a united opposition against Akayev, has distanced himself from efforts to create a more balanced political system.

Bakiyev seems to be employing many of the same methods that were used by his predecessor. This fall, for instance, a judicial branch loyal to Bakiyev voided the results of constitutional reforms that had put in place restraints on executive authority, and had redistributed powers among the branches of government. Bakiyev then put out a new version of the constitution, restoring key presidential powers, and attaching a new election code that hampers the rise of any opposition.

Finally, on short notice, he held a hasty referendum that secured popular backing for his plans. After that, the president invoked powers in the old constitution that had just been voted down to disband parliament and call for new elections. Ironically, virtually all of these measures bore similarities to steps taken by Akayev in the years before he was forced to flee to Moscow, where he remains today.

Bakiyev hopes to cement his drive to consolidate power by having his newly formed political party secure a landslide victory in parliamentary elections on December 16. For the first time, Kyrgyzstan’s voters will choose among political parties for all their representatives to parliament; a step forward from the vote-buying in the single-mandate elections in 2005.

But this potentially positive change has been undercut by the hard realities of winning a seat. In the run-up to the December 16 vote, an open disregard for laws, particularly those concerning candidate lists, has benefited the pro-Bakiyev party. Pro-presidential candidates also appear to enjoy privileged access to state-controlled broadcast media outlets. Meanwhile, opposition politicians face onerous obstacles, including stringent requirements for registering, and a high threshold on the voting percentage needed to gain seats in the next parliament. Such behavior could end up overshadowing the election and could spark protests.

It’s quite a turnaround for this mountainous country of roughly 5 million people. Just two years ago, Kyrgyzstan, along with Georgia and Ukraine, was held up as a home-grown example of people power, and for its potential to transform a semi-authoritarian, post-Soviet regime into a more representative system. Coming on the heels of the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 “Tulip Revolution” signaled a chance for real political change in the heart of Central Asia.

A big question was whether Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders would capitalize on a newfound opportunity to push through systemic reform, rather than play musical chairs. There seemed to be momentum in society for political change. For two years, from spring 2005 until spring 2007, there was a wide-ranging discussion among political elites and in the media about constitutional reform.

It wasn’t always pretty, and street demonstrations every spring and fall put the country on edge. But the need for compromise pushed the opposing sides together, and in the spring of 2007, a group of government officials sat down together with members of the opposition to hammer out what many thought would be final compromise positions on key constitutional provisions.

Those proposals were swept under the rug with the Constitutional Court’s decision this fall to annul all previous constitutional reform. That decision was spearheaded by the head of the Constitutional Court, Cholpon Baekova, a holdover from the Akayev administration. Ms. Baekova now is at the top of the list of the pro-presidential party.

President Bakiyev and his allies are gambling with their country’s future. They are betting that consolidation of power will provide the political stability for developing democracy and prosperity over the long term. In their opinion, that long-term stability can only be achieved by marginalizing political forces that aren’t under their control. Their thinking flies in the face of the advice given by the visiting democracy activist last year. More significantly, it runs counter to recent Kyrgyz history.

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Lilley is a former journalist who worked in Kyrgyzstan for the International Republican Institute.

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