By Michael Ochs
CSCE Staff Advisor
The Helsinki Commission, in its most recent of a series of hearings on Central Asia, examined the state of human rights and democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), who chaired the hearing, voiced concern about the regression in democratic reforms, as well as disturbing trends involving election rigging, high-level corruption, and the crackdown on the opposition and independent media.
Commission members Reps. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) also participated in the hearing which was held on December 12, 2001.
“In the last few years, almost all of the opposition and independent newspapers have been forced to close after losing lawsuits when officials accused of corruption launched slander cases against media outlets,” Smith said.
Considering that Kyrgyzstan was once viewed as the most democratic state in Central Asia, the turnaround was particularly disheartening; in fact, Co-Chairman Smith observed, “I think it would be fair to say that Kyrgyzstan, under the leadership of Askar Akaev, is the most disappointing country in the former USSR.”
Commissioner Pitts noted his disappointment with the tempo of democratization in Kyrgyzstan but called for continued engagement with the government to encourage reforms. “If we are to be an honest partner with Kyrgyzstan, we must not miss opportunities to encourage the good that has been done,” Pitts said. “We must look at Kyrgyzstan and other countries with promise in the region not only from OSCE standards, but also as a potential leader in building regional cooperation.”
In prepared remarks, Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) expressed particular concern over corruption: “The former Soviet republics, as is widely known, are notorious for corruption. Kyrgyzstan is no exception. On August 11, the Kyrgyz Prime Minister – not an opposition politician but the head of government – described efforts by law-enforcement bodies to counter corruption, smuggling and economic crime as ‘total disaster.’ He attributed that failure to the fact that most criminal groups have protectors within the law-enforcement bodies and estimated financial losses from smuggling to be in the millions of dollars annually.”
Ranking Commission Member, Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) similarly observed, “There is good reason to be concerned about terrorism. But Central Asian leaders have, up to now, contributed significantly to their own security problems by stifling political discourse, by rigging elections, and by not permitting the development of open societies that could provide an outlet for discontent and freedom of expression. It seems to me that if Washington lets these leaders shift the focus of relations primarily towards security issues, they will deflect attention from their determination to remain in power indefinitely, which is one of the greatest threats to democratization and stability in the region.”
Hearing witnesses were Lynn Pascoe, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs; His Excellency Baktibek Abdrisaev, Kyrgyzstan’s Ambassador to the United States; Dr. Martha Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Natalia Ablova, Director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Bishkek.
Co-Chairman Smith focused specific attention on the plight of opposition figure Felix Kulov, leader of the Ar-Namys Party, who has been in jail since January 2001. As the leading rival of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Kulov has suffered the consequences of attempting to engage in normal electoral politics in an increasingly authoritarian environment. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations consider Felix Kulov a political prisoner.
Kyrgyz authorities barred Kulov’s party from participating in the February 2000 parliamentary election. Kulov ran as an independent and made it into the second round but, according to official results, lost the runoff. The OSCE’s election report documented rampant vote fraud designed to keep Kulov from winning and, in an unusual move, openly questioned the results in his district.
After the election, Kulov – a former vice-president, minister, governor and mayor – was arrested in March 2000. Remarkably, a military court acquitted him in August. Kulov then sought to run in the October 2000 presidential election, but he withdrew from the race rather than take a Kyrgyz-language test that many observers believed had been mandated specifically to complicate his campaign.
Subsequently, prosecutors who had appealed his acquittal indicted him again, and this time secured a conviction. On January 22, 2001, a closed military court sentenced Kulov to a seven-year jail term. Kyrgyz authorities have pursued him further, opening yet another criminal case against him, in an obvious effort to remove Kulov from the political arena by any means necessary.
Some of Kulov’s relatives now live in New York, and they came to Washington to attend the hearing. Co-Chairman Smith invited his wife, Nailya Kulova, to take the floor and make a brief intervention on human rights problems in Kyrgyzstan and the persecution of her husband.
A consistent theme in Rep. Smith’s remarks was the hope that the U.S. war on terrorism, which has led Washington to deepen its ties with Central Asian governments, will not overshadow human rights concerns. Speaking for the State Department, Lynn Pascoe said that since September 11, the U.S. has received “an unprecedented level of support and cooperation from Kyrgyzstan and our other Central Asian partners.” But he pledged that Washington will not cease pressing Bishkek to address human rights concerns and promote democratic reform. Pascoe said that human rights, fair elections, religious freedom, open markets, and foreign investment were indispensable to long-term stability for Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. He added that Secretary of State Colin Powell had planned to raise the case of Felix Kulov with President Akaev during a scheduled trip to Bishkek in December that had to be canceled due to blizzard conditions.
For his part, Ambassador Abdrisaev acknowledged there were human rights problems in his country and that reforms may not be proceeding fast enough. But he maintained that Kyrgyzstan was nevertheless making progress and that expectations for a country in a very complex neighborhood after only a decade of independence should not be too high. “The road to building a democracy is a rocky one, and we have been on that road for a mere 10 years. We have from the beginning, however, been dedicated to the ideals of democracy and human rights. We respect and appreciate constructive criticism issuing from human rights and non-governmental organizations,” Abdrisaev concluded.
Dr. Olcott took a regional-comparative approach in assessing Kyrgyzstan’s level of democracy. “To say that the situation in Kyrgyzstan is better than that in neighboring countries is damning with faint praise and no solace for those whose lives are currently being trampled on. But, in fact, it remains true,” Olcott said. She concluded that “it is not too late to influence developments...Kyrgyzstan must open up again politically and work toward greater economic transparency, both through the creation of a more independent judiciary and through a more directed and far-reaching campaign against corruption.” In this latter respect, Dr. Olcott urged Kyrgyzstan’s first family to withdraw from commercial activities and “quietly sell off” all their current assets.
Discussing the slowness of democratic change, Ms. Ablova bemoaned the call for patience: “We are frequently told by our political elite that in our part of the world people are not ready for democracy.... The process takes time. Therefore, all criticisms, grounded or ungrounded, should be toned down to better times of democratic maturity.” In fact, she maintained, “Fifteen years of my experience in public activism prove that it is not the people, but the political leadership of the country that always waits for better times to implement basic rights and civil liberties.”
Ending the hearing, Co-Chairman Smith promised that the Helsinki Commission would continue to keep a close eye on developments in Kyrgyzstan. The Commission’s series on hearings on Central Asia, which began in 1999, will conclude in 2002 with a hearing on Tajikistan.
Click here for an un-official transcript of the Helsinki Commission hearing on Human Rights and Democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.