Welcome to this briefing on Kyrgyzstan before next month’s presidential elections. The Helsinki Commission saw this as an opportune moment to look at an important country that does not always get the attention it deserves.
In the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan was among the most democratically advanced former Soviet republics. But in the early part of this decade, differences between President Akaev and the opposition increasingly took the form of street protests. Matters came to a head in 2005, with the Tulip Revolution which resulted in the ouster of President Akaev and his replacement by President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Initially, there were high hopes for democratic reform. But in the last two years, President Bakiev has largely managed to quash the street politics which brought him to power and to consolidate his own position. He created a political party that has effectively become the ruling party, and the OSCE described the 2007 parliamentary elections as “a missed opportunity, falling short of public expectations for the further consolidation of the democratic election process.”
Pre-term presidential elections will be held on July 23. Even now, however, there is cause for concern both about the general state of democracy in Kyrgyzstan and about the conduct of the upcoming elections.
Kyrgyzstan’s media used to be among the freest in the region but attacks on journalists have multiplied alarmingly. A law passed last August restricts the right to demonstrate despite a court ruling that the bill was unconstitutional. In January, President Bakiev he signed a law on religion, which complicates registration, bans proselytizing, and curtails the dissemination of religious material. A draft NGO law would impose strict registration requirements and prohibit political activities – which could include such things as criticizing the government or training election observers.
Various opposition figures have disappeared from the political scene, either killed in a car accident, jailed for alleged criminal acts, or embarrassed by sex videos. The election code was amended in January, but key OSCE recommendations were not taken on board and Bishkek has placed restrictions on the number of OSCE observers.
Obviously, these are grounds for concern about Kyrgyzstan’s general direction. I hope our panelists will give us reason to be more optimistic about the prospects for democracy in Kyrgyzstan, a country I have visited several times.
I would like to introduce our panelists today.
We are honored to have Ambassador Zamira Sydykova with us today. Ambassador Sydykova founded her country’s first independent newspaper, Res Publica, in 1992, and, as editor-in-chief, led the struggle for a free press and an open society in Kyrgyzstan. Her unrelenting criticism of corruption and authoritarian tendencies in the country’s ruling elite resulted in her imprisonment and in repeated attempts to close her newspaper. In the wake of the democratic uprising in Kyrgyzstan in March, 2005, Ambassador Sydykova was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the USA and Canada.
We also are please to have with us Dr. Laura Jewett, who is the regional director for Eurasia and the National Democratic Institute. Dr. Jewett has traveled extensively in Eurasia, meeting with political, civic and government leaders to assess political conditions and design democracy assistance programs. She earned her Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, and served in Washington on the staffs of U.S. Representative Bill Ratchford and U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, both of Connecticut.
I would also like to welcome Dr. Erica Marat, who has worked on a variety of research projects for the Central Asia – Caucasus Institute and taught an intensive course on Central Asian Security. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Bremen and an M.A. in Political Sociology from Central European University. Her book The Military and the State in Central Asia: From red Army to Independence will be published in August 2009.