Accessibility links

Kyrgyzstan: Constitutional Referendum Culminates Five Months Of Heated Debate

  • Charles Carlson

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has scheduled a nationwide referendum on 2 February on constitutional amendments that are considered to be intended to appease his opposition critics. The referendum will mark the culmination of five months of heated debate about the optimum division of power among the president, the government, and the parliament in Kyrgyzstan.

Prague, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In announcing the date for a nationwide referendum on changes to the Kyrgyz Constitution, President Askar Akaev yesterday said he believes the final version of the constitution is appropriate for a country that has made the transition from the post-Soviet period to democracy.

He said he believes the new version will contribute to harmonious relations among the various branches of power and between the authorities and civil society. "I believe that today we are getting a constitution that meets the requirements of a post-transitional period and harmonizes the relations among the different branches of power, between the authorities and the people, and within the civil society. I believe that the adoption of the new constitution will strengthen our leadership in the transformation to democracy," Akaev said.

In the referendum, voters will be required to answer the following two questions with either a "yes" or "no":

1. Should the law of the Kyrgyz Republic "On a new version of the constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic" be adopted?

2. Should Askar Akaev remain president of the Kyrgyz Republic until December 2005 (to the end of his constitutional term) in order to implement the approved constitutional amendments?

Akaev said the final version of the constitution is a compromise. He said he had made certain concessions specifically to appease the opposition. He also criticized the Kyrgyz parliament for what he termed its reluctance to cede any of its powers, even in the interest of solving the country's serious economic problems.

The 2 February referendum will mark the culmination of five months of heated debate about the optimum division of power among the president, the government, and the parliament in Kyrgyzstan.

On 26 August, Akaev signed a special decree on forming a 40-member Constitutional Council tasked with drafting amendments to the constitution that would redistribute some of the president's powers between the parliament and local authorities.

These proposed changes were almost certainly meant as a tactical concession on Akaev's part in response to calls for his resignation. They came after five months of opposition criticism of the Kyrgyz leadership in the wake of clashes in mid-March in the southern district of Aksy, in which police shot dead six demonstrators.

According to the decree, the Constitutional Council was to start working on 4 September under the chairmanship of Akaev himself to prepare reforms that would then be published for nationwide discussion before being approved in November.

Akaev addressed the Constitutional Council on 4 September, emphasizing the need for constitutional reforms and suggesting replacing the existing bicameral parliament with a unicameral one in 2005, the year Akaev would leave office.

On 20 September, the Constitutional Council announced that it would not be able to prepare a package of amendments to the constitution by the original deadline of 23 September. Apparently, the council was unable to agree on authorities of a new government and reforms to the judicial system.

By 31 October, the number of proposed amendments to the constitution had reached more than 100. Therefore, it was decided to extend public discussion of them for a further two weeks, from 18 November to 2 December.

On 22 November, the Central Election Commission announced that a nationwide referendum on changing and amending the Kyrgyz Constitution would be held on 22 December. But Akaev twice postponed the referendum, first to 2 January and then to 2 February.

Opposition politicians have been swift to criticize individual constitutional amendments. Leading opposition deputy Adaham Madumarov pointed out that not only the opposition but also Constitutional Court Chairwoman Cholpon Baekova herself, as well as "people loyal to the president," have criticized the planned amendments.

A second parliamentary deputy, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, predicted that once the amendments have been approved, Akaev will dissolve the present parliament. "Not only the opposition, but others have also opposed [the president's draft text of the new constitution] during today's meeting of the Constitutional Council. Among them was the chairwoman of the Constitutional Court, a representative of the Central Election Commission, and people who are loyal toward the president. About 99.9 percent of the Constitutional Council participants have been against the text that is to be proposed for a referendum," Kadyrbekov said.

But First Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov said yesterday that the present parliament and government will serve out their full terms in office.

Akaev also named a team of experts early this month and assigned it to handle the final editorial changes to the amendments prepared by the Constitutional Council. But 11 opposition members of the Constitutional Council protested that move. In an open letter to Akaev on 10 January, they accused him of violating the constitution by proposing to hold a referendum before parliament had adopted a law on referenda and of violating the prerogatives of the council by submitting its proposed draft amendments to a separate experts' group for editing.

They also accused Akaev of trying to change the constitution according to his wishes, and demanded that the 4,500 suggestions made during the public discussion of the draft amendments be made public.

In an interview with the Kyrgyz website on 10 January, Baekova implicitly supported the opposition's objections. She said a minimum of six months is needed for the experts' group to review the proposed constitutional amendments. She proposed postponing the referendum until 2004.

But Osmonov on 11 January rejected the accusations, saying that the experts' group will only "classify" the amendments and rephrase them in the appropriate legal terminology.