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Majlis Podcast: What Did Kyrgyz Referendum Change?

  • Bruce Pannier

Is there something hidden in this latest package of constitutional amendments that works to President Almazbek's Atambaev's advantage.

Is there something hidden in this latest package of constitutional amendments that works to President Almazbek's Atambaev's advantage.

There are still many questions about Kyrgyzstan's December 11 referendum on constitutional amendments. Why the rush? Why did it have to happen now, less than a year before the presidential election? What was really the need for 26 amendments to a constitution that was not supposed to be changed until 2020? Is there an ulterior motive for changing the constitution now?

To discuss these questions, and other matters connected to Kyrgyzstan's recent referendum, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel.

The Majlis podcast was an in-house talk for our RFE/RL colleagues at our Prague headquarters.

RFE/RL President Tom Kent was the moderator for the discussion. Venera Djumataeva, the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, participated in Prague. From Bishkek, Emil Juraev, associate professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia, joined the talk. I was in the building, so I found myself a seat and said a few things also.

Djumataeva started by pointing out that the idea of amending the constitution was met with skepticism from the very start, in November 2015, when Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev first mentioned the need for changes to the constitution.

"When the first original amendments appeared, became public, and they were offered for discussion in the parliament," Djumataeva explained, "the majority of people, politicians, experts, journalists were very disappointed because they were not the right moves to make Kyrgyzstan a pure parliamentary democracy, rather they were perceived as President Atambaev's attempt to secure his legacy and his political survival."

Revisions were made several times but Atambaev was persistent in pushing the issue forward to a national vote.

Juraev said Atambaev was not alone in seeing a need for amendments. "The range of critics of the constitution was vast, basically it was very difficult to find anyone who did not criticize the constitution as being raw and being contradictory, as leaving too many loopholes."

All the same, the constitution, written after the ouster of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010, specified that there were not to be any amendments until 2020, and many people in Kyrgyzstan felt this period should be respected.

Kyrgyzstan's people are weary of referendums, as both Djumataeva and Juraev pointed out. The December referendum was the seventh time in Kyrgyzstan's 25-year history that voters were asked to approve or reject changes to the constitution. And there was another referendum, the very first in Kyrgyzstan, in January 1994, that asked simply, "Do you confirm that the president of Kyrgyzstan who was democratically elected on October 12, 1991, [Askar Akaev] for five years is the president of the Kyrgyz Republic with the right to act as head of state during his term in office?"

Why Now?

Accompanying concerns about the haste with which the amendments were drafted and the referendum held are questions about the reason for needing to do it now.

Juraev said, "It would have been much more reasonable to ask people for a single answer to the question, would you like us to go back and redraft the constitution, and then that would open the way for a new constitutional council to do the work."

Only some 42 percent of eligible voters, about 1.1 million out of 2.7 million, cast ballots in the national referendum.

Juraev pointed out, "If you were to run this referendum by the previous version of the law on referendums it would not have passed, because it required at least 50 percent turnout," whereas this time "the bar was 30 percent." The decision to lower the required percentage was adopted when the new law of referendums was passed, paving the way to conduct the December 11 referendum.

There are also concerns about some of the amendments. Supporters of the amendments portrayed the changes as helping Kyrgyzstan make the jump from a presidential to parliamentary system of government, as was intended in the 2010 constitution.

But Djumataeva said some of the amendments seemed to be responses to very recent problems. She recalled the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek activist from southern Kyrgyzstan who is in prison. A Kyrgyz court ruled Askarov was involved in the interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. Askarov claims he was documenting the abuses committed during the violence but did not participate in any way.

The UN Human Rights Committee released a statement in April that said Askarov had been "arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense," and called for his immediate release.

The 2010 constitution reads that if international human rights bodies "confirm the violation of human rights and freedoms, the Kyrgyz Republic shall take measures to their restoration and/or compensation of damage."

That part is removed in the new constitution.

Juraev also pointed out the new constitution gives the state the right to revoke citizenship. This is a response to several hundred Kyrgyz nationals, out of a population of more than 6 million, going to places like Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups during the last few years.

In keeping with tradition, not only in Kyrgyzstan but throughout Central Asia, voters could only vote to approve or reject the package of amendments. It was not possible to vote on individual changes.

Now the question is, what do these changes mean for Kyrgyzstan's presidential election in 2017?

The five referendums on constitutional changes prior to one in 2010 resulted in giving more power to the executive branch of government. That is the history of Kyrgyzstan's constitutional amendments.

So people could not be blamed for wondering if there is something hidden in this latest package that works to President Atambaev's advantage.

Djumataeva explained that despite Kyrgyzstan officially having a parliamentary system, the prime minister -- and she noted there have been five prime ministers since Atambaev was elected in 2011 -- has always been far in the background. So the office of the president remains a powerful office and the amendments, while adding some power to the prime minister, don't seem likely to finally sway authority into the latter's hands.

The panel discussed these topics in greater detail and looked at other aspects of the referendum, such as what role, if any, Russia and China might have had in prompting the vote.

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Listen to or download the latest Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis podcast on iTunes.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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