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Majlis Podcast: Why Does Kyrgyzstan Need To Change Its Constitution Now?

  • Bruce Pannier

While one commenter noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) may want to place loyalists in power after his term ends, it's not like Russia's Putin and Medvedev changing places.

While one commenter noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) may want to place loyalists in power after his term ends, it's not like Russia's Putin and Medvedev changing places.

Kyrgyzstan appears to be headed for a national referendum in December to vote on amendments to the constitution. Kyrgyzstan, since a 2010 referendum, is home to Central Asia's only parliamentary form of government but nearly all Kyrgyzstan's politicians concede the constitution could use some fine-tuning.

However, the timing of the upcoming referendum, approximately one year before the country holds its presidential election, has left many wondering if there isn't more to these amendments than just making adjustments to improve the parliamentary system of government.

To take a closer look at the referendum and the possible reasons for holding it this year, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss the issue. (This was prepared before Kyrgyzstan's parliament gave the third and final reading of the bill for making amendments to the constitution.)

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Bishkek, Tynchtykbek Chorotegin, professor at Kyrgyzstan's Jusup Balasagyn National University and also the former director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, participated. From Boston, Bakyt Beshimov, professor of international studies at Northeastern University and also a former deputy in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, joined the talk. And I had many questions about this referendum, so I joined in to see what I could learn about these amendments.

While many politicians in Kyrgyzstan agree there is a need to make some revisions in the constitution, Chorotegin pointed out that when the constitution was adopted in 2010 there was a stipulation that amendments could be made "only starting from September 2020."

Opponents of the referendum have noted this, questioning why it is so urgent to make amendments now rather than waiting until 2020.

Chorotegin said in the seeming haste to push through the referendum in parliament, many in Kyrgyzstan still have questions. "We had only a very short time to challenge this proposed draft and we didn't have another challenging draft constitution," which Chorotegin called "a bad thing because it repeats the previous mistakes in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, all the draft constitutions were proposed by the ruling parties and there was no option for another vision."

Atambaev's Legacy?

Opponents have other questions about the motives for conducting the referendum this year.

"The initiator of these amendments to the constitution is President Atambaev," Beshimov said, and voiced the concern some in Kyrgyzstan have now: "The question is why he has decided to initiate these amendments."

Almazbek Atambaev is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term after his six-year mandate expires in late 2017 and he has repeatedly said he will leave politics when he steps down as president.

Beshimov agreed that "these amendments seek more balance between the power of the president and prime minister and parliament," but he mentioned that "we know informal politics plays a huge role today in Kyrgyzstan."

Beshimov speculated that Atambaev might wish to continue playing a role in Kyrgyzstan's politics behind the scenes. But at the very least, Beshimov said, for "a president whose term is ending not to think about the future of his political legacy will be suicidal."

Therefore, "it would be ideal for him, for instance in the next presidential election to bring to power a president who will be completely loyal to him and having a prime minister who is very loyal to him and having a majority in the parliament," Beshimov added.

Chorotegin did not discount Atambaev's loyalists taking the reins of power but said Kyrgyzstan was unlikely to repeat a Russian scenario. "It is not like [President Vladimir] Putin and [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev changing each other after one term to another," Chorotegin said. "Kyrgyzstan is totally different, Mr. Atambaev said he will not seek another presidential term next year and at the same time he said he will not fight for his own person to follow him."

Still, Beshimov suggested that in a worst-case scenario, "If a future president will be strong enough and will decide to betray Atambaev and his influence over politics, he can initiate changes in the parliament and theoretically it is possible that our fractions in the parliament just will switch their allegiance and just join to the new president."

That would leave Atambaev vulnerable. "The opposition can bombard him with tons of 'kompromat' [compromising evidence of wrongdoing] against him and with no difficulties can undermine his reputation," Beshimov said and claimed there was such compromising material on many of Kyrgyzstan's politicians, not only Atambaev.

Atambaev's party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won the most seats (38) in the October 2015 parliamentary elections, not enough for an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament but enough that the SDPK only needs alliances with two parties to form a coalition. Currently, five of the six parties in parliament are part of the ruling coalition, but the debate over the referendum has caused some cracks to appear in the coalition.

Chorotegin said, "Even if the coalition government will be divided it will not stop its activity, the process is going on, it will not be stopped."

So far the issue of the referendum has not aroused much public opposition. Chorotegin explained, "Usually people are not politicized until the real situation, the problem of amendments of the constitution is not clear for most of the people."

To prevent an outbreak of discontent over the referendum, Beshimov recommended that Atambaev "should give an answer...how these amendments and new version of the constitution that will be adopted on December 4 will serve for the true democratization of the Kyrgyz Republic."

The referendum will almost certainly be an issue during campaigning for next year's presidential election. There are many perennial problems the political opposition has used in the past to try to discredit those in power -- corruption, infrastructure problems, poverty, and others. Soon the opposition might have one more topic it can raise publicly. If opposition groups can show that somehow the new amendments work to the advantage of Atambaev or his party, and that this works to the disadvantage of Kyrgyzstan's people, it could create tensions quickly.

Chorotegin recalled the revolution of 2010 that chased then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev from power, however, and noted that when Kyrgyzstan's people do become politicized they have twice been able to oust presidents from office. "On April 7, 2010, people were much politicized, even though opposition leaders were arrested, people were coming out to the streets and fighting for Kyrgyz democracy."

The Majlis discussed these and other issues in detail. You can listen to the full podcast here:

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis 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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