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The history of Kyrgyzstan's suggests this referendum should pass by an overwhelming majority. Whether most voters are familiar with all the changes they are approving is another question, of course.

The history of Kyrgyzstan's suggests this referendum should pass by an overwhelming majority. Whether most voters are familiar with all the changes they are approving is another question, of course.

The people of Kyrgyzstan go to the polls this weekend to vote on amendments to the country's constitution. The changes at the top are what most people are looking at, but actually they are not the most dramatic changes being proposed. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

The people of Kyrgyzstan go to the polls on December 11 to vote on amendments to the country's constitution. They are familiar with constitutional referendums; this is the seventh in 25 years of Kyrgyz independence. Another, in 1994, was on the presidency.

As has been true in each of the previous referendums, it's a yes-or-no option. Voters cannot cherry-pick individual amendments from among the more-than-two-dozen proposed changes, some slight, some large.

The changes receiving the most attention deal with shifting power from the president and the parliament to the prime minister and the government. But there are other very important changes included in this package.

First, some background.

Kyrgyzstan's current constitution was approved in the country's last referendum, in June 2010, right after President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted from power. That basic law changed Kyrgyzstan's form of government from presidential to parliamentary. It was the first time any country in Central Asia had adopted a parliamentary system. That constitution also included a clause that no changes would be made until 2020.

Now, even some of the architects of that constitution admit the need for some changes. But critics of this referendum argue that the timing is bad, since a presidential election is tentatively scheduled for October 2017, so they say amendments would be more wisely made after that date. In any case, this package of amendments was rushed through; a case in point is the approval of the date of this referendum before parliament had even formally approved the holding of such a referendum.

The changes at the top are what most people are looking at, but actually they are not the most dramatic changes being proposed.

Article 36, Paragraph 5, currently reads, "Persons reaching the age of consent shall have the right to marry and create a family." That would be changed to "a man and a woman reaching the age of consent shall have the right to marry and create a family."

The implications for Kyrgyzstan's beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community are clear. They can have no recognized, formal bond and some of the more conservative elements in Kyrgyzstan will likely see this clarification as legitimizing their campaigns against what they consider "nontraditional" relationships.

Article 41, Paragraph 2, says, "Everyone shall have the right to apply in accordance with international treaties to international human rights bodies seeking protection of violated rights and freedoms." The amendment would remove the next sentence, which currently reads, "In the event that these bodies confirm the violation of human rights and freedoms, the Kyrgyz Republic shall take measures to their restoration and/or compensation of damage"

Those familiar with the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek rights activist convicted of participating in the June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, will see the reason for the change. In April, the UN Human Rights Committee called on Kyrgyzstan to immediately release Askarov and annul his conviction.

Article 26 of the constitution deals with a defendant's rights -- presumption of innocence, right to a trial, and so on. An addition to Article 26 would tighten laws on statutes of limitation but make clear there is no statute of limitation for the "crimes of genocide and ecocide." The Kyrgyz public is environmentally conscious, which has presented problems for mining companies, particularly foreign mining companies working in Kyrgyzstan, who have been accused of damaging local ecosystems.

Under the proposed changes, the constitution's preamble would include language likely to appeal to Kyrgyz nationalists. Added to the "unwavering conviction and firm will to develop and enhance the Kyrgyz statehood, protect state sovereignty and unity of the people," are the words "[and] to develop its language" -- note the singular -- "and culture."

Article 50, Paragraph 2, guarantees that no one can deprive Kyrgyzstan's citizens of their citizenship. But the amended constitution would allow authorities to revoke citizenship in certain cases, the most likely being if a citizen has left to join Islamic militant groups in the Middle East or Afghanistan or Pakistan.

And now for the proposed changes in the government.

The prime minister currently may "appoint and dismiss the heads of local public administrations upon proposals of local "keneshes" in accordance with the procedures of the law (Article 89, Paragraph 7)." The amended version is shortened, and the prime minister may simply "appoint and dismiss the heads of local public administrations."

Changes to Article 87 would allow the prime minister, with parliament's approval, to appoint and dismiss ministers.

Under the amendments, the prime minister must be a parliamentary deputy, something not required under the current constitution. Further, the prime minister and first deputy prime minister would keep their deputy mandates and be able to vote in plenary sessions. In the event that either of these two officials resigns, is dismissed, or for whatever reason ceases to carry out the duties of their posts, "their deputy powers are restored in full (Article 73, addendum)."

Under the amendments, Kyrgyzstan's president would no longer chair the Council of Defense, essentially head of the military and law enforcement organizations, but would become chair of Security Council (Article 64, Section 9, Paragraph 1). The responsibilities of the Security Council are not clear.

There are many changes to the vetting or dismissal processes for judges at various levels all the way to the Supreme Court. The president would have the right to change judges in regional and city courts. People with a tarnished reputation would be excluded from holding state posts.

There are also new rules for parliamentary factions to withdraw from a ruling coalition, and an extension from 15 to 25 days for a coalition to nominate a candidate for prime minister.

An interesting addition to Article 68, Paragraph 2, which currently reads, "Officials exercising the powers of the president shall not have the right to call early elections of the Jogorku Kenesh or dismiss the government," would include "or be a candidate for the post of president in early elections for president."

The history of Kyrgyzstan's suggests this referendum should pass by an overwhelming majority. Whether most voters are familiar with all the changes they are approving is another question, of course.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

Qishloq Ovozi with help from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has been following the growing economic decline in Turkmenistan and its effects on the people of the country for months. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

A customer enters a store in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province.

“I’d like to buy some sugar and some cooking oil, please.”

Store employee: “Certainly. Just put your name on this list and we’ll call you when it’s your turn.”

Customer: “And when might that be?”

Store employee: “Four, maybe five weeks.”

For some in Dashoguz Province, that is the new reality.

Qishloq Ovozi, with a great deal of help from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been following the growing economic decline in Turkmenistan and its effects on the people of the country for months.

As difficult as it is to get a clear look into Central Asia’s “hermit kingdom,” it has become obvious the country is in a severe economic crisis, despite what the government says or what state media reports.

Turkmenistan at the moment is a failing state and it is a fascinating and disturbing process, but also one that we can learn from.

"Disturbing" because it has shown how a government with the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and a population of a mere 5 million can squander wealth and bring its people to the verge of poverty and hunger.

"Fascinating" because we are getting a look at the limits of the people’s patience, just how much the majority of a population can endure before social upheaval erupts.

As many worthy authorities have pointed out, Central Asia’s dictatorships survive and act as they do because of a tacit contract that allows the elite, especially the presidents, to live extremely well as long as the state can provide the basic needs for its people.

That contract appears to be broken now in Turkmenistan.

Let’s return to Dashoguz and see what’s happening.

People have been telling Azatlyk about their deteriorating situation there. Obviously, I do not intend to give anyone’s name or specifically identify what area of the province they live in. The repercussions for challenging the government’s narrative of a “Golden Age” can be quite severe.

But one woman told Azatlyk she went to buy sugar and cooking oil at the local state store and was put on a waiting list.

When she told her story, she had already been waiting 35 days for a call saying her goods had arrived.

“On the shelves of state stores, there is nothing except sunflower seeds and gum,” she said.

When supplies do arrive, they come in small quantities, so only four or five people at a time get these basic products. And they are rationed. One family can purchase up to five liters of cooking oil and one kilogram of sugar.

“And they force you to buy carbonated water with these products,” she said.

Dear readers, your guess is as good as mine about that part.

Actually, those in Dashoguz who live in villages where state stores are open are the lucky ones. Many state stores have reportedly closed due to lack of merchandise and their usual patrons are forced to travel to neighboring areas, or further afield, sometimes as far as 200 kilometers from their homes, searching for basic necessities like sugar and cooking oil.

There are private stores, but as Azatlyk learned, the price of sugar in a state store is some two manats per kilogram while in private stores the cost is nine manats (the official rate is 3.5 manats to the U.S. dollar, the black market rate is 6 to 7 manats to the dollar). Five liters of cooking oil costs 15 manats in state stores, 55 manats in private stores.

And even the private stores are not always open. Authorities have reportedly been carrying out unannounced checks on inventories in private stores and levying taxes or fines on the spot, which has led some storeowners to shut down their operations if they suspect officials are coming to visit.

Even if all the privately owned stores were open, most people cannot afford to pay such prices. Qishloq Ovozi has previously reported about wage arrears in Turkmenistan. The situation has not improved.

An amended version of the law on “food security” was adopted toward the end of November that required the availability of food for the population. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered the government to ensure the law was carried out and also that no one was raising prices above fixed rates for basic goods, particularly ahead of the New Year’s holiday.

According to testimony from the people who spoke with Azatlyk, not only in Dashoguz but also in the southwestern Balkan Province, that order has gone unfulfilled.

The prevalence and scope of these shortages would seem to indicate it is not corruption or mismanagement that is to blame but simply a shortage of supplies.

Which brings us back to the tacit contract.

Central Asia is full of examples of emirs and khans who taxed their people into poverty and neglected to provide for their basic needs. Eventually, the people usually overthrew such leaders.

In Kyrgyzstan, home to a much more dynamic political culture than Turkmenistan's, we have seen the limits of the people’s tolerance. Since 2005, Kyrgyzstan’s people have twice chased their presidents from power, both times when it appeared to the people that these presidents were concentrating too much into their own hands and those of family members.

But Kyrgyzstan is an exception in Central Asia.

The type of government in Turkmenistan is more comparable to what exists in Uzbekistan, and increasingly in Tajikistan.

In Uzbekistan, leaving aside the Andijon violence of May 2005, there have been isolated outbreaks of unrest, almost always caused by lack of basic goods or drastic increases in prices. But these were always localized problems. They affected one area but not the vast majority of the country, so it never led to a wider conflagration.

Turkmenistan’s current socioeconomic situation is more uniform; it appears to be affecting the entire country.

For those wondering where the limit of patience is in Central Asia, how much can the people there endure before reaching a breaking point, the present conditions in Turkmenistan are offering unique insight.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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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