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Kyrgyzstan: Russian Troops, Like U.S. Counterparts, Now Enjoy Diplomatic Immunity

The upper house of Kyrgyzstan's parliament has voted to give Russian soldiers stationed in the country diplomatic immunity. Soldiers from the U.S.-led coalition stationed in Kyrgyzstan for operations in Afghanistan already enjoy such immunity. But some in Kyrgyzstan question why foreign troops should be exempt from Kyrgyz laws while they are on Kyrgyz soil.

Prague, 8 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The People's Assembly, the upper house of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, voted on 6 July to grant Russian soldiers serving at the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization base in Kant diplomatic immunity, making it law.

Russian military personnel at Kant now enjoy the same immunity from Kyrgyz law that troops from the U.S.-led coalition have been granted at their base outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

The Kyrgyz president's representative in the People's Assembly is Usup Mukambaev. He said one of the reasons deputies gave Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan such immunity was exactly because troops at the Ganci base under U.S. command already have it.

"Giving immunity to servicemen of the Russian Federation was the same as was given to the servicemen at [the U.S.-led coalition] Ganci military base,” Mukambaev said. “Such status was given to Russian military personnel [at Kant]. It cannot be otherwise because we are in a common union, countries of the CIS, which includes firstly Russia. And to give one coalition [member] more status and another less is not permitted by international law -- all the more because we are closer to Russia than to other countries."

But some members of the upper house do not agree with Mukambaev. Iskhak Masaliyev, an opposition member of the People's Assembly, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service: "Any citizen who has committed an offense or a crime [in Kyrgyzstan] must be held accountable in accordance with the law of this country. It is only in the event of war, in the area of military operations, that soldiers can be given immunity, in my opinion. And since there is no such situation -- there is no war in Kyrgyzstan now, thank God -- then I think [servicemen of] both [the Russian and U.S. contingents in Kyrgyzstan] should accept the same responsibilities as Kyrgyz citizens."

Masaliev gave examples when such immunity has allowed foreign servicemen to avoid justice in Kyrgyzstan. "One soldier from the Russian air base [at Kant] was detained in connection with raping a 15-year-old girl," he said "This was reported in the newspaper [on 6 July]. And now, according to the law, he will answer for this [crime] according to the laws of the Russian Federation. If you remember, an American serviceman ran over two of our women. As a result, they were both hospitalized. Again, this serviceman was demobilized to his homeland and what happened to him after that is unknown. Was he punished or not?"
A serious breach of the law by a foreign soldier with such immunity could provide fuel for opposition parties during campaigning for February's parliamentary elections.

Alex Vatanka, an editor at the London-based analytical group Jane's Sentinel, said the request for immunity probably came from the Russian military and was made knowing that U.S.-led coalition troops already enjoyed such status already. But Vatanka said that, given the Kyrgyz government's record of making concessions, granting immunity to more foreign troops may prove difficult to sell to the public in Kyrgyzstan and may only add to the government's image of being weak.

"How will the Kyrgyz government be presenting this piece of legislation domestically? Because the president of Kyrgyzstan has been in the past -- and is probably still -- under certain pressure to not provide so many concessions to neighboring states. They have problems with neighbors such as Uzbekistan. They have conceded territory to the Chinese. To go around and provide immunity to foreign military personnel based on Kyrgyz territory is perhaps another indication of the weakness of this Kyrgyz administration," Vatanka said.

Vatanka also noted that while the move may have strengthened Kyrgyz-Russian relations, a serious breach of the law by a foreign soldier with such immunity could provide fuel for opposition parties during campaigning for February's parliamentary elections. "If the opposition decided to play its cards right, this could be a factor in the overall kind of strategy to present the Kyrgyz government as simply too weak to stand up for Kyrgyz sovereignty and defend Kyrgyz interests," he said.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)