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Kyrgyzstan: Criticism Targets Coming Elections

Kyrgyzstan holds parliamentary elections on Sunday, and international organizations that have been watching the campaign are telling the Kyrgyz government they already have concerns about fairness. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that several of the largest parties have been barred from competing.

Prague, 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL/) -- Kyrgyzstan has been called Central Asia's island of democracy, a fact President Askar Akayev has used to his advantage in promoting international ties.

But with international organizations already concerned about the fairness of the runup to this Sunday's parliamentary elections, a monsoon of criticism may be about to wash over that island. Akayev has taken action to ward off the need for such criticism. Last week, he told regional governors to stop interfering in the campaigns of opposition candidates. And he criticized law enforcement bodies and the court system for suddenly reviving, shortly before the elections, old legal charges against opposition figures.

On paper, the fairness of the election seems adequate, even good, by the region's standards. There are 418 candidates running for 105 seats. Nine registered political parties and two political blocs are taking part. So the more than 2 million eligible voters in the country definitely have a choice.

That is part of the reason why the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is sending more than a hundred election observers. And according to Central Election Commission chairman Suleyman Imanbayev, the total number of monitors at the polls will be about 2,000. It is the first election in the region where the monitors will outnumber the candidates.

Less encouraging is that some of the international organizations that have been watching the electoral process since it began in November are telling the Kyrgyz government they are concerned about what they see.

The Washington-based National Democratic Institute was the first to express worries about the elections, in a report released on February 4. Then U.S. Vice President Al Gore sent a letter to President Akayev saying he hoped parliamentary elections would be held fairly and legally. And the OSCE released a statement expressing its concerns that opposition candidates are being harassed in the courts.

The list of reasons for concern is long, and grows longer by the day as polling time approaches. One complaint is the ability of opposition parties to compete. The biggest party in the country is the Communist Party, and it is expected to do well on Sunday. But the second-largest political party, El Bei-Bechara, was barred from competing on a technicality, that its registration form failed to specify it would field candidates. The country's third largest party, Ar-Namys, was barred on another technicality, that it has not been registered for a full year (registered in August).

But it is the legal challenges to opposition candidates that most observers find most worrying. The treatment of the Party for the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, or PDMK, is a prime example.

The PDMK was registered and until two weeks ago was campaigning. Then the party found itself in court facing a suit from three members who said they had not been invited to the nominating convention. The court ruled the party convention was illegitimate because it lacked a quorum. When the party chairman attempted to introduce evidence that, he said, proved the convention did have a quorum, the court refused to accept the evidence. The PDMK was barred from the elections.

What happened to the PDMK is also happening to individual candidates. Daniyar Usenov is the chairman of El, and he decided to run as an independent after his party was barred from competing. But he was summoned to court to face assault charges stemming from an incident that occurred in 1996 -- even though those charges had been dropped years ago.

Usenov says the reason for the case against him is political.

"In three years and eight months they could not complete this case. For this reason they are conducting this political game."

Another prominent Kyrgyz politician who is facing legal troubles ahead of elections is Feliks Kulov, who has been the vice president, governor of Chu Region, the head of national security and the mayor of Bishkek. The party he heads, Ar-Namys, was barred from competing, but he managed to get his name included on the PDMK list of candidates. Last month, the prosecutor-general's office began investigating him on charges of embezzlement stemming from 1996.

An aide to Kulov, Emil Aliev, says the charges are a sham, intended to discredit Kulov on the eve of elections.

"If Kulov was even slightly guilty they would have already put him in jail. This did not happen. The reason: Feliks Kulov is an honest man."

Other problems include interference with media coverage of candidates. Television journalist Erkin TurAliyev said the presidential press spokesman (Osmonakun Ibraimov) asked him to air material which would tarnish the reputations of two candidates, Kulov and PDMK chairman Jypar Jeksheev. TurAliyev recorded his conversation with the press spokesman and played it for the press last week.

Kulov has already had a difficult time with the press. The state newspaper, "Utro Bishkeka" has been running stories saying Kulov abused his power in the past. The newspaper's chief editor, Melis Aidarkulov, has said he does not believe Kulov should be allowed to compete.

"This person [Kulov], instead of sharing responsibility for the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, is only desirous of coming to power. He does not have the moral rights, I think, to participate in elections."

And although Kulov gave a well-attended press conference earlier this week to deny the allegations against him, no one published or broadcast the event.

Although it may be little comfort to those whose political reputations have been smeared in the run-up to elections, the actual polling will probably be fairer than the campaign has been. The presence of so many observers is expected to make it difficult to violate electoral laws during the vote and the count.

Still, for some of the candidates in Sunday's elections, the damage may have already been done.