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Kyrgyzstan: Protests Show Democracy Is Not Dead

After Kyrgyzstan held two much-criticized rounds of parliamentary elections in recent weeks, it looked like the country once advertised as Central Asia's island of democracy had been washed away. But in the past 10 days, thousands of people have demonstrated in protest against the government's banning of opposition candidates. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that democracy is not entirely dead in Kyrgyzstan.

Prague, 22 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Daily protests in Kyrgyzstan attest that many citizens are as dissatisfied with the conduct of their parliamentary elections as international observers were.

Protests began in the town of Kara-Buura on March 12, the day of the run-off election for that district. They have continued ever since, spreading even to the capital Bishkek. Since that day, several election officials from villages in the Kara-Buura district have come forward and admitted all manner of violations, including early voting, forged ballots, and bribes paid to falsify results. The chairman of the district election commission committed suicide last Friday (March 17).

From the outset of the electoral process, when parties sought to be certified, it was clear there would be problems. Some of the most powerful opposition parties were barred from the elections immediately, others were banned during the campaign. Some candidates from the banned parties who attempted to run as independents found themselves facing criminal charges dredged up from years past.

The first round of parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan, held late last month, was so obviously flawed that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, criticized the campaign process nearly three weeks ahead of the vote.

According to OSCE monitors, the first round fell far short of democratic standards. The same monitors found the elections' second round, which took place earlier this month, even more democratically deficient.

In the run-ups to both rounds, gross violations committed by the Kyrgyz government and court system led many outside the country to conclude Kyrgyzstan was falling into the pattern of the repressive regimes in states that border the country. Inside Kyrgyzstan, too, people have been protesting since the second round ended, angry about the government's conduct.

One of the demonstrators expressed what many feel:

"This is simply our government choosing their own people. They threw out the opposition by illegal means. The chairman of the Central Election Commission is a man without an honest conscience."

Kara-Buura became the catalyst for the protests because it was the scene of a particularly disputed run-off election, featuring former Vice President Feliks Kulov -- a rival of President Askar Akaev.

According to preliminary results never released publicly by the country's Central Election Committee, Kulov took 38 percent of the vote in the first round. That was short of the 50-plus percent he needed to win outright, but was twice what his leading opponent received. Yet, in the runoff vote, Kulov somehow lost.

The OSCE said bluntly that Kulov had actually won the first round outright with more than 50 percent of the vote. And its evaluation of the second round raised strong doubts about the vote count and other procedures in Kara-Buura.

One voter from Kara-Buura told RFE/RL that the balloting in the second round was far from free:

"There were no elections. Men armed with machine guns stood there. The officials left [with the ballot boxes], but without counting the votes and under the protection of the armed men so that no one would demand to see the votes counted. Such utter stupidity as we saw in Kara-Buura should not happen."

All this has fired up many people in Kyrgyzstan, who already felt their choices for deputies were denied them because so many candidates were barred. Protesters in Bishkek have asked President Akaev to lift the court bans against opposition candidates, annul results in some districts, and hold new elections. They also want those responsible for election violations to be held publicly accountable for their actions.

The demonstrations are growing in size, and so is the list of demands. The protests now pose a real problem for a government that is dependent on its good international image to secure help from the world community -- notably, the World Trade Organization, which it joined two years ago.

If the protests are any indication, the people of Kyrgyzstan -- if not the government -- have an understanding of how a democracy should work.

(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)