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Central Asia: Kyrgyz Round Table On Democracy Itself Undemocratic

A round table attended by representatives of the Kyrgyz government and some opposition parties and non-governmental organizations was held yesterday in the capital Bishkek to discuss means of ensuring a democratic presidential election later this year. But RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, withdrew its sponsorship of the meeting because it found the round table not sufficiently representative -- and therefore undemocratic.

Prague, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan has been having image problems lately. Once perceived as the great hope for democracy in Central Asia, the country's parliamentary elections earlier this year drew criticism from many of the international organizations and foreign governments that in the past showed a keen -- and often benevolent -- interest in the small country.

Yesterday, the Kyrgyz government made a very public attempt to regain lost respect. A round table attended by government members, and some -- but far from all -- political opposition parties and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, was held in Bishkek. While some observers saw the meeting as a positive step, the event was clearly not what was originally planned.

The round table's chief topic was how to improve the electoral process so that presidential balloting scheduled for the autumn would be free and fair -- not only in words, but in practice. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev attended part of the proceedings, and he assured participants that the presidential election would be more democratic than the widely criticized parliamentary polls held in February and March:

"We must learn from the deficiencies which were exposed in order not to repeat them. We intend to do this with the help of the recently elected parliament, experts from the OSCE -- together with you, respected representatives of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations. "

Kyrgyzstan's previous reputation as the Central Asian country farthest along the democratic road meant that hopes were high for its parliamentary elections earlier this year. The country's four CIS Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- had already held either parliamentary or presidential elections -- and, in some cases, both -- prior to the Kyrgyz poll. The OSCE monitored, or at least assessed, all these elections and criticized every one of them for not being fully free and fair. Kyrgyzstan proved all too similar to its neighbors.

Among the chief abuses of democratic practices in the Kyrgyz elections was the barring of some leading opposition parties from participating in the voting. Then, when prominent opposition figures ran as independent candidates, they were suddenly confronted with criminal charges dating back several years. Finally, both the February first-round elections and the March run-offs were largely spoiled by complaints of vote-rigging, ballot-box tampering, and falsification of results at tabulating centers.

Not long after the run-offs, the idea of a round table on democratic elections was put forward. When OSCE Secretary-General Jan Kubis visited Kyrgyzstan soon after the second round of voting, he and President Akayev announced a round table would be held later in March. Around the table, it was said, would be an equal number of representatives from the government, the opposition, and NGOs.

Tursumbek Akunov of Kyrgyzstan's Independent Human Rights Movement volunteered to help organize the event. But later he despaired of being able to do so because of bickering over when the round table would held, who and how many would attend, and what exactly its chief subjects would be.

One major reason for the difficulties was the refusal of leading opposition parties to attend the round table while Feliks Kulov, the head of the country's third-largest party -- Ar-Namys -- was still in jail. Kulov had run for a seat in parliament and become the center of an election controversy when he was declared the loser -- even though prior to the voting he seemed headed for an easy victory. Shortly after the March run-offs, Kulov -- who had already announced his intention to run for president -- was sent to prison on charges dating back to the mid-1990s.

With Kulov still in jail, his party refused to attend the round table. Then Daniyar Usenov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's second-largest political group -- El -- said his party also would not participate. Usenov had been disqualified from participating in the run-offs by the Central Election Commission, which said it had obtained evidence Usenov failed to declare all the property he owned on his election registration forms. Usenov had also planned to run for the presidency, but he was found guilty of assaulting a businessman by a Bishkek court and he is not eligible to run in elections this year.

The country's largest party, the Communists, also refused to attend the round table, although a Communist splinter group did show up for the session. Other opposition parties withdrew their support for the round table during the past two weeks, leaving mostly only very weak opposition parties to send representatives.

The event was supposed to be held under the aegis of the OSCE. But the 54-state organization withdrew its sponsorship earlier this week, sending only observers to the meeting. Even President Akayev merely attended the round table's opening session before departing for a trip abroad.

Kyrgyz State Secretary Naken Kasiev said Thursday that the round table's discussions were "constructive," and that a summary document should be signed on Monday 12 June. Kasiev said the document will reflect "a compromise resolution on all questions on the agenda, taking into account the opinions of all three sides."

But the three sides represented at the round table certainly did not represent all groups involved in Kyrgyz politics and society. And that, in turn, casts serious doubts on how useful this much-vaunted experiment in democracy actually was.

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