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Kyrgyzstan: Concerns Voiced Over Presidential Race

International organizations are again voicing concern that Kyrgyzstan's presidential election next month will not be as democratic as officials have said. A new requirement that candidates demonstrate proficiency in Kyrgyz language appears to be major impediment.

Prague, 13 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz government and election officials promise the presidential election set for October 29 will be free, fair, and democratic. But events over the past several weeks show the contrary, with only incumbent president Askar Akaev and two other candidates having so far gained certification by Kyrgyzstan's Central Elections Commission.

When the registration process to take part in the vote began last month, 19 people declared their intention to run. That number has dwindled, with seven applicants having failed to pass a mandatory Kyrgyz language examination. The elimination of the seven has sparked demonstrations in the capital Bishkek, where people have questioned whether the language exam is constitutional.

In a statement released last week, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (or NDI), which has worked in Kyrgyzstan since 1993, questioned the need for the exam. Laura Jewett, who headed a recent NDI delegation to the country, says one problem is that provisions are vague concerning how proficient in Kyrgyz a candidate must be:

"The [Kyrgyz] constitution requires the president to have command of the state language. But neither the constitution nor the election law specifies how that competency should be measured. This subjective [language-examination] process has fostered speculation that the testing is open to politically motivated implementation."

One of the candidates who has not yet been approved is opposition leader Feliks Kulov. Kulov was at the center of a controversy over the parliamentary elections earlier this year. He claimed that vote rigging and bias by election officials in his district robbed him of certain victory. An assessment by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe supported Kulov's claim.

Kulov was indicted and jailed shortly after his March run-off election and was released only last month after he was acquitted. He then declared his intention to run for the presidency, but a military court has since overturned the acquittal and Kulov is due again to go on trial. NDI's Laura Jewett also referred to Kulov's case.

"The [NDI] delegation recommended that criminal proceedings against candidates be avoided during the pre-election period, except for crimes committed during that time. Any proceedings that are initiated should be open to public scrutiny."

In Kulov's case the charges of abuse of power date back several years to when he was minister of national security. Because of his position at the time, Kulov's coming trial -- like the first one in August -- is being conducted by a military court behind closed doors.

The last presidential election, in 1995, was also marred by deficiencies. Of the nine candidates who originally registered in that race, only three appeared on election ballots. Several were forced out when the elections commission determined that some of their required 50,000 signatures from voters were fraudulent. Other candidates withdrew under questionable circumstances. The campaign manager of one of Akaev's two remaining opponents was jailed three days before election day. Authorities said he had been fomenting ethnic hatred.

After the past winter's parliamentary elections, Akaev and other Kyrgyz government officials promised improvements for the October poll. NDI's Jewett says she hasn't seen much evidence of that:

"There haven't been any improvements, I'm afraid, that we've seen since the parliamentary elections."

The NDI's written statement does note that enthusiasm among Kyrgyzstan's voters has not diminished, despite the much-criticized parliamentary elections. But the statement also says voters' trust of the electoral system "has been compromised" and is at serious risk if the presidential vote is not a success.

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