A nationwide debate is under way in Kyrgyzstan on proposed changes to the country's constitution that would, among other things, strengthen the judiciary and transfer some powers away from the presidential office. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua reports on whether the move marks a crucial step toward democratization in a country where street demonstrations and protest marches have become a frequent sight.
Prague, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a country better known for recent antigovernment demonstrations and bloody clashes between police and protesters, an unusual experiment is under way in Kyrgyzstan. A nationwide debate has begun on a package of proposed reforms to the constitution that appear to be aimed at establishing a greater balance of power between the country's executive, judicial, and legislative branches.
Last week, the newly formed Constitutional Council for Constitutional Reforms concluded its last discussion of the reforms before opening the issue to national debate. The council was created in late August by Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who appeared to be seeking rapprochement with the country's opposition leaders by moving ahead with reforms to the country's fundamental law. The council comprises representatives of various political parties and branches of power, as well as opposition figures and human-rights activists.
Newspapers have yet to officially publish the proposed reforms in their entirety. But they are said to include provisions for strengthening the judiciary and transferring some presidential powers to the government and the parliament.
People in Kyrgyzstan have a month to become acquainted with the content of the reforms and forward their thoughts and opinions to the council. The council will then summarize the information, at which point the reforms will either be subject to a special referendum or adopted directly by parliament.
Akaev, who attended the council's final meeting last week, called on the audience to witness his willingness to follow the decisions of the council and the nation:
"As I have promised, I accept this decision. Have I ever rejected any decision made by consensus? Concerning the decision to submit this proposition to referendum, I have just been informed about it by Apsamat MasAliyev (deputy chairman of the council and leader of the Communist Party)."
It has been a rocky year in this Central Asian republic, where street pickets and protest marches have become a frequent sight. The death of five protestors in March in the country's southern Aksy district continues to roil Kyrgyz society. Protesters say the government has failed to punish those who gave the order to police to open fire on the Aksy demonstrators. The trial of two local officials opened late last month, but the hearing was adjourned after those present in the courtroom began taunting the accused.
Kyrgyzstan was once hailed as an "island of democracy" in Central Asia, and Akaev, during a recent trip to Washington, was eager to promote himself as a true democratic leader. But observers say that the instability now rocking Kyrgyzstan will change only once authorities show a true commitment toward political reform.
Many NGOs and opposition figures are criticizing the proposed reforms, which they describe as a half-hearted attempt at reforming the state system.
Some of these critics have joined forces in a group called the Public Commission on the Constitutional Reforms. One member, Ishenbai Abdyrazakov -- a former state secretary of the presidential administration -- says Akaev's reforms are clearly a political maneuver:
"There is no improvement. There is no balance of powers. In the end, the composition of the government is confirmed by the president. That is his prerogative. It means that the role of the government is not significantly reinforced. It means that there will not be any crucial enhancement of the government's power."
Mukar Cholponbaev -- a former justice minister who now heads the nongovernmental organization Lawyers' Union -- agrees:
"The powers of the president have to be clearly defined. First, I remain convinced that until the president is no longer the head of the government, he will never answer for anything. And until the president is no longer the leader of a political party, again, he will never answer for anything."
David Lewis is the director of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia project in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. He also expresses skepticism about Akaev's intentions, but says he will give the Kyrgyz government the benefit of the doubt:
"As you may know, there's been lots of reforms in the past, but they often failed to turn into reality in everyday life. So I think it's a good move in the right direction but I think everyone will be quite patient and wait to see what actually happens."
Lewis says that pushing the constitutional proposals through would help regain some trust among the Kyrgyz people, who he says have a "very, very high" level of cynicism regarding Akaev's true commitment toward democratic reforms. He says the people need to be assured that the government is ready to push ahead with changes and that such proposals are more than just a sop to the West. For now, however, he says the much-vaunted nationwide debate has barely risen above a whisper: "So it has been an exaggeration to say that there is a big nationwide debate about it. There isn't. Maybe in the weeks to come [there will be], but at the moment it's a fairly quiet response. And people will just watch and wait and see what happens, I think."
Lewis says that bringing the constitutional reforms to a public referendum would be the best way of assuring the issue is truly subject to wide social debate:
"It's clearly important that [discussion] widens out and includes as many people and as many actors as possible, rather than being just a top-down reform from the political elite. I think it's important that people understand where it comes from, why it's important and most importantly, how it will be implemented in real life. So that this is then a process of ongoing monitoring of the reforms as they go forward."
Lewis says the proposals to limit presidential powers are the biggest sign of hope this year in the entire Central Asian regions, where democracy, for the most part, appears to be in decline.
Observers claim that since September 2001, the regions have taken an increasingly authoritarian line towards political opposition groups. One possible reason for this may be closer relations between the West and Central Asia in the wake of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, which observers say were interpreted by some regional leaders as a green light to tighten restrictions on all non-mainstream groups. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are providing military bases for use by U.S. troops supporting operations in Afghanistan, while Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have opened their airspace to allied planes.
Lewis says it is very important that the reform process is successful and leads to some kind of public reconciliation and political development. Otherwise, he warns, it will have negative effects not only in Kyrgyzstan, but in neighboring republics as well:
"It's very important for the region that the situation is resolved peacefully and through democratic means, because certainly Uzbekistan is looking at Kyrgyzstan very carefully and watches what's going on here with regard to its own political developments, as is Kazakhstan."
But whether the current political crisis in Kyrgyzstan will be resolved constitutionally or develop into a wider crisis depends on another factor as well. The International Crisis Group wrote in a recent report on Kyrgyzstan that unrest will continue as long as the country's deep economic crisis remains unresolved.
(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)