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Kyrgyzstan: Bishkek Rejects Demands To Postpone Referendum

Opposition parties in Kyrgyzstan met last weekend to launch a campaign to reject sweeping draft amendments to the country's constitution in the referendum to be held on 2 February. Although international organizations, too, are expressing criticism of those proposed changes, President Askar Akaev continues to insist they are democratic and meet opposition demands.

Prague, 30 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 13 January President Askar Akaev announced 2 February as the date for the referendum on amending the Kyrgyz Constitution.

In the referendum, voters will be called on to approve or reject proposed changes to the new version of the constitution. The most important of those changes are: the abolition of a two-chamber parliament; the abolition of party-list voting for parliament; and immunity from prosecution of former presidents and their families.

Rather than voting on the changes individually, voters must either approve or reject them wholesale. They must also say whether they want Akaev to remain in office until his presidential term ends in December 2005.

International organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have expressed their concern that the timing of the referendum was too rushed.

And U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that Washington is becoming increasingly wary of the constitutional reform process under way in Kyrgyzstan. He expressed particular concern that the referendum could further concentrate power in the presidency and weaken the role of civil society.

In reference to the timing of the referendum, Boucher said there has not been enough public debate in Kyrgyzstan about the proposed constitutional changes. But Boucher did not say outright that it should be postponed.

On 13 January, the day the date of the referendum was announced, Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Committee invited the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to send observers. But the ODIHR responded on 24 January with a statement saying that the interval between the actual announcement and the date set for the referendum was too short to enable it to prepare and deploy an observation mission. ODIHR further advised the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to postpone the referendum in order to permit further consultations on the proposed amendments and to make possible international observation of the voting.

Steven Wagenseil, the acting director of the ODIHR, reiterated these concerns to RFE/RL: "The ODIHR called on the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to consider postponing the referendum which they called on February 2 on the revised constitution, because we had been invited to observe the referendum process. We could not mount an effective or coherent observation with only a couple of weeks notice."

He continues: "In addition, the government asked the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe in November for a formal legal study of the draft as it stood then. That opinion was rendered in December and to our knowledge none of their suggestions was taken into account."

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov yesterday rejected arguments that it is too soon to hold the referendum.

On 25 January, representatives of Kyrgyz opposition parties and NGOs convened the third Kurultai (Congress) of the Kyrgyz People in Bishkek to discuss the referendum and proposed changes to the constitution.

According to opposition Erkendik (Freedom) Party leader Topchubek Turgunaliev, congress participants appealed to the Kyrgyz people not to approve the proposed amendments. They also urged people to organize monitoring groups to oversee the referendum procedure in as many places as possible: "The participants of the first session of the Third Kurultai decided to appeal to the republic's citizens urging them not to support the issues on the agenda of the draft version of the Kyrgyz Republic's Constitution, and to organize public monitoring groups in every constituency in order to prevent falsifications of the referendum results which occurred several times before."

Meanwhile, Akaev last week toured the country trying to persuade people that the proposed changes are democratic and criticizing what he termed opposition parties' attempt to thwart the referendum.

Meeting with Kyrgyz businessmen this week in Bishkek, he dismissed opposition objections and argued that in fact he had made a concession to the radical opposition by including the referendum question on whether he should remain in office until his term expires in December 2005: "The opposition made a fuss all last year and collected signatures in all the regions [of the country in support of the demand that] 'Akaev should resign.' And now -- when I have taken a step to meet them [half way] so they need not continue with the onerous task of collecting signatures, when I have declared a vote of confidence in the president and included a second question in the referendum -- now they [the opposition] are saying that 'there is no need to conduct the referendum, the second question is not necessary. The president wants certain additional benefits for himself.'"

The referendum seems set to go ahead despite all objections. But its results will not be valid if fewer than 50 percent of the electorate participate, or if fewer than 50 percent of those who do vote reject the proposed amendments.

Asked whether or not ODIHR would issue a post-referendum statement, Wagenseil said two election experts have been deployed to the OSCE office in Bishkek to observe the process and will prepare a report sometime next week.