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Central Asia Report: January 16, 2003

16 January 2003, Volume 3, Number 3

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT AND OPPOSITION AT LOGGERHEADS OVER CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM. On 13 January, President Askar Akaev signed a decree scheduling a nationwide referendum on 2 February on proposed changes to the Kyrgyz Constitution. Akaev defended the referendum as a timely and necessary move to consolidate democracy and human rights in the country. Meanwhile opposition parties said the referendum was premature, and unconstitutional to boot. They accused him of hijacking the amendment process to his own ends, and pledged to fight him.

In September, a 40-member Constitutional Council, created and chaired by Akaev, began drafting amendments to the constitution that would redistribute some of the president's powers between the parliament and local authorities. These proposed changes were almost certainly meant as a tactical concession on the president's part following months of criticism of the government following the clashes in Aksy Raion that left at least five people dead (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 5 September 2002). The original deadline for preparing a package of amendments was 23 September. But the council's work, accompanied by public debate, was extended through the autumn and winter after the council was apparently unable to agree on the powers of a new government and reforms to the judicial system. Meanwhile Akaev twice postponed a referendum on the draft changes before settling last week on the 2 February date (see "Kyrgyzstan: Constitutional Referendum Culminates Five Months Of Heated Debate,", 14 January 2003).

Public discussion of the changes ceased abruptly when Akaev announced on 2 January that he would no longer cooperate with the Constitutional Council and created in its stead a group of 17 legal experts, selected by himself, to review the amendments it had prepared. None of those experts was a member of the Constitutional Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2003). The council, in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, had "completed its work." In an apparent attempt to assuage concerns that members of the opposition, parliament, and public had now been excluded from the review process, the new group's chairman, Cholponkul Arabaev, said on 6 January that the experts would only edit the draft amendments without making any "major changes." Osmonov elaborated on 11 January, saying that the legal experts would only "classify" the amendments and rephrase them in the appropriate legal terminology (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 13 January 2003).

A statement issued on 10 January by 11 opposition members of the Constitutional Council said that Akaev would be violating the Kyrgyz Constitution if he submitted the draft amendments to a national referendum in the immediate future, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The statement pointed out that before a referendum can be held, according to Clause 5 of the current constitution, a two-thirds majority of both chambers of parliament must first pass a law governing referendums -- and no such law exists yet. The opposition found an unexpected ally in Constitutional Court Chairwoman Cholpon Baekova, who agreed that the referendum should be postponed in an interview with on 10 January. Noting that "over 40 articles are affected, practically half the constitution," she said that drafting the amendments properly would require at least six months, and she advised delaying the referendum until 2004.

Apparently brushing aside these concerns, Akaev announced on 13 January that the referendum would take place three weeks later. Voters will be required to answer "yes" or "no" to two questions. First, should the law of the Kyrgyz Republic on the new version of the constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic be adopted? And second, should Askar Akaev remain president of the Kyrgyz Republic until December 2005 (to the end of his constitutional term) in order to implement the approved constitutional amendments? (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2003).

In a televised address to the nation on 13 January, Akaev explained what would be achieved by reforming the constitution. He said the new version strengthened guarantees of human rights and freedoms by incorporating, for example, the right to private ownership and the right to alternative military service. Furthermore, the new version is allegedly more democratic since it mandates a switch from a two-chamber parliament to a one-chamber parliament with 75 deputies. The Assembly of People's Representatives (parliament's upper house) is less necessary than it once was, Akaev said, thanks to the establishment of local government bodies to look after local people's interests. He also acknowledged an economic factor: abolishing one of the chambers would save the country money. "Our people have begun counting how much government is costing them.... A unicameral parliament is what we can afford today," the president said. He added that the reformed constitution would also expand democracy by giving parliament the power to approve appointment to all top government posts, by strengthening the role of local-level administration, and by expanding NGOs' access to government officials.

Moreover, the proposed amendments will allegedly improve the judicial process by providing for immunity for judges and merging arbitration courts with general-jurisdiction courts. Finally, the changes will make power-holders in the country more accountable by giving parliament oversight over the executive and the right to stage no-confidence votes. Akaev wrapped up his address by stating, "Kyrgyzstan has always been a leader in democracy and reform in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and now we will consolidate our lead," Kyrgyz Television reported on 13 January.

On the same day Akaev told a government session, "I believe that today we are getting a constitution that meets the requirements of a posttransitional period and harmonizes the relations among the different branches of power, between the authorities and the people, and within the civil society," Kyrgyz Radio reported. He stressed that the final version of the constitution represented a compromise. "Not a victory of the authorities over the opposition, but a compromise and a step towards reconciliation and accord." Yet simultaneously the president complained that, while he personally had agreed to unspecified concessions, parliament had refused to cede any of its powers, even in the interest of resolving the country's severe economic problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2003).

When members of the opposition saw the draft prepared by the group of legal experts, they were infuriated. Despite promises that there would be no "major changes," parliamentary deputy Adaham Madumarov said on 13 January that all the main points agreed upon by the Constitutional Council had been dropped. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2003). The 40 members of the Constitutional Council met that evening and a majority voted against the new draft, ITAR-TASS reported. The key reason, according to deputy Absamat Masaliev, was that the new amendments would "considerably increase the president's powers and reduce the role of parliamentary deputies," which he said had not been the thrust of the text prepared by the Constitutional Council.

Further objections were fleshed out the following day in a statement, carried by, from the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. Bones of contention included an amendment providing for freedom of assembly "if the executive power bodies have been informed in advance," with the rider, "an individual citizen's exercise of his or her rights and freedoms may not violate the rights and freedoms of other people." The coalition was also unhappy that the draft assigned no role for political parties in the new power structure beyond the right to nominate candidates for parliament. Meanwhile the group of experts had struck out the Constitutional Council's provision that a former president would enjoy immunity after leaving office but could still be called to account by a special vote of parliament, and written instead that a former president would enjoy absolute immunity from all forms of prosecution.

Jailed former Vice President Feliks Kulov weighed in on 14 January, criticizing plans for the referendum which he called a "political gamble" and predicting it would strengthen Akaev's powers while eliminating his political enemies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2003). Opposition factions in parliament, including the Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev, returned to the question of the constitutionality of the referendum on the following day, Interfax reported. They announced that they would appeal to the Constitutional Court to rule that the referendum was illegal. Nevertheless, oppositionist Madumarov was expecting that the government would get its way. His answer was to boycott the referendum. A boycott, he said, "is the only way to ensure that Kyrgyzstan complies with democratic principles." He told Interfax that he would campaign for a boycott throughout the south of the country.

TURKISH LEADER REFRESHES TIES WITH CASPIAN STATES. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, took a tour of three Caspian countries last week -- Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan -- in an attempt to revitalize relations that had lapsed under Turkey's previous administration. Erdogan's decision to visit three energy-rich states while skipping Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, whose hydrocarbon resources are relatively small, was significant, commented on 14 January. Turkey's economic depression has given it impetus to try to realize its oft-stated aim of becoming an energy bridge across which Caspian states can export oil and gas.

Accompanied by a delegation of about 150 Turkish businessmen, Erdogan arrived on 9 January in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, where talks with President Saparmurat Niyazov focused on economic issues and the prospects for closer cooperation in the energy sector, including the possibility of delivering Turkmen gas to Turkey via Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2003). Niyazov noted that Turkey was one of Turkmenistan's main trading partners, with over $380 million in bilateral trade in 2002. He also thanked Turkey for its assistance since 1991 in modernizing Turkmenistan's textile industry, hydrocarbon facilities, luxury hotels, and its national army. Meanwhile Erdogan appears to have pleaded successfully for the release of six Turkish citizens detained in connection with the assassination attempt in November against the Turkmen president. Niyazov announced on 12 January that documents had been prepared to allow the Turks to return home, AP reported.

Erdogan moved on to the Kazakh capital Astana on 10 January. He and President Nursultan Nazarbaev discussed trade, regional cooperation, and the crisis in Iraq, with both sides saying they supported a peaceful resolution to the crisis, AP reported. A press release from Nazarbaev's office added that he briefed Erdogan on Kazakhstan's energy strategy and its approaches to transporting oil out of the Caspian basin. Evidently the two leaders talked about the feasibility of Kazakhstan's participation in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline project, which would entail shipping oil from its port of Aqtau. During his earlier talks in Azerbaijan, Erdogan had pushed for early completion of the BTC pipeline so that it could go into service before 2005.

Erdogan also told a press conference in Astana that he and Nazarbaev had agreed to significantly increase the volume of bilateral trade. Trade turnover for the first nine months of 2002 amounted to $250 million, a figure that Erdogan indicated he would like to see doubled this year, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He also noted that Turkish construction companies to date have carried out contracts worth $1.2 billion in Kazakhstan. But at a business roundtable the following day, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov suggested that Turkish entrepreneurs in Kazakhstan expand beyond their traditional fields of activity, such as construction, and make their mark in the agriculture sector, machine building, and the hydrocarbon industry, Khabar Television reported. Erdogan in turn suggested that Astana remove the ban it imposed in 1998 on the import of meat and dairy products, which he blamed in part for the declining trade volume between Turkey and Kazakhstan over the last five years.

FLOOD OF LAWSUITS PROMPTS CONCERN ABOUT MEDIA FREEDOM IN KYRGYZSTAN. The embattled independent newspaper "Moya stolitsa," which has reported extensively on alleged corruption within the Bishkek government, and is already facing over a dozen lawsuits for its critical articles, lost another case on 8 January when the Lenin District court in Bishkek found it guilty of publishing false information about a ski lodge in the Semyonov Gorge in eastern Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The offending article, published on 22 November 2002 and titled, "The Family has Gone Into the Mountains, the Family has Found Money," alleged that the ski center was owned by members of President Akaev's family. The plaintiffs -- the Issyk-Kul district administration and the Semyonov local government -- sued on the grounds that their dignity and business reputation had been impugned, and that their region had suffered economically because unidentified foreign companies refused to invest in the ski center following the article's publication. Kabar news agency reported on 10 January that both the plaintiffs had demanded 1 million soms (about $21,500). The court awarded them a total of about 79,000 soms and ordered the newspaper to print an apology within one month.

The same court ruled against the paper on 4 January in favor of the Karabalta spirit factory and fined it 50,000 soms. On 8 January, a Bishkek resident filed a new lawsuit against the newspaper for an article that he said affronted Kyrgyz national pride, and demanded a fine of 1 million soms, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Yet another case against the paper is due to open on 21 January. The newspaper's editor, Aleksandr Kim, told RFE/RL on 9 January that the series of lawsuits against "Moya stolitsa" were politically motivated and orchestrated by the government. Thirteen lawsuits were filed against the paper in December, with the plaintiffs including the prime minister, the interior minister, and other top government officials, lawmakers, and prominent businessmen. State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov vowed in early December to launch a "crusade" against the newspaper through the courts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002).

On 8 January Tolekan Ismailova, a human rights campaigner and one of the heads of the Civic Leaders Forum, wrote an open letter to Akaev urging him to stop persecuting "Moya stolitsa," RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

Meanwhile the state-owned Uchkun printing house suspended publication of the opposition newspaper "Kyrgyz ordo" on 13 January after a senior customs official, Aidarbek Duishaliev, sued it for libel, requesting 350,000 soms in damages and demanding that the paper be shut down, reported. A district court in Bishkek is due to give its verdict on 17 January. Yet the chief editor of "Kyrgyz ordo," Beken Nazaraliev, told RFE/RL on 13 January that representatives of the court had already visited the editorial offices and taken a full inventory of the newspaper's property.

On 13 January, 30 human rights activists, parliamentary and political party representatives, newspaper editors, and other public figures signed a "Statement on the Protection of the Freedom of Speech in Kyrgyzstan," AKIpress reported. They expressed "serious anxiety about the increasingly frequent incidents of persecution of independent media and journalists." Singling out the flood of lawsuits against "Moya stolitsa," they said the authorities, acting on political motives, "are not giving journalists an opportunity to speak freely and to cover problems in society in an honest and principled manner." They accused the authorities of trying to "kill off the media" in an attempt to limit freedom of speech, and said that efforts to build a civilized state based on the rule of law were being badly undermined.