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Constitutional Crunch Time In Kyrgyzstan

Interim government head Roza Otunbaeva expects to win support for a strengthened parliament.
Interim government head Roza Otunbaeva expects to win support for a strengthened parliament.
Is Kyrgyzstan about to re-establish its image as the most democratic state in Central Asia, or will the interim government only worsen the spirit of discontent?

This week the country faces a pivotal moment, when a special council releases a draft of the new constitution up for approval in a national referendum in late June.

Kyrgyzstan's interim government has been in power for just over a month since crowds chased President Kurmanbek Bakiev from office in early April. The new leadership said from the start that Kyrgyzstan needed a new constitution, suggesting it should stray from previous constitutions that centered on a dominant executive branch by specifying a parliamentary system of government.

A parliamentary system, if implemented, would reduce the role of the president to a figurehead, a new condition not only for Kyrgyzstan but for Central Asia in general.

Other alternative ideas are flourishing as well. More than 20 different constitutional variations have been sent to the council drafting the document.

As recently as May 16, council member Daniyar Narymbaev said work was proceeding and the body would meet a deadline later this week to make the draft public.

"We have been working hard for the last 10 days -- day in and day out -- on this constitutional project,” Narymbaev said. “And just today we gave its versions in Kyrgyz and Russian to our linguists. On Monday [May 17] we will gather again with lawyers, and talk once again about some really difficult parts of the constitution. On May 18, we will give the final version to the interim government, and on May 20 the last version will be published."

Narymbaev strongly indicated the council is drafting a constitution that forms a parliamentary system of government.

“We will have a new parliament with a new authority -- parliament will form a government,” he said. “Then we will have a new president, who will be playing the role of an arbiter. He will play an active role in foreign policy."

In Favor Of A Strong President

Many in Kyrgyzstan seem to think the idea of a parliamentary system has merit, although there are plenty of others who feel the country is not yet at the stage where such a system is possible.

One skeptic is acting Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, who tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service he prefers a system that combines a presidential and a parliamentary system.

That system, Isakov said, should keep the president as the chief executive authority, abolish the post of prime minister, and reintroduce the vice presidential position that existed for two years after the country's 1991 independence. Isakov's plan also would make parliament responsible for naming key ministers and defining economic policy, including approval of the annual budget.

Interim government leader Roza Otunbaeva commented on Isakov's proposal, noting that Azimbek Beknazarov, another influential person in the interim government, also favors keeping a strong executive branch of government.

"Even last summer, when Ismail Isakov was going to run for the president's post, he expressed his opinion on it. They are both strong persons [and] experienced politicians. They have their own views,” Otunbaeva said. “But I still strongly believe that all members of the interim government will support this current constitutional project” with a strong parliamentary role.

Beknazarov, a veteran politician who has been a member of parliament and prosecutor-general, said the country should readopt the constitution it had in 1993, which better balanced the executive and legislative branches but still tilted toward the executive.

"The interim government has to issue a decree that Kyrgyzstan recognizes the very first constitution of independent Kyrgyzstan from May 5, 1993, which was accepted after two years of discussions. If it did so, we would automatically enter into the legal framework, and we wouldn't have so much noise about legitimacy," Beknazarov said.

That constitution was scrapped by President Askar Akaev after he dissolved the parliament in late 1994. Subsequent constitutions and amendments gradually increased the powers of the executive branch. Many feel this led to the abuses committed by presidents Akaev and Bakiev and their respective inner circles.

Adakhan Madumarov, a former secretary of state in the Bakiev administration, opposes a parliamentary system.

"Just imagine, [the constitutional council] says that a parliament will determine domestic and foreign policy of the country,” Madumarov said. “And the president will be just an arbiter, like an aksakal [village elder]. Then the CIS presidents will not want to sit around the same table with our head of state."

100 Parties

With more than 100 registered political parties and movements, there is certain to be opposition to the draft constitution. Otunbaeva addressed this, saying the opposition would have a place in the new government.

"The opposition will be represented in committees and [given the post of] deputy speaker of parliament. This is our uncompromising position," she said.

All the meetings of the constitutional council were aired nationwide on Kyrgyz television's first channel, so there has been plenty of input from the public during the process.

Nongovernmental organizations and youth groups have great influence in Kyrgyzstan and were major drivers of the Tulip Revolution, also called the People’s Revolution, of March 2005. They are keeping a close eye on the drafting of the new constitution -- close enough to have already noted what they consider an important omission.

On May 13, NGO and youth-group activists rallied in Bishkek to insist the constitution identify Kyrgyzstan as a "secular state." Some of the activists claimed they were told by some of the people working on the draft that "secular" does not translate easily into the Kyrgyz language.

Youth groups have been active in organizing and promoting their interests while the new constitution is being drafted. On May 1, a council of youth groups was formed, comprising some 40 of the country's youth groups. The council tasked itself and its members with forming groups to study and come up with recommendations on what should be in the new constitution, regarding not only the promotion of young peoples’ interests but also the support of culture, economics, and other spheres.

On May 11 in the southern city of Osh, a forum of youth organizations agreed that youth groups should participate in outlining and implementing the government's policies and that there should be a special Youth Ministry to address their concerns in the future.

The council drafting the constitution is looking at constitutions in other countries. A delegation of international experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met with representatives of Kyrgyzstan's interim government on May 13 in Bishkek to discuss constitutional changes. Interim government leader Otunbaeva was quoted at the time as saying, "The constitution will only be a success if it instills checks and balances and prevents violent revolutions by ensuring all forces may resolve deadlocks in a peaceful manner."

According to Denis Petit, the acting head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights' democratization department, “The ultimate how a constitution is implemented in practice and whether it gains public confidence."

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report

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