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Exclusive: Kyrgyz President Defends Controversial Constitutional Changes

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov speaks to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek on March 15.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov speaks to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek on March 15.

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has praised constitutional changes he initiated saying they are needed to create a strong central branch of government to "establish order" in the Central Asian country, despite concerns by some groups they will create an authoritarian ruler if accepted in a referendum next month.

Kyrgyzstan was rocked by crisis after parliamentary elections in October 2020 led to protests that triggered the toppling the government and the resignation of then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov -- the third time since 2005 that a Kyrgyz president and his government had been ousted by protests.

In an interview with RFE/RL on March 15, Japarov said that after trying a parliamentary system over the past decade and a mixed parliamentary-presidential system before that, Kyrgyzstan was now at a point where there must be one strong branch of power in the country.

"I think that this constitution will be a constitution that will bring the country forward. I believe this constitution will establish order in the country," Japarov said of the amendments that are expected to be approved at a referendum on April 11.

Japarov was among several prominent politicians freed from prison by protesters during the October unrest. He had been serving a 10-year prison sentence for hostage taking during a protest against a mining operation in northeast Kyrgyzstan in October 2013. He has denied the charge.

He proposed drafting a new constitution in November 2020 when he was acting president following the turmoil that brought down the previous administration.

In January, he easily won an election while a referendum held in tandem saw voters opt for a presidential system that will be the centerpiece of the proposed constitutional amendments.

Under the changes, presidential powers would be strengthened and the current law allowing a president only one term would be scrapped in favor of opening the post up for reelection to a second term.

The amendments also envision the creation of a so-called People's Kurultai (Assembly), described as "a consultative and coordinating organ" that would be controlled by the president.

A Constitutional Council will also be created, while the number of lawmakers will be cut to 90 from 120.

Last week, Kyrgyz lawmakers approved the bill on constitutional amendments and set April 11 as the date to hold the referendum to approve the new constitution.

Many in the Central Asian nation have criticized Japarov, saying that he is looking to impose a more authoritarian system of rule by changing the constitution and concentrating power into his own hands.

Criticism From Abroad

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the government to withdraw the draft constitution, submitted to lawmakers in February, saying it undermines human rights norms and weakens the checks and balances necessary to prevent abuses of power.

“The current draft constitution does not reflect the high human rights standards Kyrgyzstan says it aspires to,” Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at the New York-based human rights watchdog, said in a statement on March 5.

Meanwhile, Freedom House said in its Freedom in the World 2021 report that Kyrgyzstan dropped 11 points and is in the “not free” category with the rest of the Central Asian region.

The proposed constitutional changes, it said, reintroduce a super-presidential system while shrinking the size and role of the parliament, and also would allow the government to censor material that violates “generally recognized moral values,” without defining those values or offering an avenue for appealing such decisions.

"Kyrgyzstan’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free because the aftermath of deeply flawed parliamentary elections featured significant political violence and intimidation that culminated in the irregular seizure of power by a nationalist leader and convicted felon who had been freed from prison by supporters," Freedom House said in the report.

But in the interview with RFE/RL, Japarov rejected those concerns saying Kyrgyzstan will "remain a democratic country" and added that there will be no persecution of politicians and journalists "as was the case before."

"We haven't persecuted anybody. We haven't prosecuted any journalists, and that wasn't the case in the past. In the past, [journalist] Syrgak Abdyldaev was stabbed, there was a case when a person was thrown from a high-rise building with his hands and legs bound, there were people jailed. Nothing like that is taking place now," Japarov said.

Politician Jenish Moldokmatov, however, would beg to differ.

He said on March 15 that one of the organizers of a rally in Bishkek against the constitutional amendments, Tilekmat Kurenov, was detained in Bishkek. The report has not been officially confirmed.

There are also questions surrounding the recent release from pretrial detention of a Kyrgyz organized-crime figure Kamchy Kolbaev, for whom Washington has offered a $1 million reward saying he is a “transnational organized-crime boss” and a “convicted murderer whose criminal network engages in drug trafficking, human trafficking, arms trafficking, and other dangerous criminal activity.”

Japarov told RFE Kolbaev "did not kill anyone" and noted that Kyrgyzstan does not extradite its citizens to foreign countries.

“I have asked, via the Foreign Ministry, for the U.S. Embassy to give us the case against [Kolbaev]. I have asked them to present facts, evidence, so that we can try him openly. I said that embassy representatives can be present at the trial. [Kolbaev] was initially detained on the charge of illegal enrichment. He paid some cash [to the State Treasury.] And he is paying more cash now after his release. He did not kill anyone," Japarov said.

Japarov also said that Kyrgyzstan is doing well in terms of paying its international debts off and denied that his government agreed to give up some disputed territories to neighboring Uzbekistan.

International observers said the 52-year-old's landslide victory in the January election "generally respected" fundamental freedoms even though the vote was not "fully fair."

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