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Can Kyrgyzstan's Parliament Withstand Intense Government Pressure?

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov peaks in parliament in June.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov peaks in parliament in June.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Looming criminal cases, wire-tapping allegations, relatives under pressure.

Breathing space for lawmakers is pretty tight in Kyrgyzstan's unicameral parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, where the high costs of saying "no" to President Sadyr Japarov and his allies are becoming all too apparent.

Things are definitely not as bad for lawmakers as it is for the more than 20 public figures -- including former legislators -- currently incarcerated due to their opposition to a landmark border agreement struck between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

But the democratically elected Kyrgyz legislature -- long known for being more lively and independent than its counterparts in a super-authoritarian neighborhood -- has certainly seen better days.

"The Jogorku Kenesh is in a very vulnerable position as an institution," said Tattuububu Ergeshbaeva, the head of an association of lawyers called Tandem, which monitors parliament and the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan. "Lawmakers have some legal immunity, but that is protected by the judicial system, which is not fully independent."

Parliament has in some part brought this situation on itself.

After all, it was lawmakers -- albeit mostly different ones -- who gave near-unanimous support to Japarov's legally questionable rise to presidential power during a political meltdown in 2020.

They also offered overwhelming backing to a new constitution that expanded the presidential mandate at the expense of the Jogorku Kenesh and allowed incumbent leaders to serve two consecutive terms -- something that was prohibited under the constitution of 2010.

President Sadyr Japarov was himself the target of pressure over his opposition to the ruling government.
President Sadyr Japarov was himself the target of pressure over his opposition to the ruling government.

Yet a functional parliament is still important, experts argue, not least as a safeguard against the kind of social unrest that has unseated three presidents in Kyrgyzstan's three decades of independence.

"The risks of a strengthening authoritarian regime are getting bigger, incidents of judicial abuses are increasing, and public discontent against this background of legal violations is intensifying," Ergeshbaeva told RFE/RL. "These are all negative indicators."

Punishment For Naysayers?

The lawmakers who have fallen under pressure recently are mostly from the group of 16 that voted against ratification of the deal last month to resolve Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan's long-contested border.

While the number was small -- 65 voted for the deal as Japarov and his powerful security chief, Kamchybek Tashiev, watched over them in parliament -- their opposing stance tallied with popular irritation about handing over to Uzbekistan control of a strategic reservoir inside Kyrgyz territory called Kempir-Abad.

At one point during the November 17 session, Tashiev swore harshly at a lawmaker who was critical of the agreement. "Are you trying to intimidate me?" Tashiev asked before unleashing an extremely foul-mouthed invective.

The next day the lawmaker, Omurbek Bakirov, was evicted from his work office on the orders of Japarov's staff. The presidential administration has promised him a new one, but Bakirov has filed a complaint with the state prosecutor, noting that documents disappeared in the raid.

Kamchybek Tashiev (left) and Elvira Surabaldieva clashed in parliament.
Kamchybek Tashiev (left) and Elvira Surabaldieva clashed in parliament.

Elvira Surabaldieva, another border-deal naysayer,offered sarcastic thanks to Tashiev after learning on her birthday -- November 23 -- that a member of her family had become the target of a criminal probe.

Relatives of lawmakers who had voted against the deal were being removed from government positions, Surabaldieva said. "I don't have close relatives in government positions, but they have begun firing even distant relatives," she complained.

Emil Zhamgyrchiev is one lawmaker seemingly in real trouble. On December 6, the state prosecutor told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that it had asked the Supreme Court for permission to reverse a 2020 judicial acquittal won by Zhamgyrchiev in a corruption case related to duck meat imported from China.

In late November, the lawmaker was detained and prevented from crossing the border with Kazakhstan.

Although he was not held overnight, he has not appeared in public since his detention, with faction leader Zhanar Akaev claiming that surveillance devices were found in Zhamgyrchiev's car and house.

Emil Zhamgyrchiev found himself under intense pressure.
Emil Zhamgyrchiev found himself under intense pressure.

Turning The Tables

Japarov is far from the first Kyrgyz leader to search for a more malleable parliament.

In 2010, after the passage of a constitution that gave the legislature new powers, a highly competitive vote saw the opposition Ata-Jurt party -- led by Japarov and Tashiev -- win the largest number of seats in the Jogorku Kenesh.

But when Almazbek Atambaev became president in an election the following year, leaders of opposition parties found some of their lawmakers gravitating toward the government -- sometimes after criminal probes had been opened into their business activities.

Ex-President Almazbek Atambaev (left) once had parliament under control, before he lost out to his successor.
Ex-President Almazbek Atambaev (left) once had parliament under control, before he lost out to his successor.

Japarov himself fled the country during this period, in 2013, when he was charged with organizing the kidnapping of a regional governor during a rally against the foreign-controlled Kumtor gold mine.

He was arrested while attempting to reenter Kyrgyzstan in 2017 and was not released until more than three years later, when chaos over a disputed vote precipitated his shock rise from a prison cell to the presidency.

"If the [first parliament after the 2010 constitution] was strong, Atambaev's attacks on the opposition meant that the next one was well under control," Nursultan Akylbek, a civil activist, told RFE/RL. "The presidential administration picked its lawmakers and they fulfilled the government's orders."

But that same parliament -- which served from 2015 to 2021 -- was of little use to Atambaev once he left office and became embroiled in a conflict with his successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Backing the new president against their old patron, lawmakers voted in 2019 by a large majority to strip Atambaev of his immunity from prosecution -- a decision made easier by Atambaev publicly comparing them to boogers. The former president was later that year sentenced to 11 years in prison on corruption charges.

The pressure being felt by lawmakers at present is part of a broader crackdown that included the arrests in October of more than 20 people who are still being held.

The jailed activists and politicians were members of an ad hoc committee to prevent the transfer of the Kempir-Abad reservoir, which influential lawmakers such as Adakhan Madumarov and Iskhak Masaliev had also joined.

Neither of the two men, regular critics of the government, have faced serious government retribution for the moment. But Masaliev recently relinquished his chairmanship of a parliamentary commission set up to investigate growing controversies at the Kumtor mine, which was nationalized in Japarov's first full year of power.

News of the decision -- attributed to ill-health -- was relayed by Jogorku Kenesh speaker Nurlanbek Shakiev.

The darkening political climate in Bishkek raises the question of whether the Kyrgyz parliament might someday look more like the rubber-stamp versions seen in its authoritarian, super-presidential neighbors in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

But Akylbek, the activist, believes that is unlikely for the moment, thanks to Kyrgyzstan's relatively free elections, which mean the president cannot realistically hope for a legislature stuffed with allies.

"The parliament has lost some powers. It can no longer make big decisions like firing the government," Akylbek said

"But there are at least two opposition factions inside it and they don't intend to be silent."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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