Did Kyrgyzstan turn into an authoritarian state overnight?
The country, once considered Central Asia's most democratic, has seen a media and civic crackdown sparked by a long-running dispute
Kyrgyzstan has long been considered an ‘island of freedom and democracy’ in Central Asia, but mass arrests of opposition activists and attacks on the media over the past 10 days suggest the current authorities are all-too similar to their neighbouring regimes.
On 23 October, 22 civic activists and public figures – including politicians, a former Constitutional Court judge and a former ambassador – were jailed by a court on suspicion of “attempting to organise mass riots” for two months.
All 19 are members of a new committee created to protect a reservoir that spans Kyrgyzstan’s border with neighbouring Uzbekistan, which has long been a source of contention between the two countries.
Shortly after, Kyrgyzstan’s government issued a two-month ban on Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyzstan service of US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is now blocked in the country.
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The reason for the block was Radio Azattyk’s broadcast of a programme last month on the armed conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in which tens of thousands of people were displaced over a long-running border dispute.
Independent media in Kyrgyzstan have been under pressure since the spring over their coverage of the conflict, including representing views from Tajikistan.
According to Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture, Radio Azattyk’s programme was ‘inaccurate’ and ‘contrary to national interests’. The authorities, it seems, were offended by the fact that Hiromon Bakozoda, the editor of Radio Ozodi (the Tajik service of RFE/RL), gave a Tajik version of events during the programme.
Though president Sadyr Japarov, who used to be considered a political prisoner himself, once said his “door will always be open to journalists”, it seems the authorities are now throwing all their resources to stifle press freedom and freedom of association.
The dispute over which country controls the Kempir-Abad reservoir has been going on for decades. The reservoir, built in 1983 in then Soviet Kyrgyzstan, feeds a canal that provides water to the Fergana Valley, which spans Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan itself uses only 14% of the water generated.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan remained undefined for a long time. On 26 September 2022, the two countries signed an agreement on the delimitation and demarcation of the state border, which, among other things, provides for resolving one of the most controversial issues: the Kempir-Abad reservoir.
It was rumoured that control of the reservoir would be transferred to Uzbekistan. In response, a number of prominent public figures and civic activists set up a committee to protect Kyrgyzstan’s claim to Kempir-Abad. As a result, their homes were searched and they were arrested.
On 10 October, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s security service, Kamchybek Tashiev, confirmed the rumours, saying that Kyrgyzstan would receive 19,000 hectares of land in return for transferring the reservoir to Uzbekistan, and would retain access to the reservoir. The decision sparked public outrage.
In response to the mass arrests, President Japarov claimed “the detainees do not care about the Kempir-Abad issue”, suggesting they were just using the issue as a means to “take power”.
Japarov came to power after being released from prison by his supporters only two years ago. It has been suggested that the original charges against Japarov were politically motivated due to his demands to nationalise the Kumtor gold mine – which is not a million miles away from what is now happening to those seeking to protect Kyrgyzstan’s control of Kempir-Abad.
Attacks on the press
Kyrgyzstan’s authorities have not stopped at arresting opposition politicians and activists. An intensified campaign against independent media also began this year.
For several years in a row, Kyrgyzstan had the best indicators of democracy and freedom of speech compared to other countries of Central Asia, where government-controlled and censored media prevail. But in 2022, Kyrgyzstan made it to the list of authoritarian countries for the first time, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.
Kyrgyzstan’s deterioration in free speech is largely due to a combination of ‘societal pressure’ and new media laws.
In February, after independent media site Kaktus.Media republished an article on the border conflict from a Tajik media, outraged protesters gathered near its office to demand that Radio Azattyk, Kaktus and another independent media outlet, Kloop, be declared ‘foreign agents’. (While Kyrgyzstan does not have a Russia-style ‘foreign agent’ law – whereby foreign-funded organisations have to mark their work as being funded from abroad – it has been previously considered by the country’s Parliament.)
A similar rally was held in October. Activists returned to the office of Radio Azattyk, again demanding its closure, along with Kloop and Kaktus.Media. By the end of the rally, the organiser had threatened to burn the Radio Azattyk office down if the authorities did not pass a law on ‘foreign agents’.
Though this threat did not come to fruition, and while Kyrgyzstan has still not introduced a foreign agent law, the Parliament has passed new laws restricting media freedom – which are already being used.
It was one of these laws, designed to protect the public ‘from inaccurate and false information’, that was used to block Radio Azattyk without requiring a court decision. Independent journalists, human rights activists and lawyers in Kyrgyzstan tried to prevent the adoption of this law and demanded it be rejected. Reporters Without Borders also warned that it could be used to censor the media, calling on the government to immediately repeal it.
Nurbek Sydykov, a lawyer for the Media Policy Institute public foundation, told openDemocracy that the law was misused in the Radio Azattyk case: firstly because it is intended to protect the reputations of business and individuals, and secondly because a website block requires an application, which, was never made to the culture ministry.
In effect, Sydykov said, the proposed law does two things. First, it obliges all online media to register with the country’s Ministry of Justice, and second, it gives the ministry and the courts the right to close down a media that violates the rules of registration or that is found to have acquired a registration ‘fraudulently’.
Sydykov noted that the draft law also introduces the concept of ‘abuse of freedom of speech’, which suggests that online media are liable to use ‘hidden boxes and graphics’ in their publications that can ‘affect a reader’s subconscious’. It remains unclear who or which body will be responsible for identifying these ‘hidden techniques’, but this will likely serve as another form of pressure on the media, Sydykov said.
Discontent in Kyrgyz society, criticism of government functioning and rumours of another coup have provoked intolerance for criticism and extreme sensitivity among the country’s leadership, political scientist Emil Juraev said.
But the current authorities have “only made things worse” with the recent arrests and media blocks, Juraev told openDemocracy.
“It would be much better, safer and more constructive to hold a peaceful dialogue with even the most dissatisfied people,” he said.
That said, Juraev suspects that while the Japarov administration is currently “drawing on the experience of neighbouring states”, it could soon return to its previous pro-free speech policies.
“The foundations of freedom of speech in our country are so deep that it will not be possible to shut everything down in a series of short-term measures,” he said.
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