In recent years, Kyrgyzstan has been repeatedly labeled as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’. Certainly merit goes to Kyrgyzstan, the second smallest republic of this region, for the progress achieved in the areas of democracy and human rights since the 2010 revolution. Comparison with the surrounding countries also makes it easy to single out Kyrgyzstan as a champion of democracy. Nevertheless, recent economic, social, and political developments have brought into question whether Kyrgyzstan can continue to consider itself as a positive example in the region.
Until 2014, Kyrgyzstan had hosted the US logistics military base for Afghanistan. This brought money and jobs into the country, and it also provided foreign policy makers with more leverage to promote democratic values. The closure of the base and the lower amount of political and financial capital invested in the country forced Kyrgyzstan to look for other allies since, at the moment, its productivity and available natural resources are not sufficient to fully sustain itself. Two main actors were and are interested in providing support: Russia and China. The choice made, demonstrated by the recent accession to the Eurasian Custom Union, was in line with an ancient local proverb: ‘never leave an old friend for a new one.’
The increased influence of Russia, though, has had some consequences not only at the economic level, but also on politics, legislation, and policies. Much has already been written about the draft laws on ‘Foreign Agents’ and ‘anti-LGBT’, which are almost copied-and-pasted from Russia. However, more worrisome signs have arisen in the last months, showing that the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’ is seriously at risk of coming off its democratic path and aligning with neighbouring, more authoritarian countries.
The main sign of the deterioration and shrinking of the democratic space has been the – now abandoned – attempt at constitutional changes. According to the law enacting the 2010 constitution, a period of 10 years had to be observed before modifying the provisions of the country’s main legislative act. However, a creative interpretation of that provision convinced some members of the parliament that it was possible to amend the constitution by referendum.
Among the proposed changes, the draft law intended to significantly decrease the powers of the Constitutional Chamber and introduce the principle of always voting for one’s party. This would have implied that MPs voting independently in the parliament could face expulsion from the party and dismissal from their position. The risks for democracy in this scenario are self-evident.
The Venice Commission issued an opinion expressing serious procedural and substantial concerns about the proposed changes, and raising its ‘concerns with regard to key democratic principles, in particular the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary’.
Similarly, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stressed that the adoption of the proposed amendments ‘would be a serious step backwards on the path towards a consolidation of democracy in Kyrgyzstan.’
These opinions, together with an explicit request by President Atambayev, led to a reconsideration of the amendments and the proposal has been withdrawn for the time being. However, the aim of limiting legislative independence and the democratic development of the country remains a possibility, and it may reoccur in different forms in the near future.
Dismissal of Judge Sooronkulova
A further incident highlighting the deterioration of the situation in Kyrgyzstan, with respect to rights and liberties, occurred on 30 June when the Parliament voted for the dismissal of Judge Sooronkulova of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.
The decision came only in the third round of voting after the first two did not reach the required majority. Parliamentary rules appear not to forbid repeated voting on the same matter, but this procedure was nevertheless unprecedented.
Judge Sooronkulova was accused of gross violations of the code of conduct in relation to the law on biometric data, whose constitutionality is currently under consideration by the Constitutional Chamber. Additionally, she was accused of bias for being originally from the same village as the person who requested the opinion of the Constitutional Chamber on the law.
Several articles and authors indicated that the real reason for the dismissal is connected to Sooronkulov’s position on the unconstitutionality of this law. The law, which calls for voluntary submission of biometric data, is in practice a mandatory requirement for exercising the right to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Failing to voluntarily submit the data to local authorities could ultimately deprive citizens of their political rights.
The President of the Venice Commission issued a statement condemning the dismissal of the judge and emphasised that the decision ‘is an indication that there are not sufficient guarantees for the independence of constitutional judges in the Kyrgyz Republic.’
The main human rights institution of Kyrgyzstan is the Ombudsman Institute, mandated by law to monitor and promote the implementation of international human rights obligations at the national level.
Its establishment and functioning are regulated by the Paris Principles, which foresee, among others, the independence of such institutions as a core element. In its Universal Periodic Review of Kyrgyzstan in January 2015, the Human Rights Council repeatedly demanded that Kyrgyz authorities take concrete efforts to increase the level of independence of the Ombudsman Institute.
However, a recent event has seriously undermined the fundamental principle of independence. On 25 June, the parliament dismissed the ombudsman from his position after rejecting the annual report of the institute. Although the law allows for such procedure (albeit in contradiction with the Paris Principles), it also requires the establishment of a specific commission to deliberate on the dismissal. This has not happened. The parliament took the decision in a plenary session and the public discussion focused not on the quality of the report but rather on alleged, and thus far unsubstantiated, past wrongdoings of the ombudsman himself.
As noted by the United Nations in Kyrgyzstan, this dismissal directly affects the ability of the Ombudsman Institute to fulfill its mandate since security of tenure is not guaranteed.
In the words of the Resident Coordinator, ‘a key element of human rights protection system at the national level is the existence of independent and effective national human rights institutions to oversee the implementation of international, regional and national human rights norms. To do this effectively, their independence from any political influence must be guaranteed by law and preserved by authorities.’
More or less Swiss
Parliament has entered the summer recess and it is reasonable to expect that no further attempt to limit democratic space will be carried out in the coming months.
Moreover, parliamentary elections should take place in late autumn, and therefore MPs may not have the procedural time to approve any other law.
The new parliament, though, will be faced with a hard choice. Kyrgyzstan can continue on the path of democratic development and remain the positive example in the region or, instead, it can decide to follow the example of its neighbours by limiting fundamental freedoms and violating human rights.