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The President and His Prince

Bakiev wants to change Kyrgyzstan’s constitution yet again, and his son will likely be the big winner.

by Abdujalil Abdurasulov 15 February 2010

The constitution of Kyrgyzstan may be one of the most flexible official documents in the world, having gone through four major changes in the past few years.


Last week, the Kyrgyz parliament bent it a bit more to Bishkek’s will, giving preliminary approval to new amendments proposed by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who says the changes will streamline the work of the executive branch, among other things.


Bakiev stopped short of proposing, as he did in 2007, an entirely new constitution that would require dramatic measures like disbanding parliament. But the new changes may have equally profound effects.


“The experience of other post-Soviet states shows that a simple change of names or of personnel without changing the system of governance is nothing more than just pseudo reforms,” Bakiev announced at a meeting with central and local government officials in October.


But many analysts believe that the changes are meant to strengthen the president’s hand, as most powers of decision-making in domestic and foreign affairs will be transferred to his office, said Marat Kazakpaev, a Bishkek-based political analyst. “These reforms put excessive powers in one pair of hands.” Parliament has approved the measures on first reading and must vote on them once more before they become law.


The domestic security services and the Foreign Ministry would be made subordinate to the president instead of the prime minister. The Agency for Development, Investments, and Innovations, under the newly created Institute of the President, would manage foreign investments in the country as well as major state assets, including energy companies and gold mines – effectively controlling the entire economy of Kyrgyzstan.


“The question that needs to be raised is about the concentration of enormous resources in this single institution. How transparent can the use of those resources be?” said Medet Tiulegenov, a political analyst from the American University in Central Asia.


Maksim Bakiyev
It took many by surprise when in October the president appointed his youngest son, Maksim, to lead the development agency. Members of the opposition have long claimed that Maksim, 32, indirectly controls most businesses in the country. With his new position he will hold enormous influence.


According to Azimbek Beknazarov, a leader of the United Opposition movement, this move means that the president is grooming Maksim to be his successor. “We have a monarchy here. The country is de facto ruled by Maksim and now they are trying to make that de jure.”


Recent public discussions of the transfer of powers in a situation where the president could not perform his or her duties left some puzzled, considering that the constitution names the speaker of parliament and the prime minister for that role.


But Tiulegenov said the new amendments to the constitution could provide a way for Bakiev to transfer power to his chosen successor. Under the proposal, a State Council, yet to be established, would appoint the acting president. Maksim Bakiev, as the head of the development agency, would be a member of this council. He would be in a strong position to persuade the council to choose him as acting president. And in post-Soviet countries, acting presidents tend to become presidents.


The last changes to the constitution, in 2007, sufficiently cemented the president’s position to make these new changes possible. A proportional representation system demanded by the opposition was turned against them: the hastily created presidential party Ak Jol took 71 of the parliament’s 90 seats, enough to pass any bill. Other amendments gave the president the power to nominate key government officials.


Today, the president controls all security and military structures, either directly or through hand-picked proxies – his brother Zhanysh is the head of the National Guard, eldest son Marat is an adviser to the head of the National Security Services, former personal bodyguard Bakytbek Kalyev is now defense minister, and close ally Moldomusa Kongatiev is the interior minister. Control over security structures will help the president deal with possible mass protests like those that ousted his predecessor and brought him to power in 2005.


As a result of these developments, Freedom House downgraded Kyrgyzstan's rating from “partly free” to “not free” in its most recent Freedom in the World report, released in January. That puts a country that used to be referred to as Central Asia’s “island of democracy” in the same category as autocratic Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.


Bakiev's team argues that the report does not accurately reflect life in Kyrgyzstan. “We respect this assessment by Freedom House and of course we will keep it in mind in the future,” said Ilim Karypbekov, who directs the executive branch’s external communications. “However, the actual picture is different. We believe they need a greater in-depth study. Then the rating would be different.”


Some in the opposition, on the other hand, agree with the report, saying they have only as much freedom as the president allows them.


“The situation is deteriorating badly,” said Beknazarov, of the United Opposition. “Repression of opposition activists and critics of the government is getting worse. Some our activists are arrested and sentenced to long terms, some are murdered, others have had to flee Kyrgyzstan out of fear for their lives.”


Ruslan Shabotoev, a lawmaker from the opposition Social Democrats, disappeared in 2008 and his remains were discovered a year later. Bakyt Beshimov, Kubatbek Baybolov, Ravshan Jeyenbekov, and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, leaders and members of opposition parties, fled to the United States.


In January, Ismail Isakov, who resigned his post as defense minister in 2008 and joined the opposition, was convicted of misappropriating state funds and sentenced to eight years in prison. Another former minister, Alibek Jekshenkulov, is on trial for murder. Green Party leader Erkin Bulekbaev was accused of instigating an ethnic conflict in the village of Petrovka.


The government denies that these cases, which took place over the past year or so, are politically motivated. Karypbekov says that each case should be considered on its own. “In the case of Isakov, there are still courts of second and third instances where they can make an appeal. The trial is not over yet but his supporters are already accusing [the government] of orchestrating everything.”


But the timing of the arrests speaks volumes, Tiulegenov said. “It’s hard to say whether the charges are founded. Maybe they are, but for some reason criminal cases against political activists are filed only after they join the opposition.”


It is not just opposition members but also journalists who say their freedom is getting more limited. The opposition says there were more than 60 attacks on journalists in the past three years. The Interior Ministry has issued a statement saying that there have been 31 incidents of journalists being attacked in essentially the same period, and all but one were ordinary criminal cases unrelated to their professional activities.


The murder late last year of journalist Gennady Pavlyuk, who had planned to launch a website for a main opposition party, was also regarded by the government as an ordinary crime. Pavlyuk was thrown from a sixth-floor window in Almaty, Kazakhstan, with his arms and legs taped.


Beknazarov said Pavlyuk was killed to silence other independent journalists and to sow fear among the opposition. But the government argues that Pavlyuk's murder cannot be tied to politics because he was not “a fierce critic” of the government. “It's a shame that the opposition is using this case for their own narrow purposes, which are to score political points,” Karypbekov said.


But the opposition counters that it is Bakiev and his team who are scoring points by eliminating critical voices and weakening the opposition. “Those opposition activists who had their own business had to bend to Bakiev's rule under the threat of losing their business,” Beknazarov said. “Others complied out of fear for their families and themselves. It's only those who have nothing to lose who remain in the opposition.”




Abdujalil Abdurasulov is a freelance journalist in Almaty.

Editor's Note: This is a corrected version.

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