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Kyrgyz Constitutional Reform Impasse

The prolonged debate over how Kyrgyzstan should be governed has failed to produce a definitive version of the constitution.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
The constitutional reform that began with high hopes in Kyrgyzstan six months ago seems to have reached an impasse.

What was supposed to be an orderly legislative process has disintegrated into chaos and bitter argument over a document that was supposed to define the contours of the currently fragile Kyrgyz state. Many politicians are calling for a referendum to provide clarity in the confusion.

“There are a great many contradictory opinions, and we have really reached an impasse,” said Erkindik party leader Topchubek Turgunaliev. “One way out of this situation could be a referendum - the people should say what kind of country they want to live in, because quite honestly, we have become confused.”

The Constitutional Conference, a 289-member body set up in the wake of the March revolution which brought the present Kyrgyz government to power, finally produced a set of proposed amendments to the current constitution in the second week of November. The draft was duly printed in the national press, and the plan was that after a round of public consultations, final revisions would be made in time for President Kurmanbek Bakiev to sign it into law by the end of the year.

What happened instead was that many members of the Constitutional Conference immediately distanced themselves from the published version, suggesting it had been imposed on them by the president’s office.

All of a sudden, there were nine versions of the constitutional amendments in circulation, varying wildly on fundamental issues such as whether president or parliament has the most say in decision-making, or whether they should be roughly equal in power.

At this point, President Bakiev appeared to slam on the brakes on the whole process, telling parliamentarians on December 7 that the constitution should be kept as it is until 2009. The next day he told journalists he was opposed to making over-hasty changes to the document.

“Why so? Does this mean we’ve just been sitting chatting for the last six months?” asked Edil Baisalov, the head of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society.

On December 21, the president called a formal meeting of the Constitutional Conference, and proposed that the discussion be dropped for now, to be picked up at some future date. “What need is there to change the constitution now? Why hurry? When a new constitution is passed, dozens of other laws will have to be changed,” he said.

Bakiev said he favoured the current system in which the powers of president and parliament are balanced, rather than structure in which one was dominant. “Lessons should be drawn from the past,” he said, presumably referring to the decade-and-a-half rule of his predecessor Askar Akaev in which parliament was generally weak.

There has been pressure from some members of parliament for a nationwide referendum to be held if not on the entire constitution, then on the central issue of the system of government. Thirty-nine members wrote to the Constitutional Conference saying the latter issue needs to be clarified, and only after that should a constitution be passed in 2009.

“The constitutional reform must go on, but first it’s necessary to consult with the people on the main issue – the form of government,” parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov told IWPR.

Baisalov takes the same line, insisting on a referendum before April. “People will see delaying the constitutional reform until 2009 as another deception,” he said. “The people must be told that the Constitutional Conference has completed its work and that a national referendum will be held in the first quarter of 2006.”

President Bakiev told the last Constitutional Conference meeting that he was prepared to hold a referendum on the system of government, but indicated that it was unlikely to happen before July.

Not all politicians are keen on the idea of asking the nation how the country should be governed. “God forbid it! We’d reap what we sowed – and wouldn’t we just end up getting the same old Akaev-era authoritarianism?” said Constituional Conference member Omurbek Abdrakhmanov.

Tursunbek Akun, who chairs the presidential commission on human rights, is also fearful of a referendum, “I don’t agree with those who talk about a referendum. We know that referendums do not express the real opinion of the people. The state mechanism usually uses them to get what it wants.”

The rapid loss of momentum has left many of those involved in the reform process disillusioned with the Bakiev government, with some saying it was only pretending to be committed to change.

“The powers that be needed these six months to be expended on discussion so that they would look like revolutionary authorities,” said politician Begish Aamatov.

Baisalov agrees, adding, “They want a lot of talk about reform, but it’s clear Bakiev and his circle are resisting. Bakiev is being advised by the same people who at one time formed Akaev’s inner circle.”

Political analyst Nur Omarov believes, “The president’s circle is beginning – whether consciously or not - to bring reform to a halt. The president is increasingly tempted not to give [his powers] up.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.