Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz President Gets Lifelong Immunity

Is President Akaev preparing the ground to step down?
By Leila Saralaeva

A new law giving heads of state and former heads of state immunity from prosecution is being widely seen as a move to let President Askar Akaev gracefully step down from power. The question is whether he ever plans to do so.


For the rest of his life Akaev – Kyrgyzstan’s first and only president since independence in 1991 – cannot be tried for actions carried out while in office.


At the same time parliament granted similar immunity to two Soviet-era leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Absamat Masaliev and Turdakun Usubaliev, who are now members of parliament.


Akaev got an additional perk - as the country’s first post-independence president, he becomes a member of the Security Council for life.


Political analyst Jyrgalbek Kasabolotov said that Kyrgyzstan now had the chance for a “legitimate handover of power in 2005”.


“The deputies made a conscious decision to approve the law because they know that without strong guarantees it will be difficult to expect a handover of power,” he said. “Akaev never expected to get such a gift so easily. Now everyone expects big political changes in 2005, even the closest circles around the president.”


However, despite this optimistic view and the fact that the president has hinted that he might step down two year’s time, there is no sign that he is grooming a successor, and many analysts think he plans to stand for a further term in the 2005 election.


All but two legislators backed the bill on June 26. Deputy Asel Mambetalieva summed up the twin motives that led both opponents and supporters of the president to vote for the bill, “Opposition deputies voted to create incentives for the current president to leave, while others voted to honour the activity of the first ever president.”


Material benefits for a former first family now include a pension valued at 75 per cent of Akaev’s salary, an apartment and a house in the country, along with free medical services, cars and drivers. The cost of the package is put at around 2.5 million soms (60,000 US dollars) annually.


Supporters of Akaev point out that Russian President Boris Yeltsin got a similar deal when he left office, while Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbaev has also secured immunity.


One of the new law’s prime movers, Kubatbek Baibolov, said that Russia spends 1.5 million dollars a year providing for former presidents while taxpayers in the United States spend 650,000 on ex-leaders.


People have to “learn to respect our symbols, and the president is the symbol of our state”, said Baibolov.


Deputy Bektur Asanov saw quite different reasons for supporting the bill, “I think that my colleagues decided to give one more chance to Askar Akaev to leave voluntarily.”


Other groups opposed to the president still think the law was a bad idea.


The pressure group “For the Resignation of Akaev and Reforms for the People” issued a statement declaring that “the first president of Kyrgyzstan should be held responsible for grave state crimes.”


Opposition activist Topchubek Turgunaliev agreed, “Under Akaev the gravest of state crimes have been committed – usurpation of power, the transfer of historically Kyrgyz lands to neighbouring states [China], the shooting of peaceful demonstrators, the transformation of Kyrgyzstan into a bankrupt state, and pauperisation of 80 percent of the population.


“It would be a gross injustice to grant him immunity for that.”


Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Civil Society Against Corruption group, said that there should have been much more public scrutiny of such a measure before it was put to the vote.


“Everything was quick and secret, even without discussion of the deputies, such methods are used by totalitarian regimes. It tells about someone’s interest in this.”


Keeping the ex-president and his family at the expense of the state also raised some hackles on the street.


“Kyrgyzstan has two billion dollars in external debts,” said music teacher Aisha Maratova. “The country has high unemployment. The state has no money to raise the salaries of teachers and doctors. Where do they get money to pay the keep of senior officials?”


One parliamentary deputy who insisted on anonymity told IWPR that the price was worth it if Askaev would only leave office, “If the opposition did not scare Akaev by citing the path taken by [executed Romanian communist leader, Nicolae] Ceausescu, it is likely that he would not have requested such guarantees.


“I think that it fair that the first president of Kyrgyzstan should have insurance once he leaves office.”


Leila Saralaeva is journalist for the newspaper Delo No in Bishkek.