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Kyrgyzstan: No Olive Branch from President

Parliament was promised more rights in a radical new constitution, so it was angered by the conservative document it received.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
If President Kurmanbek Bakiev planned to outsmart the opposition by presenting a less radical constitution than the one to which he agreed, he has miscalculated. His proposal has angered parliament as well as the opposition, whose rally is beginning to gain strength after a quiet weekend.



Following last-minute talks on October 31, Bakiev agreed to send a draft of changes to the constitution to parliament on November 2, but he delayed doing so, and a big opposition rally went ahead the same day.



As the protests entered their fifth day on November 6, the promised document at last arrived before legislators, although it was presented not by Bakiev in person, but by his official representative Alymbay Sultanov.



Parliament was in any case unable to formally debate the document because opposition members stayed away, leaving the session without a quorum.



“Twenty-eight [of the 75] members agreed they would not attend the session. We need to find out what kind of document is being submitted; what kind of governing system the president has gone for,” said Melis Eshimkanov, one of the boycotters.



Details of the proposed constitution are still unclear. A number of different drafts have been put forward by various political forces since the constitutional reform process was launched last year. The reform ground to a halt in late 2005 and re-starting it is a central demand made by the opposition Movement for Reforms.



Reports from Bakiev’s October 31 meeting with his opponents suggested that he agreed to opposition demands for a parliamentary rather than a presidential system. He was also said to have given his assent to a stronger parliament consisting of 105 members, 70 of them chosen by proportional representation. The legislature’s 75 members are all elected by the first-past-the-post system.



Speaking at a November 5 press conference, Roza Otunbaeva of the Movement for Reforms, which is organising the protests, warned Bakiev not to shift the goalposts, “If the president comes up with the idea of leaving a presidential system in place, it will be a fatal decision. Bakiev will then need to decide which country he’s going to flee to.”



But by November 6 the situation seemed to have changed. Instead of an all-new constitution, the document placed before parliament consisted of a set of amendments to the existing law.



State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov announced that Bakiev was proposing a “presidential-parliamentary system”. What this meant, he explained, was that parliament would nominate a prime minister for appointment by the president. The head of state would also appoint cabinet members and regional governors, based on recommendations from the president.



Plans to make parliament bigger have been scrapped, but proportional representation has been introduced for 50 of the 75 seats.



Madumarov insisted that these proposals reflected the October 31 meeting, concluding, “I can’t say the powers of the president have been substantial reduced - but the [various] branches of authority have been made mutually accountable.”



The state secretary made it clear that the deputies could take Bakiev’s draft or leave it, indicating that either this set of amendments could be passed by legislators or that the document would be put to a national referendum.



Both parliament and politicians attending the rally in the square outside were plainly furious with what Bakiev had come up with.



Azimbek Beknazarov, an opposition member who did turn up for the parliamentary session, accused the president of reneging on his promise, “Bakiev promised to submit an all-new constitution, but he’s refusing to abandon [former president Askar] Akaev’s constitution…. Now he wants to leave that one in place by means of a referendum. The situation is complex enough as things are, but the president wants to make things worse and ultimately to dissolve parliament.”



His colleague Kubatbek Baibolov agreed, saying that the constitutional changes were entirely retrograde. “I have been studying this draft since this morning. It’s scandalous! The president takes away some of parliament’s powers, and he also plans to appoint local government heads without consulting local councils,” he said.



Tursunbek Akun, not a member of parliament but the head of Bakiev’s human rights watchdog, was equally critical. “This draft is anti-democratic. It amounts to the president usurping power,” said Akun. “He needs to withdraw it immediately – it’s a lot worse than the existing constitution. He needs to acknowledge that the opposition is right to demand constitutional reform. The authorities are not taking the right steps to restore stability.”



The speaker of parliament, Marat Sultanov, attempted to cool passions by reminding his colleagues that “we still have the right to choose. If this version doesn’t suit us, the law says that 38 deputies can table their own draft constitution”.



Despite the lack of a quorum, parliament set up a special commission headed by Sultanov to produce a constitutional draft that would incorporate wider views than those reflected in the Bakiev document.



Meanwhile, the opposition rally in the square outside began to pick up after a lull over the weekend. By the afternoon of November 6, the crowd had grown from 5,000 to around 15,000 – the opposition claimed 100,000. Similar rallies were reported to be building strength in the town of Talas and in several smaller urban centres of the Chuy region.



On the evening of November 6, Bakiev received leading opposition politician Almaz Atambaev, who handed over a seven-point list of demands – the chief of which was, he said, that the president should produce “the new constitution as agreed with the opposition”.



Bakiev appeared ready compromise, though not on the constitution. He appointed Omurbek Suvanaliev as interior minister, who promptly sacked the chief of police in Bishkek, Moldomusa Kongantiev, whose removal featured on the opposition’s list of demands. The president also promised to give opposition members airtime on the state television channel, but they turned this down because the format on offer was limited to live debates live with pro-Bakiev politicians.



On November 3, the second day of protests, it had appeared that the government had seized the initiative by producing evidence that it said showed the opposition was planning to mount a coup. But developments on November 6 tilted the balance back again, as Bakiev’s promise of a compromise constitution came to nothing.



“The president has seriously disappointed people,” commented political analyst Nur Omarov. “They were expecting real changes. In fact, the president is retaining all his powers [in the draft constitution]. That displeases not only the opposition, but many other citizens.”



Parliament had decided to meet in three days’ time, but 38 of its members convened an emergency session late on November 6, saying that if they could get another 13 to come to the meeting they could pass a new constitution, as favoured by the opposition. About 20 pro-Bakiev deputies were said to be convening their own meeting elsewhere.



Eshimkanov said that if the change of constitution goes through, the next step will be to dissolve the government led by Prime Minister Felix Kulov and form a new one.



As crowds of demonstrators expressed support outside the building, deputies spoke of a historic moment – November 7 is the day traditionally set aside to celebrate a past revolution, the 1917 Bolshevik takeover in Russia.



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



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