Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Managing Political Consensus in Kyrgyzstan
The selection of candidates for the 750-member assembly or Kurultay ended on March 2, and it is due to convene as early as March 23. Of the total, 150 are appointed by President Kurbanbek Bakiev, who first unveiled plans for the body last September (see Doubts About Kyrgyz Political Reform Plan), , while the rest were elected across the country.
The idea is that the Kurultay’s membership should reflect Kyrgyzstan’s regional, ethnic and religious diversity and thus be able to articulate public concerns to the central authorities. In a televised address on January 21, the day he signed a decree establishing the assembly, President Bakiev said it would facilitate “civic consolidation, the balancing of interests, and opportunities to take important decisions on matters of state”.
The main opposition bloc, the United People’s Movement, boycotted the elections to the assembly, saying it would instead hold its own kurultay on March 17, six days before the official one opens, and would use it to raise issues like the privatisation of state-run electricity and telecoms providers, the recent leap in utilities prices, and the continued detention of people it regards as political prisoners.
Sergei Masaulov, director of the Institute for Strategic Analysis and Assessment, which operates under the president’s office, offered a defence of the official Kurultay when he spoke at a discussion event on February 16 featuring representatives of political parties, NGOs and the president’s office,
“The Kurultay of Accord is a very important structure; it is a classic variant on a consultative body that is simultaneously traditional and contemporary. The direction in which the country is to develop needs to be determined by taking the opinions of the public and the territories into account. To do that, we need accord,” he said. “It should be a platform for consultation, and of course it must be made up of authoritative individuals, not people who are close to the authorities or who wield administrative influence… they must set out the most pressing issues before the Kurultay, not ones that concern me and my own district, but general ones.”
What no one has yet explained is how the Kurultay’s status and functions differ from the role of the country’s elected standing parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh.
The assembly is only one of a series of changes that Bakiev is making to the way Kyrgyzstan is governed. Unveiling these reforms last year, he portrayed them as an attempt to create a more technocratic system of government that would sweep away bureaucracy and get down to the business of tackling Kyrgyzstan’s numerous pressing economic problems. However, the net result appears to be more power concentrated in the president’s hands, through a new body called the Presidential Institution responsible, inter alia, for foreign affairs, the security service, and economic planning – all functions that used to reside with the government and its ministers. (see Kyrgyz Reforms Leave President Stronger)
While the Kurultay is intended to look like an independent counterbalance to centralised authority, some political analysts doubt that it will really serve as a bridge for dialogue between the people and their rulers, since it is the latter who are setting the agenda. Instead, the forum may merely be used as a way to grant a semblance of popular legitimacy to difficult decisions made by the central authorities.
Two leading non-government groups have already complained that the selection process for the Kurultay and its future management arrangements are being tightly controlled.
In a statement on February 10, Citizens Against Corruption and People Who Change the World noted that the organising committee was dominated by the head of the president’s office and other senior officials, and said it lacked transparency and was not providing equal participation for all citizens. The head of the organising committee will continue to oversee the assembly’s work his conduct of kurultai affairs after the election process is over. He will play a pivotal role in deciding the Kurultai’s chairman, setting its agenda, and deciding which of its recommendations should be submitted to state institutions.
“The procedures for setting it [the Kurultay] up are being influenced by the administrative apparatus, as the delegates are being nominated... by officials and [elected] deputies at different levels,” said the joint statement.
Speaking at the February 16 round-table event, political commentator Elmira Nogoibaeva argued that there was a contradiction between Bakiev’s attempt to streamline government and the resurrection of the concept of the kurultay, historically a broad forum at which Kyrgyz tribal leaders would attempt to reach consensus.
“In the modern democratic tradition, its equivalent is parliament,” she said. “So in future, Kyrgyzstan will have two elected institutions, the Kurultay of Accord, which is mainly elected on a territorial basis, and parliament, elected from party lists.”
Nogoibaeva questions why Kyrgyz reforms involve seem to entail a constant stream of proposals for new institutions with “fairly ill-defined aims, powers and prospects”. If a broader representative body than the current single chamber legislature is needed, she recommends going back to the parliament that existed until 2007.
“Given that our party system is undeveloped, it would have made complete sense to retain the two-chamber parliament rather than replace it with bigger, more cumbersome and expanding institutions,” said Nogoibaeva. “It would cost less and offer greater legitimacy.”
Political analyst Marat Kazakpaev pointed out that Kyrgyzstan has experienced several kurultays in recent years, convened both by former president Askar Akaev and by his political opponents in an attempt to galvanise public support.
“Frankly speaking, I think it’s is a step backwards; we’re trying to solve our problems using the methods of the past,” he said.
Others point out that President Bakiev himself devised a different consultative body, the Public Chamber, only a year ago. The chamber’s 65 members are mostly picked by the president, with 15 chosen by parliament and a range of interest groups. While remaining low-profile, it has involved the public in hearings on proposed legislation and dealt with hundreds of complaints concerning the police, land rights, and welfare benefits.
Meanwhile, Citizens Against Corruption has published an agenda that it would like to see discussed at the Kurultay of Accord. The key issues it identified were freedom of assembly, the need to cushion poor people against the effects of economic crisis, and a demand that the interior ministry provide regular updates on its investigations into murders and assaults committed against journalists.
Pavel Dyatlenko is an analyst with Polis Asia, a think-tank in Bishkek.
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