Kyrgyzstan Steps Back From the Brink
As Kyrgyzstan looked set to descend into deep political turmoil, parliament came up with an almost magical fix, allowing everyone to agree on a new constitution.

By Cholpon Orozobekova and Aziza Turdueva
Published November 10th 2006 in Institute for War and Peace Reporting

A last-ditch attempt to stave off violence and constitutional crisis in Kyrgyzstan has worked. Just as the stand-off between President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his opponents began to look irreversible, and police moved in to separate crowds of pro-and anti-government supporters, parliament came up with a consensus version of the constitution which lies at the heart of this dispute.

The new draft constitution went before parliament on November 8, and was passed by a parliamentary majority after two readings that night.

The same day, opposition leaders announced that their rally was over.

President Bakiev signed the constitution into law on November 9, after securing parliament’s approval for a number of changes.

The document sits midway between one version put forward by Bakiev, which would have allowed him to keep and in some ways enhance his substantial powers as president, and a different draft favoured by opposition politicians, who wanted to strengthen the role of parliament and curb the president’s right to make government appointments.

The opposition Movement for Reforms had been holding a rally since November 2, ostensibly to demand the resignations of President Bakiev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov. Most observers agreed, though, that a more realistic aim was to extract concessions on a series of demands. Top of that wish-list was constitutional reform.

After Bakiev came to power in the wake of the opposition protests which ended in March 2005 with the ousting of Askar Akaev, who had been president for a decade and a half, many agreed that the way the country was run needed a major overhaul. Bakiev instituted a review of the constitution via a broad-based standing conference, but when that wound up late last year, there were numerous different drafts in circulation but no agreement about what to do next.

The president then put off further discussion of the constitution, apparently indefinitely, and the issue joined other concerns driving the “new opposition” – former Bakiev allies who had become frustrated with the lack of tangible progress achieved since the revolution.

Although thousands attended day one of the latest rally – the biggest gathering seen in Kyrgyzstan since the March revolution - the crisis really took off on November 6, when opposition members of parliament baulked at a set of constitutional amendments which Bakiev had presented as a fait accomplis.

Paradoxically, the president had originally agreed to submit a constitutional draft as a conciliatory step, and the document he handed over was supposed to have been a version coordinated with his opponents in talks held on October 31, just before the rally began. But instead of that all-new constitution setting out the mechanics of a parliamentary democracy, the document he actually presented consisted of changes to the present constitution, which would leave him with at least as dominant a position as he has now.

Opposition politicians were furious at what they saw as an underhand trick, and described the proposed changes as thoroughly retrograde.

They convened an emergency session of parliament on the evening of November 6 to debate their own preferred version of the constitution, and urged other deputies to join them to secure a quorum and pass the document into law. However, about 20 pro-Bakiev members refused to attend so that only 38 of the 75 deputies were present instead of the 51 required.

As the night wore on, the 38 members there took the extraordinary step of forming a body they called the Constituent Assembly, which voted on and approved the constitution.

When the morning of November 7 came, deputy Kubatbek Baibolov came out and addressed the crowd of opposition sympathisers, reading out the text of the constitution to which he and his colleagues had just given their backing.

President Bakiev and Prime Minister Kulov were furious, calling a joint press conference at which they insisted that neither the opposition constitution, nor the Constituent Assembly which approved it, enjoyed any legitimacy whatsoever. Instead, they said what had happened was an attempt to usurp power.

“Why do they want to rush into adopting a constitution?” asked Kulov, proceeding to offer his own answer, “The rally is running out of steam. They’ve done all they can to ensure the rally reaches a high point today.”

Kulov concluded, “There’s no crisis in this country – the crisis is within parliament itself.”

Bakiev addressed the opposition movement as a whole. “I appeal to the people at the rally to remain calm. The authorities have no intention of using force against them,” he said, adding the warning, “If they seize state institutions or go back to Kyrgyz State Television and Radio to exert pressure, force will be used. There will be no other option.”

The opposition response was robust. One of the Movement for Reforms leaders, Azimbek Beknazarov, challenged the claim that the Constituent Assembly was illegitimate, saying, “A revolutionary process is under way. At such times, bodies like the Constituent Assembly count as legitimate.”

With opposition deputies and the Bakiev administration set on a collision course, any chance of compromise seemed to have been lost.

Politicians past and present told IWPR they feared the dispute over points of law would descend into warfare between rival groups on the streets of Bishkek and other urban centres.

“If you give certain groups a motive to clash, the situation may spin out of control,” warned Bolot Januzakov, who served as ex-president Akaev’s security advisor until his departure last year.

By the afternoon, a rival, pro-Bakiev rally was under way in front of parliament, although it had perhaps 800 participants compared with the 12,000-15,000 people the opposition had gathered outside the government building.

Smaller pro-Bakiev demonstrations were reported in the towns of Osh, Jalalabad and Batken, where the president enjoys substantial support.

Later that afternoon, 2,000 opposition supporters set off towards the the pro-Bakiev demonstrators in Bishkek, apparently hoping to change their minds. As a shouting-match developed and people began throwing plastic bottles at each other, police intervened with tear-gas and noise-creating grenades to drive off the opposition people away.

Close to 2,000 special paramilitary police units and ordinary police separated the two sides and cordoned off the main opposition crowd. Bishkek police later said 17 officers and 18 civilians were injured in these confrontations.

Two armoured personnel carriers carrying squads of armed men deployed close to parliament.

The head of the National Security Service, Murat Sutalinov, told reporters, “The main square will be cleared of protesters tonight. Bishkek residents are sick of them.”

Towards evening, rumours began circulating that police would be sent in to disperse the entire opposition rally overnight, using force.

Opposition politicians responded with fiery rhetoric. Speaking to the crowd, member of parliament Melis Eshimkanov addressed his remarks to Sutalinov, Prime Minister Kulov, newly appointed Interior Minister Omurbek Suvanaliev, and Defence Minister Ismail Isakov, all of whom hold the rank of general. “If you are men and if you don’t wish to become the enemies of the people, go to your soldiers,” he urged them. “If police truncheons land on your countrymen’s heads and bullets pierce their hearts, you’ll never wash away the blood that stains you.”

But in the meantime, opposition and pro-Bakiev members of parliament had hammered out a new compromise constitution, which the president agreed to and then signed into law.

Putting the bill before the full parliament allowed both sides to quietly sidestep the issue of whether the Constitutional Assembly was legitimate or even legal. And passing it had no immediate implications for the administration, as it was agreed that the Kulov cabinet should stay on.

The president will see his powers curtailed, though perhaps not as much as the opposition hoped. Any political party that wins more than 50 per cent of the vote can automatically form a government, but if no party gets such a majority, the president will name a cabinet as he does now.

The changes demanded by Bakiev before he signed his name to the constitution included a provision that impeachment proceedings against him require a three-quarters majority in parliament, instead of just two-thirds as had been envisaged. He also gets to approve the cabinet line-up, appoint local judges, and name the head of the Central Electoral Committee, the chairman of the National Bank and the prosecutor general without referring to other authority.

In line with the opposition’s wish for a stronger parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh will be expanded from its present 75 seats to 90 - still short of the 105 that Bakiev reportedly agreed to on October 31. All members are currently elected by the first-past-the-post system; the constitution now allows half of the 90 deputies to be drawn from political party lists under a proportional representation system, although the opposition had hoped a majority would be selected that way to help rule out gerrymandering by unscrupulous governments.