The voters of Kyrgyzstan approved a new constitution on April 11 that gives the president extensive powers and threatens the most vibrant civil society in Central Asia. The U.S. Agency for International Development has rightly referred to Kyrgyzstan as “the only freely elected parliamentary democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia,” but now that is changing.
The vote followed the third time since 2005 that a president and his government were ousted by protests. But if there is fatigue with the established political process, that failed to translate into enthusiasm for the new constitution. Turnout was just above the 30 percent minimum required by law. Journalists were detained during voting, and observers reported vote rigging in some precincts.
So far, U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been silent on the constitutional changes. As the Biden administration pushes to re-establish a U.S. presence on the global stage, that needs to change. Democracy and civil society in Kyrgyzstan matter not just for the country itself, but as a model for the region. For years as authoritarian regimes ruled in neighboring counties like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan stood out for what democracy and civil society can achieve. The United States already has skin in the game, having invested $150 million on supporting democracy and civil society in Kyrgyzstan in the past five years alone, and shouldn’t just walk away now.
At the heart of the decline is nativist Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who courts ethnic Kyrgyz and makes untenable promises to nationalize gold resources owned by foreign countries. Japarov was serving a 10-year sentence for taking hostages during a protest when he was freed by protestors last October. Since then he has forced out the ineffective previous president, declared himself president before parliament could vote on the issue and supported the freeing of an influential organized-crime boss the United States has said is guilty of running drug, arms and human trafficking networks. The new constitution significantly weakens parliament, while strengthening the presidency as Japarov tries to institute a political system more like Kyrgyzstan’s more authoritarian neighbors. Just days after the referendum, Japarov’s government released Raimbek Matraimov, an “organized crime boss” subject to U.S. Magnitsky sanctions for suspected corruption and money laundering.
In the runup to the referendum, the political climate continued to decline. Blogger Tilekmat Kurenov was arrested on March 15 and has been held since then. He opposed the referendum, and had criticized Japarov’s decision to award control of the Jetim-Too ore field to China as a way of trying to hold off Kyrgyzstan’s mounting debts. Police claimed he was arrested because of a Facebook post that incited violence, but the post has never been shown. After being arrested, he was charged with vote buying in the 2020 parliamentary election. The move seems intended to silence critics ahead of the referendum.
In addition to directly strengthening the presidency, the new constitution envisions expansive financial reporting conditions on non-governmental organizations to limit and control them and allows the government to enforce vaguely defined “moral and ethical values.” These measures seem intended to muzzle organizations that have previously monitored elections and reported on government abuses, and are modeled on provisions adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin starting in 2012 that helped him monopolize political power.
On Kyrgyzstan, the United States faces a dilemma. The Biden administration wants to repair relationships with countries the Trump administration alienated, including China. But it also wants to re-establish a U.S. presence on the global stage and push for democracy and human rights and a reversal of the global authoritarian surge. Those positions often clash, especially in countries where China would benefit from pliable, undemocratic regimes.
Kyrgyzstan is one of those. It is a key part of China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to build an expansive “land bridge” from China to key trade partners to ensure future Chinese exports in a modern rebranding of the Silk Road. In Kyrgyzstan, China works closely with the government and wields considerable influence.
The United States has prioritized civil society, human rights, and independent media in its relations with Kyrgyzstan since the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, strengthening media, civil society and parliamentarianism. These actions have reinforced democratic processes in this regional linchpin over the past three decades. The Biden administration should condemn the referendum and reaffirm its backing of a democratic, accountable Kyrgyzstan by supporting investigative journalism, judicial sector reform, and democratic governance.
(The opinions implied here are the authors own and do not reflect the views of National Defense University, the Defense Department, or any other agency of the U.S. government.)