Kyrgyzstan, with its long border with China and once host to an air base crucial to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, had long been known as an “island of democracy” in a sea of autocratic states in Central Asia. It hosted a robust civil society, a population appreciative of democratic values and secularism, and a relatively independent judiciary. Three times — in 2005, 2010, and 2020 — the people of Kyrgyzstan voted out corrupt leaders in an effort to put the country back on a democratic path.
But a new – and disturbing – Kyrgyzstan is emerging. In recent years, it has fallen dramatically in democracy rankings and is now considered by Freedom House to be a “consolidated authoritarian regime.” Just weeks ago, “Russian-style `foreign agents’” legislation was reintroduced and endorsed by a third of the members of parliament, generating fear among local civil society and international observers that it might ultimately gain the majority’s support.
The effects of internal corruption and opaque institutions are spilling across borders, with ramifications even for the war in Ukraine. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials are concerned Kyrgyzstan “is now home to numerous businesses that have become a conduit for Western and Asian goods that Russia can’t legally obtain elsewhere.” Two days after this reporting, four of Kyrgyzstan’s companies were put on the sanctions list by the U.S. Department of Treasury for evading international sanctions against Russia.
It is not too late to help reverse the slide. Some lawmakers may still be open to change, and crucial cases grind on in Kyrgyzstan’s courts, such as those of investigative journalist Bolot Temirov and for the recently decided case of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty affiliate Azattyk Media (more on those later). In light of Kyrgyzstan’s geopolitical position – in the midst of the Central Asian dictatorial cluster that also is eyed by Russian President Vladimir Putin for the region’s occasional distancing from Moscow – it is essential that the West not lose sight of the rise in autocracy in Kyrgyzstan.
How It Began: An “Island of Democracy”
Kyrgyzstan has unique cultural and societal characteristics that historically have allowed for flexibility, openness, and adaptability to the international community and democratic practices. Its first president after the 1991 collapse of the former Soviet Union, Askar Akaev, took strides toward global integration and demonstrated aspirations to be an equal and responsible member of the international community by signing onto major treaties and joining various international and regional organizations.
Kyrgyzstan became a member of the World Bank just a year after independence, and in 1994 was the first country in Central Asia to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In 1998, Kyrgyzstan was the first former Soviet republic to join the WTO, complying with stringent entrance requirements of the body’s trade and legal standards and the rigorous process of negotiations. Kyrgyzstan’s swift accession process differed drastically in speed and substance from the slow accessions of other Central Asian countries; for example, it took Kazakhstan almost 20 years to join the WTO, and Uzbekistan is still going through the process.
How It’s Going: Endemic Corruption and Budding Authoritarianism
As one of us, Eileen Malloy, was completing an ambassadorial assignment in Kyrgyzstan in 1997, the severe shortcomings in Akaev’s version of democracy were becoming clear, especially on rule of law and fundamental rights. The country was sliding towards “onerous” restrictions on freedoms.
Since then, conditions in Kyrgyzstan have deteriorated, as its leaders have fallen into painful cycles of corruption that have led, in turn, to widespread violations of human rights. The government and aligned third parties have increasingly attacked and persecuted journalists, threatened, and harassed human rights defenders, and restricted the activities of NGOs, pulling back basic legal protections related to freedom of association. Instances of violence against women and girls have sharply increased, with scant accountability for abusers.
Torture practices by law enforcement bodies appear to be widespread. For example, in 2022, there were 63 allegations of torture registered in Kyrgyzstan, with 55 of those cases occurring at the hands of the government. The defenders and civil society initiatives aiming to decrease torture practices face constant retaliation and intimidation.
Most recently, the government detained 22 human rights defenders, activists and opposition political figures because they attempted to create a citizens’ informal Committee for the Protection of Kempir-Abad, a strategically important reservoir and regional water source, in order to challenge the legality of the Kyrgyz government’s transfer of the rights for it to neighboring Uzbekistan. According to local legal experts, the detentions violated Kyrgyzstan’s legal norms and their charges lacked any substantive basis to support the claims.
Widespread Suppression of Independent NGOs and News Media
In 2020, the government began to pressure and assert control over existing democratic institutions such as the Parliament, independent media, and civil society, effectively deepening the increasingly autocratic rule of successive presidents, including the current leader, Sadyr Japarov, who, after rocketing to power in 2020 and 2021, quickly organized a referendum to approve constitutional amendments that gave him more powers over other branches of the government. The amendments allowed the President to appoint almost all judges and heads of law enforcement agencies and shrink the number of members of Parliament from 120 to 90, and expanded the presidential term limit from one six-year term to a possible two terms of five years each.
In 2021, Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament, where Japarov controls a majority, passed legislative amendments selectively targeting human rights NGOs by requiring them to provide additional reporting on their activities. A year later, the government took more steps to regulate NGO activities by initiating a new draft law “On Non-Commercial Non-Governmental Organizations,” requiring registration of local NGOs. The proposed law also would provide a basis for authorities to intervene in and control NGOs, including forced liquidation. Work on the draft has been postponed until Oct. 1.
A number of recent court decisions restricted places where people could exercise their freedom of peaceful assembly, making it more burdensome for people to protest or otherwise mobilize to express their views. The measure was upheld by a district court. Amnesty International reported this March that law enforcement authorities have continued to tighten their repression, saying they have repeatedly “violated the right to freedom of peaceful assembly … and persecuted those who tried to exercise it.”
Authorities also have targeted the information sphere for suppression. In 2021, the Parliament adopted and Japarov signed a so-called “fake news” law. The provision has been criticized by rights advocates for curbing free speech because it allows a private party or legal entity to file a complaint with an unnamed “authorized state body” asking it to shut down or block websites containing information deemed to be “false” or “inaccurate.”
In 2022, Japarov’s administration introduced draft amendments to the Law on Mass Media that included penalties for “abuse of freedom of speech.” Also last year, the government temporarily blocked the websites of the several independent media outlets. It blocked the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s affiliate Azattyk Media, froze its bank accounts, and eventually got a court order to shut down its operations. Amid intense advocacy and pressure from a range of advocates and officials in the international community, a local court two weeks ago annulled the decision to shut down Azattyk, allowing the broadcaster to resume its activities.
The Persecution and Expulsion of Journalist Bolot Temirov
The case of Bolot Temirov is illustrative. Temirov, a prominent Kyrgyz human rights defender and investigative journalist, is known for “Temirov LIVE,” a YouTube news channel focused on high-level anti-corruption investigations. In 2021, the U.S. State Department awarded Temirov its International Anti-Corruption Champions Award. Temirov was also shortlisted for the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Award in 2022. Accolades notwithstanding, Temirov has weathered years of threats to his personal freedom and physical safety from both the Kyrgyz authorities and private actors.
In 2020, after months of surveillance, threats, and persecution by the authorities and just two days after publishing a report into corrupt activity of the family of the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS), anti-drug police raided Temirov LIVE’s offices.
Prosecutors proceeded to charge Temirov with a host of crimes: illegal drug possession, illegal border crossing, and document forgery for allegedly falsely obtaining a Kyrgyz passport. In September 2022, a Bishkek judge acquitted Temirov of the possession and border crossing charges, and found that the statute of limitations precluded criminal punishment for the document forgery charge. Prosecutors appealed the decision and urged the court to overturn the partial acquittal, arguing that Temirov should be deported to Russia due to the fact that he also holds a Russian passport.
What ensued was Kafkaesque. On Nov. 3, 2022, the Bishkek City Court upheld Temirov’s conviction for forging documents to illegally obtain a Kyrgyz passport despite the expiration of the statute of limitations, and ordered his summary deportation to Russia under Article 70 of the Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan, a provision that applies exclusively to deportations of foreign citizens and stateless persons. In its ruling, the court applied the provision to Temirov, a natural-born Kyrgyz citizen, labeling him a “foreigner.”
Temirov was dragged from the courtroom by plain-clothed officers and was held incommunicado for several hours before being forced onto a flight to Moscow — without his Russian passport. He was not given a separate hearing on the expulsion nor was he able to confer with a lawyer. Deportation from Kyrgyzstan carries a five-year ban on re-entry, so Temirov is unable to return home to his family.
Long Path Forward
Temirov’s prosecution and deportation violate a raft of international human rights, including the right to nationality, freedom of expression, and the right to a fair trial. The case is among many that illustrate the tightening repression in Kyrgyzstan and its consequences. His lawyers have appealed his deportation, so the case is ongoing.
The international community should keep these cases on their radar, maintain strong pressure on the Kyrgyz government by prominently highlighting its abuses, and provide direct support and targeted assistance to local civil society, media outlets, human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists. Donors and financial institutions should invoke Temirov’s case among their other human rights and rule-of-law conditions on financial assistance and loans going to the government and other state structures and institutions. The Kyrgyz government must immediately quash the arbitrary claims against Temirov; lift all restrictions put on independent media outlets and individual journalists; release human rights defenders still remaining in custody as well as the detainees of the Kempir-Abad case; and repeal measures restricting the fundamental freedoms of individuals and NGOs.
The United States and other pro-democracy States should take advantage of every opportunity to call attention to Kyrgyzstan and these abuses, including for example when parliamentary delegations come to the United States, or when the five Central Asian leaders meet with their U.S. counterparts (the so-called C5+1) during various engagements. Any country or institution seeking to reverse the global backsliding of democracy should call attention to the range of miscarriages of justice in Kyrgyzstan.
(The views expressed represent the opinions of the authors. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities.)