On January 5, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed the decree “On Arrangements to Prepare a National Referendum in the Kyrgyz Republic,” calling for a referendum on constitutional reform at the end of 2006. While Bakiyev seeks to postpone constitutional reform for as long as possible, he must eventually revise the existing division of powers between the government and the parliament to eliminate political crises. After a constitutional committee comprised of representatives from government, parliament, and civil society institutions reached a stalemate, despite months of work on revising the current constitution, the idea of a national referendum was chosen as the best way to end the current political uncertainty.
The newly formed National Coalition of Democratic Forces of Kyrgyzstan (NCFP), a political bloc comprised of 18 political parties and public organizations, openly criticized the existing presidential-parliamentary government structure, describing it as “a system where neither president nor parliament are held responsible for their own politics; but the government is a common scapegoat deprived of rights” (Kabar, January 6). The NCFP includes a wide range of political parties, including Prime Minister Felix Kulov’s Ar-Namys, the well-known parties Kairan El, Ata-Jurt, Moya Strana, the communist party, and NGOs such as the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, Interbilim, and Kelkel.
A different perspective comes from Kyrgyz legal specialist Murat Ukushev, who claims that the current constitution is unjustly blamed for all political crises existing in the country. He maintains that harsh criticism of the current constitution is destructive for the democratization process, because it creates a negative image of the existing legal order. The current government should not seek the “revolutionary expediency” of the March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution by denying the constitution, but must follow the established rule of law. Ukushev also argues that the constitution provides the president with a broad range of powers and strips the parliament of its basic rights (Obshchestvenny reiting, December 29).
The Kyrgyz public regards referendums skeptically. The previous president, Askar Akayev, carried out two referendums that only increased his presidential powers and received negative marks from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In general, Akayev’s referendums in 2003 and 1996 served the interests of the central authorities, not the public will. The current constitution was fundamentally altered in the February 2003 referendum. Ironically, the change from bicameral to unicameral parliament was officially enacted in April 2005, shortly after the Tulip Revolution.
Bakiyev’s recent decree seeks to prepare the Kyrgyz public for the referendum by explaining to the population the differences among various government systems. Within a period of nine months the decree intends to educate the public about the importance of constitutional reform. Parliamentarians, representatives of the judicial brunch, and national mass media are called upon to take an active role in the initiative. These activities, according to the decree, should prepare the public to “consciously consider the assessment and selection” of the most appropriate state structure. Bakiyev’s decision to prolong the moratorium on the death penalty might potentially also be included in the new constitution (Vecherny Bishkek, January 9).
Independent of the president’s decree, the Kyrgyz mass media has been actively discussing positive and negative aspects of parliamentary, presidential, and mixed systems. Most Kyrgyz analysts agree that the public in general, and often representatives of the government, do not have a clear idea about the differences among various state configurations.
A national committee on ideology will soon be established, drawing members of the government, parliament, and civil society. To date, State Secretary Dastan Sarygulov has been the most vocal ideologist in Kyrgyzstan (see EDM, December 6). The entire process of constructing a national ideology seems to be transparent and liberal. However, it is doubtful that the committee, comprised of people with various educational backgrounds, political affiliations, and economic wealth, will reach a feasible agreement and craft a viable national concept. Edil Baisalov, leader of NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and a member of the committee, comments that it is more important to develop a national idea that would bridge the north-south divide in Kyrgyzstan, rather than propagate “hollow incitements” such as seven maxims from the Kyrgyz epic narrative Manas (Vecherny Bishkek, January 6).
Such a mass-education project on political issues is unprecedented for post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Relying on popular opinion to select the state configuration after attempts by specialists had failed is rather a radical measure to change the constitutional order in the country. Bakiyev’s decree represents a bizarre blend of the Soviet mentality to educate the public in short periods of time and an attempt to bring in democratic changes by involving a broad spectrum of political actors. Unclear in what the referendum will produce, the government seems to be seeking constitutional changes for the sake of sustaining its image as revolutionary leaders.