WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 471, November 11, 2006
KYRGYSTAN 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 in Bishkek
ALPHABET CHANGE SPARKS DEBATE A government proposal to switch to the Latin
alphabet has divided opinion in Kazakstan. By Filip Prokudin in Almaty
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KYRGYSTAN 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
By Cholpon Orozobekova and Aziza Turdueva in Bishkek
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of
RFE/RL. Aziza Turdueva is a contributor writing for News Briefing CentralAsia,
IWPR's analytical news agency.
ALPHABET CHANGE SPARKS DEBATE
A government proposal to switch to the Latin alphabet has divided opinion in
By Filip Prokudin in Almaty
President Nursultan Nazarbaev has generated a stir in Kazakstan by setting up a
commission to consider whether the Kazak language should be written in the
Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic, as it is now.
With the commission not due to report back until March, the issue is already
generating fierce debate, with some saying it is an important step on the path
to modernising the country and others arguing it is ill-considered and could
cause divisions between the country's main ethnic groups, and even between
different generations .
Nazarbaev has promised to consider all thearguments for and against the change
before making a decision. However, he points out that Latin script has already
been used by other Turkic-language countries such as Uzbekistan and
If the change is made, it won't be the first time that Kazaks will have had to
adjust to a new alphabet. In 1929, they switched from Arabic script to a Latin
alphabet devised for all the Soviet Central Asian peoples. This was done for
political reasons, to secularise the region and limit external Muslim
influence; it also followed the example set by Ataturk's Turkey.
However, in 1940 Roman script was dumped in favour of the current 42-letter
Cyrillic writing system - the Russian alphabet plus nine characters to deal
with sounds peculiar to Kazak.
Abduali Kaidarov, the leading researcher at the Institute of Linguistics,
supports the switch to Latin. He argues that Cyrillic, which the Soviets
justified as a unifying force, in fact divided peoples speaking similar Turkic
languages as each adopted different special letters of their own.
"Latin can unite the culture of all Turkic peoples," said Kaidarov.
Some Uzbeks and Turkmen might disagree. It is not clear what the new Kazak
alphabet will look like, if it is adopted, but it will almost certainly not be
the one used in the Thirties. Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have all
devised new and very different Latin-based systems, which leave their writing
systems at least as far apart from each other as they were before.
Kaidarov insists the difficulty of learning a new alphabet and other problems
are being greatly exaggerated, and points out that there will be a long
transitional period to help ease people through the change.
He himself learned both Latin and Cyrillic scripts in his school days, and says
that as children are taught the new alphabet, their parents will pick it up as
they help them with homework.
The director of the National Library, Murat Auezov, shares Kaidarov's views,
pointing out that many Kazak students are already familiar with the Latin
alphabet through their study of foreign languages. "The Latin script holds no
secrets or mysteries for them," he said.
Another important argument in favour, he says, in the fact that most computer
technology uses the Latin alphabet.
However, Auezov, the son of the famous writer Mukhtar Auezov, would like to see
Kazaks retain a knowledge of Cyrillic, "because it is a great system of
writing". Kazakstan retains strong economic and political connections with
Russia, with which it shares a long border.
Urban Kazaks tend to speak Russian well, sometimes as their first language, and
there is a large ethnic Russian community, plus other minorities who use the
The deputy director of the Centre of Social Problems, Kanat Berentaev, strongly
disagrees that switching from Cyrillic is the way forward. He says introducing
a new alphabet will make just studying Kazak harder for other ethnic groups. A
Russian-speaker learning Kazak via Cyrillic only has to get to grips with a few
extra characters, whereas the new system will be completely alien.
Berentaev also worries that by moving to a new script, younger Kazaks may be
cut off from the body of cultural and scientific literature written in the
post-1940 Soviet period. "We have encountered this already... when the Latin
script was changed for Cyrillic. Everything written in the old script turned
out to be unwanted and simply disappeared," he said.
He also doubts the switch will be as straightforward as its advocates suggest.
In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, he said, teachers and others were confused by
the changes, forcing the authorities to scale back their plans for a swift move
to Latin. As many adults are still unable to read the new alphabets,
governments in those countries have allowed some publications to continue to
use Cyrillic, and even government correspondence has yet to fully convert to
In Uzbekistan, the move has proved costly and has eaten into the education
budget, Berentaev says, with school funds going "to reprinting billboards,
signs, new alphabet books.... This money was simply thrown away."
Poet and translator Auezkhan Kodar points to the possibility of a wall
developing between the different generations that use the two scripts. Younger
people will not have access to literature published in the Soviet period, while
older generations will be cut off from those who have made the transition.
Political analyst Sabit Jusupov thinks the heated debate is premature, saying
the switch is far from imminent.
"This issue has been raised several times. Just recall the mid-Nineties, when
various forces raised the issue for a number of reasons, and the wave of public
discussion then died away," he said.
However, Svetlana Poznyakova, a linguist and head of the MediaNet journalism
school, has no doubt that the issue will continue to generate fierce debate.
She thinks the public reaction will be "very negative".
"This applies both to the Russian-speaking and the Kazak-speaking populations,"
said Poznyakova. "For Russians, Cyrillic is an alphabet they have used for
Filip Prokudin is an independent journalist in Almaty. Marina Korobkina, who
writes for IWPR's news analysis service NBCentralAsia, contributed to this
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