KYRGYZ VOTERS WANT STRONG RULE  Parliamentary system just one year
old, but voters have tired of it already.  By Timur Toktonaliev

fire in extreme and very public form of protest.  By Andrei Grishin

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Parliamentary system just one year old, but voters have tired of it already.

By Timur Toktonaliev

Ahead of Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election at the end of this month,
the majority of both candidates and voters appear to favour abandoning
the parliamentary system, and returning to the days when one person
ran the country.

The October 30 ballot will be the first opportunity voters have had to
choose a national leader since a popular uprising forced former
president Kurmanbek Bakiev out of power in April 2010.

A constitutional referendum held in June that year radically reduced
the powers of future presidents and transferred most decision-making
to the legislature, making Kyrgyzstan the first and only parliamentary
democracy in Central Asia.

The findings of a straw poll conducted by IWPR, along with interviews
with most of the confirmed candidates, indicate a strong preference
for a presidential system, albeit for a variety of reasons.

Although the IWPR poll of 50 people is by no means exhaustive, it
provides a snapshot of the general mood among voters, which is in
stark contrast to the enthusiasm they showed when the constitution was
changed last year.

With a strong turnout of 69 per cent, nine out of ten votes in the
referendum were for constitutional change and parliamentary rule. This
reflected a widely-held view that Bakiev and his predecessor Askar
Akaev, who became head of state after Kyrgyzstan gained independence
in 1991, had accumulated far too much power, leading to nepotism and

As of October 7, Kyrgyzstan’s election body had a list of 23 approved
candidates. The front-runners are mainly high-profile politicians like
interim prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social
Democratic Party, Ata Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, and Butun
Kyrgyzstan leader Adakhan Madumarov.

The interim president, Roza Otunbaeva, who is not standing, will
become the first Central Asian leader to have stepped back from power,
rather than dying or being ejected from the job.

Atambaev, who has stepped down from government to run for election,
was among just three of the 17 candidates interviewed by IWPR who
wanted to keep the parliamentary system as it is. Another was Omurbek
Abdrakhmanov from the Ata-Meken party, who warned against a return to
the past, and said an instinctive longing for a strong leader was a
feature of backward societies.

The other 14 wanted to change the constitution again to create a
strong presidency.

“I cannot say it is useful, appropriate or ideal for our society, so
the time may come to change this constitution,” Tashiev said.

Shamshybek Medetbekov spoke for many of the candidates when he said,
“We have seen parliamentary rule. Now it must be entirely

Another candidate, Roman Omorov, spelled out his belief that the
president should hold all the reins, including the powers now held by
the prime minister.

Not all of the 14 favoured such a complete volte face, with some
advocating a rebalancing of power rather than a restoration of
one-person rule.

Omurbek Suvanaliev, a former interior ministry official who is running
for president, called for “a strong president and a strong

Sheradil Baktygulov, a Bishkek-based expert on public administration,
said that while the public and many candidates favoured stronger
presidential rule, their motives were different. For many of the
candidates, he said, it had less to do with the national interest than
with a desire to further their own interests if they won, and promote
those who helped them to achieve it.

Another reason why candidates are backing the idea may be simply that
they sense the mood swing in an electorate disillusioned with the way
parliament has functioned since it was elected last year.

Prospective voters interviewed by IWPR spoke of massive disappointment
with the way democracy has played out over the last year.

Twenty-eight of the 50 interviewees wanted a stronger presidency, 14
were in favour of keeping the present system, and the rest either
wanted a mixed system or none of the above.

Among the reasons they gave for unhappiness with the current
parliament were the budget discussions that dragged on for four
months, the failure to propose ways of making life in Kyrgyzstan
better, members who did not bother turning up for debates, frequent
exchanges in the chamber involving bitter personal attacks, and the
perception that members are there only to line their own pockets.

Interviewees said they wanted to see elected politicians taking
decisions that created jobs, brought in foreign investment, and
supported small businesses by lowering taxes and easing regulation.

Others took issue with the behaviour of elected politicians which they
witnessed in live broadcasts and other coverage of parliament.

“Only yesterday, I watched a programme where a deputy was arguing with
an official from the presidential administration,” Bishkek
businesswoman Daryika Mambetova said. “It’s certainly in the nature of
parliament for everything to be made public. But still, what an
embarrassment it is when two officials sort out their disagreements by
behaving as if they were having a row in the street.”

Many people in Kyrgyzstan believe that politicians use elected
positions as a springboard for personal – and commercial –
advancement, and that they are uninterested in the fate of those who
elected them. Viewed within this context, a presidential style of
government seems the least bad option, since it restricts the number
of elite interest groups who are getting rich.

“It is better for one person to be building up wealth rather than the
whole of parliament,” a student from Talas who did not give her name

For Dilmurod Asanhojaev, from southern Kyrgyzstan where more than 400
people died in ethnic violence in early June 2010, the parliamentary
experiment is one of lost opportunities.

“In general, I would of course want to see parliamentary rule, so that
power isn’t in the hands of just one person. Yet we’ve had it for a
year… we have a parliamentary state, but it’s had little impact,”
Asankhojaev said.

“Before there was one stupid man, now there are 120 of them.”

Baktygulov said he understood the nostalgia for strong leadership, but
warned that it also implied authoritarian rule. In the case of
Kyrgyzstan, that meant all the power in the hands of one elite family.

“People want stability and to live in a world they can understand, so
they favour the kind of relationship with authorities that they’ve
been used to. That explains their support for strong rule,” he said.
“But if they do this [change back] they will face more disappointment,
as stability doesn’t equate with economic prosperity.”

IWPR’s straw poll revealed generational differences that coloured
people’s views. Those who favoured the old ways – stability and a
strong hand at the top – tended to be people who remembered the Soviet
Union. Many younger people, on the other hand, thought parliamentary
democracy needed to be given more of a chance.

“There are no [conclusive] results yet, but people are already
complaining about it,” Bishkek student Aigul Karmashova said. “If they
replace it with presidential rule, once again there will be people who
are unhappy about it and will start shouting, ‘Give us back a
parliamentary system.’ It would be better to wait and see how we can
develop parliamentary rule.”

Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor in Kyrgyzstan


People set themselves on fire in extreme and very public form of protest.

By Andrei Grishin

When the bailiffs arrived to evict Kenjegul Alinkulova from her home,
she doused herself in petrol and set herself alight.

Alinkulova, a 45-year-old and a mother of five, decided suicide was
the only way to save the family home in Almaty, Kazakstan’s second
city. The property had been seized by court order after her husband
was convicted of a fraud offence, and officials had refused to delay
eviction until the final appeal hearing was over.

Alinkulova survived and was taken to hospital with extensive burns.
The eviction went ahead anyway.

The incident, on September 1, is unusual in itself as self-immolation
is not a common suicide method in Kazakstan, and at most a couple of
cases are recorded a year.

But this was in fact the sixth recorded suicide attempt of its kind in
the space of six months. One was fatal.

Over many years, self-immolation has become a sadly well-known suicide
method adopted by women facing domestic difficulties in Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. In Kazakstan, it is a new and
quite different phenomenon, involving both men and women.

While each of the six recent cases was an individual cry for help,
there appeared to be a common theme – a sense of powerless in the face
of injustice or economic problems. Five appeared to be attempts to
attract attention to an injustice, and the sixth involved a man facing
repossession of his home because he could not keep up his mortgage

In June, Saule Utepbergenova, 50, died after setting herself on fire
at the offices of Kazakstan’s ruling Nur Otan party in the capital
Astana. She had gone there to ask for help after her 19-year-old son
lost his appeal against a ten-year jail sentence for drugs charges.

In another case relating to the legal system the same month, a man
called Aidar Saparov attempted to set himself on fire in the western
region of Aktobe. Saparov was protesting against what he alleges is
the inaction of police over the murder of his son. After the suicide
attempt, he told reporters that the killers were still at large and
police had detained the wrong people.

Two months earlier, Sandugash Tagabergenova, a market trader in
Almaty, tried to set fire to herself after losing a court case over
her eviction from her small shop. Her suicide attempt failed because
the lighter did not work, and police and journalists who came on the
scene prevented any further attempt at self-harm.

“I have three small children, and now I don’t know how I can take care
of them and also pursue the legal battle for my property,” she said.

Hasan Parpiev, 46, from the southern city of Taraz, survived a suicide
attempt with 65 per cent burns, which he undertook in May after
bailiffs arrived at his home because he had run into arrears with his

Finally, Alexander Puzdrikov from Uralsk in western Kazakstan was
arrested in August after a passer-by preventing him setting fire to
himself. Puzdrikov was distressed about his inability to obtain social
housing, to which he is entitled as someone who grew up in a
children’s home. (For more on this issue, see Kazak Police Threaten
Dissidents With Psychiatric Confinement.)

Charged with public disorder and resisting police, he was sentenced to
two-and-a-half years in prison.

Yesenbek Ukteshbaev, who heads a housing rights pressure group, blamed
the government for ignore the social and economic legacy of global
financial crisis.

“The state has no desire to tackle the problems facing ordinary
people,” he said. “People resort to extreme measures out of a sense of

Almaty-based psychologist Maya Schepina said it was dangerous to
generalise and accuse the authorities of things for which they were
not entirely responsible.

“To make sense of it all, each case needs to be considered separately.
Of course, socially, it marks a Rubicon, but not everyone is
susceptible to suicide, still less self- immolation,” she said. “It’s
50 per cent social problems and 50 per cent personal responsibility.
Even if it’s an act of protest, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

A policeman in Almaty who gave his first name as Yerlan described how
the force responded when people attempted to take their own lives in

“We’re a punitive agency, not a counselling one. If someone wants to
jump off a bridge, what can we do? Should we say don’t jump? It’s his
life, after all,” he said.

Yerlan, who is part of a unit deployed to film public protests, said
that self-immolation cases were traumatic for the police, who were
first on the scene.

“What things you get to see!” he said. “I wish someone would arrange
counselling for us.”

Almaty businessman Tahirjan Ahmetov said people should band together
to articulate common grievances rather than suffer alone and be driven
to desperate remedies.

Ahmetov should know – in 2008, unable to secure the eviction of a
former business partner who was occupying a jointly-owned property, he
cut off his own little finger. When this failed to secure the desired
legal outcome, he cut off another finger the following year.

“If I hadn’t done it, nothing would have changed,” he said. His
attempt to gather others to support his cause failed, and he says this
kind of apathy in the face of injustice is regrettable.

“If there had been more of us, there would have been no need to do
what I did,” he added.

Andrei Grishin is staff member of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human
rights and Rule of Law.

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