Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Kyrgyzstan: The Challenge of Judicial Reform
Kyrgyzstan: The Challenge of Judicial Reform
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
Report 150 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: The Challenge of Judicial Reform

Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary is failing to act as a neutral arbiter of political disputes or as a fair channel for economic arbitration.

Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary is failing to act as a neutral arbiter of political disputes or as a fair channel for economic arbitration. It requires significant reform to gain the trust of the public and to assert its role as an independent branch of government. A failure to achieve reform would make it impossible to develop a pluralistic and stable political system over the long term and also undermine attempts to tackle widespread corruption and encourage development. Unless the government allows greater self-governance for lawyers and independence for judges, no amount of education or piecemeal reforms will create an effective system.

A politicised judiciary was at the heart of the instability that rocked Kyrgyzstan in 2005. The courts had been used extensively by former President Askar Akayev to suppress opposition and remove political challengers. Judges proved unable to resolve the political disputes and electoral malpractice that characterised the 2005 parliamentary elections. Popular protests against court decisions contributed to the subsequent rebellion that overthrew Akayev and threatened to destabilise the country. Despite rhetorical commitments to judicial independence, the new regime of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has continued to use the courts for its own political ends. During parliamentary elections in 2007, the courts were again used to deregister unwanted opposition parties.

This politicisation stems in part from a Soviet legacy that has proved difficult to overcome. In the Soviet system, the judiciary was completely subordinate to the political regime and was also largely subservient to the prosecutor’s office and the law enforcement agencies. Since independence, the judiciary has undergone constitutional and institutional reform, but much of the old ethos remains, particularly among the older generation of officials. Roughly 98 per cent of criminal cases result in convictions, for example, not least because of the respect judges instinctively give to any case brought by the prosecutor. Developing a judicial culture that values its independence highly remains a challenge.

The independence of the judiciary is also undermined by constitutional and institutional problems, which give the presidential administration considerable control over the selection of judges and their promotion, for example, and by funding methods, which provide too much control to the department of courts, which is part of the justice ministry. Informal methods of control remain the most significant problem, with so-called “telephone justice” – where political figures call judges to pressure them to deliver particular verdicts – still widespread in political cases.

For ordinary people the greatest problem is the high level of corruption in the justice sector. Bribery has undermined public confidence and has also worked against attempts to improve the professionalism of lawyers. Many lawyers complain that their main role is not to represent clients vigorously but to facilitate this endemic corruption. Part of the problem is the very low level of state funding and poor salaries, which in effect force judges to take bribes. The government has very limited revenue, but the judiciary should at least have the same priority as the law enforcement agencies. More efficient budgetary processes and spending could also maximise the impact of available funds.

A lack of faith in the independence of judges, widespread corruption and the extremely slow speed of many legal processes have all fuelled public disaffection with the court system. Some people have turned elsewhere to resolve disputes, particularly in civil matters. Informal local leaders, many with criminal connections, are called upon to arbitrate in some disputes. Others seek satisfaction through informal use of religious codes, such as Sharia law, which is not recognised in the legal system.

Despite some positive moves from the government, including improvements in sentencing policy and the abolition of the death penalty, there has been too little reform. Restoring public faith is a key element in state-building and an important step in undermining support both for non-state criminal groups and religious extremist parties. Most of the initiative for reform will have to come from inside the justice sector. There is no incentive for the political establishment to increase the independence of the courts, but concerted efforts by lawyers, judges and more enlightened political leaders can improve the situation slowly.

The international community can play a small but important role in this, but so far few international projects have made a real impact. A new U.S.-funded program has high aspirations but is unlikely to accomplish much unless it receives serious political support. The most important role for international counterparts is to assist in training and opening up Kyrgyz judges and other legal professionals to broader international practice and experience in achieving the rule of law.

Bishkek/Brussels, 10 April 2008

A man walks past a monument depicting Kyrgyz folklore hero Manas in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, in March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election

While Kyrgyzstan’s 15 October elections are a rare milestone for Central Asian democracy, the campaign is exposing dangerous fault lines. In the largest city of Osh, the new president will have to face down robust local power brokers, defuse Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions and re-introduce the rule of law.

Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming presidential elections on 15 October are a milestone for Central Asia: for the first time, a president from the region will voluntarily stand down at the end of his constitutionally mandated term. Kyrgyzstan has come far in the seven years since the tumultuous events of 2010, when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in Bishkek and ethnic violence engulfed the southern city of Osh, killing over 400 people, mostly Uzbeks.

The presidential race is tight and unpredictable. Sooronbai Jeenbekov, from the southern province of Jalalabad and representing the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) party, faces Omurbek Babanov, a wealthy independent candidate from the northern province of Talas, still closely aligned with the party he formed in 2010, Respublika. But whoever wins the ballot will face renewed north-south regional tensions as well as rivalries within Osh, where the memory of violence is still fresh and small arms abound.

Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

The central government in Bishkek has long struggled to exert its authority over Osh, a city of 276,000 people situated over the mountains in the Ferghana Valley and lying along a route used by traffickers of Afghan opium. More than 43 per cent of the local population are ethnic Uzbeks. In a speech in the city on 28 September, Babanov inadvertently showed how high tensions are. After urging Uzbeks to protect their rights, he swiftly was denounced by leading government figures for inciting ethnic hatred and supporting Uzbek separatism. Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

Once controlled by the now-exiled former Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, a virulent Kyrgyz nationalist allied with former President Bakiyev, Osh has been transformed from the fiefdom of one powerful man into the playground of a handful. Today’s power brokers in the city, all ethnic Kyrgyz, owe little to Bishkek. After the new Kyrgyz government sacked Myrzakmatov in 2013, elections to replace him narrowly were won by Osh’s current mayor, Aitmamat Kadyrbayev. Since then, Bishkek has missed opportunities to rebuild its influence in the city or forge better relationships with the local government.

Kadyrbayev himself was accused of participating in confrontations against the central government that preceded the ethnic clashes in Osh. He was convicted for his alleged role in seizing the Osh regional administration building in 2010, but the judgment was overturned two years later and he was acquitted. Kadyrbayev maintained that the charges were politically motivated. He is now loosely aligned with two other powerful southern actors: Rayimbek Matrayimov, the country’s deputy customs chief, widely regarded as one of the richest people in Kyrgyzstan; and Suyun Omurzakov, the former head of the Osh city and regional police forces, who is now deputy minister of the interior. Although both men now hold national positions, they still exert significant influence in the city.

Reports in the polarised Kyrgyz-language press tend to portray Omurzakov as either a champion of law and order, or associate him with allegations that Osh authorities have allowed a local sports club to train thuggish youth, serving as another tool for power brokers. The club’s manager, Omurzakov’s brother Uluk, denies the accusations made against the club and its members.

Mayor Kadyrbayev meanwhile, has aroused irritation in Osh with high-handed behaviour reminiscent of his predecessor, Myrzakmatov. Notwithstanding Myrzakmatov’s own abuses, under his rule the Osh city administration was a unified force that was relatively accessible to residents and responded to their requests in a reasonably timely manner. This is no longer the case. Broadly speaking, the new Osh elite appears less interested in providing services and garnering popular support than in squeezing the city for its material enrichment.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky, as the city's local power brokers could react by mobilising their respective constituencies, banking on popular dissatisfaction that could spill over into violent confrontation. Outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev was a relatively skillful manager of the competing interests of regional strongmen, even if he did not seek to rebuild Bishkek’s authority in Osh. Should Jeenbekov, believed to be hostile to Matrayimov and Kadyrbayev, be elected president, he could seek to remove these power brokers and replace them with his own southern allies. Babanov, lacking roots in the region, might attempt the same. A struggle over control of elite networks in a city still full of arms and latent ethnic tensions could spell disaster.

Yet doing nothing about growing tensions in Osh is not a good option either. However difficult the task, the next president will need to promote genuine reconciliation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in the south. Rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law should top his agenda. Foreign donors, including Russia and China, should engage the Kyrgyz government on these issues even as they recognise that things will be slow to change and difficult to discuss.