OSH, Kyrgyzstan--Does Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev support or suppress freedom of speech?
This question has been circulating in Kyrgyzstan since the president attacked local broadcasts by RFE/FL, which is backed by the U.S. government. In an apparent effort to downplay the president’s remarks, Interfax quoted Akaev’s press service as saying that “there are no media restrictions in Kyrgyzstan, and President Askar Akaev, as guarantor of the constitution, has always supported freedom of speech and intends to do so in the future.”
Akaev lashed out at RFE/RL on 26 July for “one-sided and tendentious reports” that amounted to “information terrorism directed against the Kyrgyz Republic.” His outburst came during a roundtable discussion in Bishkek between the authorities and representatives of political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the media. The meeting had been designed to promote dialogue with the opposition. Throughout this year, Kyrgyzstan has been racked by civil unrest and clashes over the political future of the country and, in particular, its president. So far, the crisis has cost seven lives and resulted in the resignation of the government. An official inquiry into the deaths of six protestors shot by police in March (a seventh person died after a hunger strike) included some clear criticism of some officials, and the regime of Akaev, the only president that independent Kyrgyzstan has had, has regularly been criticized by the country’s independent media and exposed to scrutiny by the international media.
RFE/RL is a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. government. Neither the radio station nor the Bush administration has commented on Akaev’s verbal attack. Since the start of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan has served as a base for U.S. and other Western troops serving in and supporting the campaign against the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and the Taliban.
Akaev’s statement came shortly after a tour of the region in mid-July by U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. During the Kyrgyz leg of the tour, O’Neill said that U.S. aid to the country had increased in 2001 and would increase again this year. Since 1992, the United States has provided Kyrgyzstan with $590 million in financial assistance. This year Kyrgyzstan will receive a $49 million grant from Washington.
O’Neill refrained from making any public criticisms of the government’s handling of the crisis during his trip. The independently minded Bishkek-based daily Moya Stolitsa reported O’Neill as saying that “the political problems and issues of each country are matters for the local population. We have very good relations with the president and ministers and we are quite satisfied with our relations and I believe that the people of the [Kyrgyz] Republic have to solve political problems on their own.”
This was in line with previous U.S. statements about Kyrgyzstan, which have avoided specific comments on the unrest, which was prompted by the arrest in January of a prominent politician and former government member who had become critical of Akaev’s handling of privatization and a border treaty with China.
The assertion by the president’s press office that “there are no media restrictions in Kyrgyzstan” was interpreted by the opposition as a further attempt by the administration to downplay Akaev’s statement. A prominent figure in the opposition, Topchubek Turgunaliev, decried explanations by officials that the attack on RFE/RL reflected Akaev’s personal opinion as “absurd, since the president made an official statement at the roundtable. The radio is a danger to the president’s authoritarian style as it broadcasts true information,” Turgunaliev said.
The opposition and the authorities continue to be locked in a media war. The new prime minister, Nikolai Tanaev, recently asserted that the “our [government] media lost the information war” in the coverage of demonstrations in March in which six demonstrators died, even though the majority of media adopted a pro-government line. Alongside the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL, arguably the most open and objective reports of the bloody events and its aftermath were provided by three weekly newspapers--Delo ¹, Res Publika, and Moya Stolitsa--and the television station Pyramid TV.
Earlier in the year, the government introduced a set of measures that imposed constraints on the independent media. One key regulation, which forced some publications to appear only on the Internet, required all newspapers to be produced by state-owned publishing houses. While the authorities have not introduced new restrictions in recent months, it is almost impossible to buy any issues of Bishkek-based opposition newspapers in the south of the country. Moya Stolitsa and Res Publika are available on the Internet, but few people have access to the web.
Following Akaev’s attack on the international media, many opposition leaders have said that it is vital that radio broadcasts by RFE/RL be protected. The Institution of Freedoms and Human Rights, which is headed by Turgunaliev, has set up a new public organization with the aim of defending Radio Liberty-Azattyk (as the Kyrgyz service is called). Well-known representatives of the opposition and the media have joined.
On 26 July, Prime Minister Tanaev said that the country needs political stability to overcome economic crisis. In the first six months of the year, the country’s GDP fell 4.9 percent. In June, 22 percent of Kyrgyz enterprises were not functioning, and official sources say that half the population is living in poverty.
Given the current fragility of Kyrgyzstan’s politics and economics, a serious rift with the United States could increase the influence of Russia in the country. Russia’s economic significance was highlighted in early July, when the Russian Duma agreed to reschedule Kyrgyzstan’s debt, which in March amounted to $168 million. A few days earlier, on 28 June, the Defense Ministry announced that an air base would be upgraded for use by rapid-deployment forces from the former Soviet republics. In December 2001, Kyrgyzstan finally gave the Russian language special status in Kyrgyzstan. Russians make up a sizable majority in the country, with official figures putting their number at 603,201. This makes them the second-largest minority, behind ethnic Uzbeks, who officially number 664,950 and mainly live in the south. Unofficial sources say there are over 800,000 Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan.
Transitions Online, July 30 -August 5, 2002