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What to make of OSCE’s status downgrade in Kyrgyzstan

In September 2016, the Kyrgyz government expressed its intention to change the status of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Representation in Kyrgyzstan from an OSCE Centre to a prospective OSCE Programme Office. The change is envisaged to take place in January 2017.

November 30, 2016 - Kanykey Bayalieva-Jailobaeva - Articles and Commentary

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The government’s decision has been portrayed by the media as a potential downgrade of the OSCE’s status in Kyrgyzstan. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan stated that the government aims to increase the effectiveness of OSCE’s operation in the country and to revise and improve its programme and project activities to ensure that they meet the needs of the present social, economic and security situation.

There has been a lot of speculation about the true motivation of the Kyrgyz government. It has been widely reported by the media that the decision was made in response to the speech of Kadyrjan Batyrov, an ethnic Uzbek community leader, at the annual meeting of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in September 2016.

Why does Batyrov’s speech matter?

Batyrov comes from Jalalabad, a city located in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan. He used to be one of the most influential individuals in the Uzbek community mainly because of his prosperous business. Batyrov was accused by the government of inciting an ethnic conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz during the 2010 conflict, which lasted several days and claimed the lives of hundreds of people on both sides.

The Kyrgyzstan’s court found Batyrov guilty of instigating ethnic hatred and clashes between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and sentenced him in absentia for life imprisonment. However, Batyrov, who fled the country after the conflict, denies the government’s accusation. He received political asylum in Sweden, where he is now based.  The government of Kyrgyzstan filed a petition to Interpol to arrest Batyrov, but it was refused because Interpol considered the petition to be politically motivated.

Clearly, the government and the international community have different views on Batyrov’s involvement in the June 2010 conflict. 

In his speech at the OSCE ODIHR annual meeting, Batyrov criticised the President of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, for his plans to amend the Kyrgyz constitution to seize power. The government of Kyrgyzstan expressed disgruntlement with the OSCE ODIHR for hosting Batyrov. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it was a clear sign of disrespect to the judicial system and people of Kyrgyzstan.

In the meantime, some commentators stated that the government is using Batyrov’s speech to curb the opponents of the constitutional reform. The involvement of Batyrov in sparking the unrest in June 2010 has not been questioned and is widely considered to be a fact. For this reason, it is a high risk for any politician to be associated with him and, in this case, to be seen along with Batyrov as an opponent of the constitutional reform.

Is there a constitutional reform?

There are indeed intentions to amend the constitution of Kyrgyzstan. For the past several months, President Atambaev and his supporters have promoted the constitutional reform to address gaps in the constitution, which was last amended after the April 2010 revolution to establish a parliamentary system in the country.

The 2016 bill on the prospective constitutional amendments was proposed by the leaders of three political parties: Ar-Namys, the Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (the president’s party), and Ata-Meken. They have suggested expanding the roles of the president, prime minister and leaders of the political parties in the parliament. 

This initiative has elicited diverse opinions. Some experts have claimed that Atambaev wants to centralise power in the hands of the prime minister, since he could enter the role after his presidential term ends in 2017.  Other experts have asserted that the new changes in the constitution would enable family and/or clan-based governance.  

Notwithstanding what the aim of the proposed changes is, Kyrgyzstani politicians appear to be repeating the mistakes of their predecessors, who changed the constitution to serve their needs rather than focusing on addressing the country’s problems and ensuring a transparent transition of power. Importantly, after the 2010 constitutional amendments, a constitutional council consisting of 75 members issued a decision that prohibited introducing any changes in the constitution until 2020. However, the current situation shows that the politicians are yet again bypassing a legal decision that further undermines the trust of people in the government.

Insensitive donor strategies?  

Batyrov’s case is not the first instance when the government expressed intentions to review their international partnership arrangements. In 2015, the Kyrgyz government denounced its cooperation agreement with the United States. The reason was that Washington gave a human rights award to Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek and a devoted human rights activist from Kyrgyzstan. Just like Batyrov, Askarov was accused by the government of inciting the ethnic violence of June 2010. While he denies the charges, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In both cases, the donors have supported figures controversial in Kyrgyzstan. By doing this, they might want to bring the rights and interests of ethnic minorities to the attention of the Kyrgyzstani government, public and the international community and to promote human rights in the country. However, such actions have so far been counterproductive. 

There is widespread belief iin Kyrgyzstan that Batyrov and Askarov were involved in sparking the unrest in June 2010. For this reason, actions of multilateral and bilateral donor organisations such as giving awards and conference invitations to individuals regarded as instigators of the conflict might not be the best method for promoting human rights, reconciliation and building trust between people. These actions not only challenge the Kyrgyzstani government but also reinforce the segregation and antagonism between the ethnicities.  They also make Kyrgyzstani people more defensive and closed to collaboration. The popularity of western donor organisations has been falling and questioned in Kyrgyzstan, thus they might need to strategically choose different activities to promote democracy, cooperation, security, the rule of law and development. 

Implications of the OSCE status change

For now, it is not clear how the OSCE status will be changed. However, it can have implications on both sides and, more importantly, on local communities.

The OSCE Centre in Kyrgyzstan has been operating since 1999 and carrying out activities on a wide range of issues: border management, combatting human trafficking, conflict prevention and resolution, countering terrorism, democratisation, gender equality, education, human rights and the rule of law, among other areas. It works with governmental institutions and other actors such as universities, research centres and civil society organisations. For example, since the June 2010 ethnic violence, the OSCE Centre has been assisting the government upon its request with police reform, with the aim to introduce community-based policing, transform the police from a force holder to a service provider and establish trust, confidence and inter-communal tolerance.  

The OSCE Bishkek Office also has an OSCE Academy established in 2002 in agreement with the government, whose goal is to support regional cooperation, conflict prevention and good governance in Central Asia. The Academy provides post-graduate education, professional training and intellectual exchange opportunities.  

Consequently, downgrading the status of OSCE might mean that some of these activities might be pressured to stop which could have negative repercussions on the security, capacity building, and cooperation in the region. It might also weaken Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to human rights and democracy. After all, in comparison with other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan has made a large leap ahead in its post-Soviet democratic transformation. It is a relatively free country and despite its political turmoil evidenced by two revolutions, Kyrgyzstan has managed to dismantle two authoritative regimes and move towards parliamentary democracy.

The OSCE would also experience the negaitive impact. Its representation has already been limited in other countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and in case of the latter, its activities are heavily coordinated with the ministry of foreign affairs. Taking into account the importance of OSCE Bishkek Centre not only for Kyrgyzstan but also for other Central Asian states, the downgrade of its status would significantly limit the presence and impact of OSCE in the region.

Downgrading OSCE’s status in Kyrgyzstan is not in the best interest of the local communities and the region in terms of cooperation, security and development.  It appears that the voices and needs of local communities are lost in the actions of both the Kyrgyzstani government and the international community. The needs of local communities, men, women and children of different ethnicities and their peaceful co-existence should be the priority for both the government and OSCE Bishkek Centre, which may require a change of strategy.

Kanykey Bayalieva-Jailobaeva is an international consultant and a Sociology teacher at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD thesis focused on the approach of donor agencies to promoting civil society in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Jailobaeva has a wide experience in evaluating donor programmes on community development, human rights (particularly rights of children), civil society and effectiveness of international aid in Central Asia as well as other developing countries. 

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