Tamerlan Ibraimov: The Jogorku Kenesh of the Kyrgyz Republic: an Analysis of Legislative Initiatives
“The nomination process regarding draft amendments to the constitution, their study, and advancement clearly demonstrate the role and place of parliament within the bodies of state power. The loyalty of parliamentary factions’ leaders to the president, with a few exceptions, looks almost absolute, regardless of the matter under discussion, even if it is so important as the Constitution itself.” –expert Tamerlan Ibraimov, writing specially for CABAR.asia, analyzes legislative initiatives of Kyrgyzstan’s Jogorku Kenesh.
A few things determine the basis of any institution’s activities: why and how it was created, what ideas were posited at the forefront, and how people have come to realize these ideas. All this fully applies to one of the country’s main state bodies- the Jogorku Kenesh (JK).
The 6th convocation of the JK was formed in Fall 2015. If we try to describe a year’s worth of legislative activity, it can be summarized in a few words – it works such as it was formed.
Let me remind you of the main themes concerning the 2015 parliamentary elections.
First, it introduced the use of biometric voter registration, which radically reduced certain types of fraud, in particular – double voting. In this sense, voters regarded the credibility of the election results as sufficiently high. How one voted, so was it counted. That is why the legislature’s legitimacy is not a cause for concern with voters.
Second, when compared to previous elections, the problem of purchasing votes did not decrease, but, in the opinion of many observers, rather increased. Bribery has become widespread and a real epidemic. Most of the parties buy the voters’ loyalty and of those happy to sell their votes.
Third, among experts and civil society activists, the term “clone party” was brought into use. Clone parties are separate entities, formally acting on their own, but actually operating under the guise of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). These clone parties include “Kyrgyzstan”, “Bir Bol”, and in a sense, “Respublica -Ata Jurt” (R-AJ) and “Onuguu”. It is hard to say how real or to what degree these parties rely on the Social Democratic Party’s guidance, but the activities of their parliamentary factions argue for such assumptions.
Fourth, immediately after the elections, the leaders of the majority of aforementioned parliamentary parties started behind-the-scenes games, forcing some deputies to give up their seats in favor of others below them on the party list. Technically, this is justified by the fact that some MPs “did not collect” the necessary number of votes in their districts (usually single mandate). Formally, it is because the law clearly stipulates that in elections the whole country is one district. In any case, it can be said with certainty that the reason for failure in any administrative unit was that the identity of a particular candidate became separate from the party. In fact, and this is no big secret, those who gave more money and demonstrated greater loyalty to the party and party leader were taken in favor of the elected deputies. The redistribution of seats was especially evident in Kyrgyzstan and R-AJ political parties.
Thus, the sixth convocation of the Jogorku Kenesh was formed under the influence of trends such as: bribery of voters, significant pressure by the fat cats of the party and their policies, and the loyalty of the parliamentary parties to SDPK.
This of course does not mean that the current parliament is completely incompetent or in someone’s pocket. The Jogorku Kenesh is a collective institution and it operates in the real-life conditions of Kyrgyzstan’s political pluralism. Therefore, even those formally loyal to their party and SDPK’s policy can be and, from time to time, show their political independence by taking initiatives and going counter to the “general” line.
For those involved in major elections, on Kyrgyzstan’s scale, money brought into parliament certain people, many of whom do not consider themselves accountable to the public, that are more concerned about protecting their business interests and establishing oligarchic schemes.
Now consider how Parliament has carried out its most important function – lawmaking. The sixth convocation of the JK, as well as all previous compositions, has been engaged in routine legislative activity, without which there can be no state. However, the landmark bills, which can help identify key trends at work, are the drafts that get a lot of publicity, support, or opposition, which tells of the wider debate within society.
A highly publicized draft bill by Ata-Meken deputy A. Salyanova stipulates that nikah is prohibited from being performed without official marriage registration from the registry office. Proposed punishment for violating the law would be 3 to 5 years imprisonment. This bill has received divergent responses, both in Parliament and in society as a whole. In the end, the bill has not received the necessary support and died in the JK.
Another widely discussed initiative on regulating traditions, celebrations, and ceremonies did not become law. It was proposed by 7 MPs from SDPK and Ata-Meken who stated that the law was aimed at “eradicating the means of excessive extravagance, pomp, and unhealthy flamboyance among state and municipal employees during weddings, family celebrations, funeral ceremonies, and events dedicated to the memory of the dead.” Supporters of the bill say that it will act as a barrier of negative phenomena, such as corroding society. Opponents on the whole say there is no denying the problem though it is not clear who would specifically monitor and punish wasteful officials. The law, after heated debate, was rejected.
One of the most significant draft laws was a proposal by Onuguu faction deputy T. Ikramov. He introduced a proposal calling for an official prayer time during Friday lunch breaks for those wanting to perform namaz. This initiative sparked a wave of discussions that went far beyond Parliament. Those politicians, public figures, and activists opposed to the measure saw the danger of Islamization. However, a number of public and religious figures supported Akramov’s draft law. One in particular was Chubak aji Jalilov who in a televised address quite sharply spoke against those who did not support this initiative. For his statement he received many unflattering reviews from civil society activists as an answer. Deputy Ikramov’s initiative was not supported in parliamentary committee meetings and was rejected by a majority vote.
Another notable legislative initiative by R-AJ deputies was the introduction of amendments to the law “On the status of deputies of the JK.” This bill proposes to significantly reduce the benefits of parliamentary office. Recall that the public movement “For the abolition of benefits and privileges of JK deputies” emerged in the spring of 2015 with the movement receiving a great deal of support from the public. Before the parliamentary elections in 2015, the majority of deputies running for office, based on the movement’s proposal, signed a memorandum by which they undertook to legally refuse unjustified benefits and privileges. However, after having gained office, the winning parties almost immediately forgot about their campaign promises. The legislative proposal by R-AJ was not supported the first time around. However, after coming under significant public pressure, the initiative on the curtailing of benefits was nevertheless adopted in the first reading. Currently, the bill is under further discussion.
Also visible in the milieu of parliamentary legislative initiatives was a proposal to change the law “On non-profit organizations.” The bill was a leftover of the fifth convocation where one of its main supporters was Tursunbai Bakir Uulu. Deputies of the sixth convocation simply refused their support. Among the public, this bill has received the informal name of “law on foreign agents” because in many respects it copied a similar Russian law and was aimed at tightening state policy towards NGOs. After a fairly long and stormy debate, which was attended by both politicians and civil society activists, Parliament rejected the bill by a vote of 65-46.
Another draft law that received great public outcry was the proposal by SDPK deputy Kozhobeka Ryspaeva to amend the Law on Mass Media by prohibiting foreigners from establishing mass media outlets in Kyrgyzstan. It basically acted against journalists and the human rights community. In response to this a new edition of the bill was put forward. The ban is now concerned with only TV channels whereby the founders of stations and media outlets can only be Kyrgyz citizens and the foreign share of ownership cannot exceed 35%. Experts in the media field, along with civil society activists, have noted that the bill may threaten freedom of expression while pointing out that this initiative is reminiscent of a similar Russian law. Stormy discussions continued. To date, the bill passed in its first reading.
An initiative by Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of the Ata-Meken party, generated an even greater public outcry. A draft law was submitted for public discussion on the reconstruction and development of Bishkek’s historical center. The crux of the bill by Tekebayev stated that the right to private property is not absolute and that, “in the interests of the state and the local community it is possible to demolish some of the old, dilapidated buildings by court order.” The public almost immediately rose in arms against the initiative. Many saw in it the desire of the oligarchs negating the right to private property. Under the pretext of national interests, it would be a maneuver to cheaply pick up expensive real estate (at a fixed price to be determined by independent appraisers) and, having built a residence there, to sell the apartment building. The denunciation of this bill has been so great that there was even a move to revoke Tekebayev’s deputy mandate. As a result, the author withdrew the bill.
Initiated by Parliament, but failure to take responsibility
But perhaps the most divisive initiative by Parliament, or rather by leaders of five out of six parties, can be the proposal to reform the constitution. This initiative has split society into two parts in fact. Supporters of the changes, formally headed by parliamentary factions and led by the President and his administration, say that it is possible to change the constitution through a national referendum. Opponents on the other hand believe that there is a moratorium on changes until 2020, and it includes concerns such as the changing the constitution via referenda.
In addition, the debate flared up regarding the content of the amendments proposed for inclusion in the constitution. Those who are in favor of changes to the Basic Law propose the following: limit the role of the Constitutional Chamber as the supreme body of constitutional review, remove inviolate guarantees of Kyrgyzstani citizenship, abolish the right to privacy for judges, strengthen the role of the Prime Minister (PM) and reduce Parliament’s ability to force the PM to resign, combine a deputy’s mandate along with the offices of the PM and Deputy Prime Minister, and enshrine “higher values of the state” alongside a number of other innovations. At the same time the current fundamental form of government according to the proposed amendments would not change, such as the President remains popularly elected and still controls the “power block”.
Supporters and advocates of the constitution’s stability state that it cannot be altered until 2020, alleging a violation of the moratorium based on the confusing and poor elaboration of the amendments along with the danger of human rights abuses and violations of the system of checks and balances in the proposed project.
Characteristically, leaders of the parliamentary factions who spoke in favor of the bill to amend the Constitution themselves do not defend the project and are modestly sitting out the debate. Responsibility for the proposed amendments and their defense actually rests on the president and his administration, although by law the president has no right to legislate.
Thus, when discussing the overall activity of the Jogorku Kenesh, it should again be noted that the work of the legislature clearly shows how it depends significantly on the way in which this body was formed, what kind of people constitute parliament, and what goals they set for themselves. Likewise, deputies are heholden to their mandates, oligarchs, ideological programs, or voters’ satisfaction.
The nomination process regarding draft amendments to the constitution, their study, and advancement clearly demonstrate the role and place of parliament within the bodies of state power. The loyalty of parliamentary factions’ leaders to the president, with a few exceptions, looks almost absolute, regardless of the matter under discussion, even if it is so important as the Constitution itself.
A significant amount of Parliament’s efforts are bills aimed at creating or changing personal and family culture (e.g. – limit spending on festivals or banning nikah from the registrar’s office), restricting civil society (for example – the law “on foreign agents” or the regulation of foreign persons in the media), promoting the interests of big business, etc.
Activities of the JK are hardly boring. Passions run high within the debates by calling attention to themselves and going after one another. However, economic progress and real reform, in the fight against corruption for example, for some reason fails to materialize.
In conclusion, something should be said about recent events that are highly indicative of Parliament’s work ethic, which cannot be called legal. Returning to work after a two-month vacation, MPs immediately declared a recess and went to Issyk-Kul where the World Nomad Games were being held. The World Nomad Games are exceptionally fantastic, but with the deputies there? It seems that the laws, including the labor code, are not written for them. So the sixth convocation of the Jogorku Kenesh works on this principle – the law is for the people, and we live by our own rules.
Author: Tamerlan Ibraimov, director of the Center for Political and Legal Studies (Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek)
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect that of CABAR.asia