By Arslan Sabyrbekov (08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Kyrgyzstan’s judicial system has always depended on the executive and legislative branches of power that still tightly control the appointment and dismissal of judges. To ensure the judiciary’s independence in the aftermath of the April 2010 Revolution, two bodies were created; the Council on the Selection of Judges and the Judicial Council, a professional body of judges. However, because both these bodies are closely linked to the parliament and the President, they are hardly independent. This observation is supported by the fact that a number of judges have been ousted from their position for voicing legal opinions at odds with the views of the country’s political leadership.
This time, a senior judge in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, Klara Sooronkulova, was dismissed for her position on the controversial legislation on biometric data collection. Last year, the Kyrgyz parliament passed a law for a nationwide biometric data registration program. The program was initially termed “voluntary,” but the submission of fingerprints was later linked to the upcoming parliamentary elections, with the authorities making registration “obligatory” in order to cast the ballot. Civil society activists have issued a unanimous statement that introducing biometric registration as a condition for participating in the elections is a gross violation of citizens’ fundamental constitutional rights and have filed a case to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Sooronkulova was appointed the leading judge to examine the case and sought international advice on the matter. But before she could announce her ruling on the case, Svetlana Boljurova, a lawyer from the parliament’s legal and judicial affairs committee, filed allegations against her. She claimed that in breach of procedure, judge Sooronkulova revealed her views that the biometric data collection was an unconstitutional act, ahead of announcing them publicly and demanded that she be removed from the case.
In the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, the judges were split 50 to 50. The Chamber’s chairperson had the decisive vote and removed Sooronkulova from the case. At Boljurova’s further demand, the Judicial Council reviewed an allegation that Sooronkulova had shown “insubordination” by criticizing her colleagues for “following the direct order of the president’s and that of the parliament’s Office.” On these charges, the Judicial Council ordered Sooronkulova to step down before the expiration of her term and submitted all the documents to the parliament to pass a final decision.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted three times before it managed to reach 80 votes out of the 120 sitting MPs. According to Sooronkulova, “the situation is completely chaotic. It is clear that in between the votes, the President’s Office was working with MPs using different methods.” Sooronkulova also added that the head of the President’s Office was present during the voting.
Kyrgyzstan’s prominent civil society activists immediately issued a statement, describing the situation as a state of complete lawlessness. According to civil society activist Cholpon Zhakypova, Sooronkulova did not even have the opportunity to defend herself, speak in front of the parliamentarians and present evidence of direct pressure to the Constitutional Chamber. Indeed, Sooronkulova’s demand to address the parliament was rejected by its Speaker on the grounds that “there is no necessity to listen to Sooronkulova since we have received all the documents that prove she was in breach of her competencies and did not observe the required procedure.”
Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Chamber, which was a separate Constitutional Court before the country’s constitution was adopted in 2010, has become increasingly challenged over the past several months. Under the suggested terms of the upcoming amendments to the country’s constitution, the Constitutional Chamber risks turning itself into an institution that can only give decisions of recommendatory nature, paving the way for unconstitutional acts. Emil Oskonbaev, another judge in the Constitutional Chamber, was reprimanded for expressing his support to his now former colleague Sooronkulova.
Sooronkulova’s forced and controversial resignation favors the interpretation that the declared comprehensive reform of the judiciary, passed by a presidential decree in 2012, does not aim to turn it into an independent branch of power. The judiciary remains as dependent as ever.
By Mina Muradova (08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
After 17 days of competition, the first European Games have ended in Baku. Yet the crackdown on dissenting voices continues in Azerbaijan. The country will be remembered not only for its capable hosting of a major sporting event, but also for its silencing of critical voices in connection with the event.
Azerbaijan’s government hailed the games as a triumph and is now considering bidding for the Olympics. “The first European Games will go down in sporting history,” the Minister of Youth and Sport Azad Rahimov said in a statement on July 3. “I’m very proud of what has been achieved in Baku and the positive feedback we have been getting … It has been a success for Azerbaijan and will be a launch pad for future sporting events we will host. The coverage ... and the positive messages we have sent have really highlighted Azerbaijan on the world and European map.”
Next year, Azerbaijan will host the 42nd Chess Olympiad and a Formula One race through the streets of Baku. It will also stage the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 and soccer matches in the Euro 2020 competition.
According to Rahimov, “There is a new culture growing, this is very important, of supporting the development of sport … Every ticket sold is an important contribution to sustain and maintain our sporting arenas and develop our athletes in different sports.” Azerbaijan, enjoying loud support at every venue, has surprised many and was second in the medal table with 18 golds. Nearly 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competed in 20 sporting events at the Games that ended on June 28.
However, Azerbaijan was widely criticized before and during the games for politically motivated arrests and for banning the Guardian, along with a number of media outlets and human rights activists, from entering the country to cover the games.
Two days after the closing ceremony in the Baku Olympic Stadium, seating 68,000, the prominent human rights activist and director of Meydan TV Emin Milli posted that “It is remarkable that the government has started repressions against Meydan TV the day after the European Games’ closing ceremony. Several journalists from Meydan TV have been banned from leaving Azerbaijan, stopped at the border and were not allowed to come for a short trip to Tbilisi, Georgia. … from past cases, we may conclude that there is now a criminal case opened and an investigation going on against Meydan TV.”
On June 26, Milli reported that he had received a threat from Minister Rahimov, in connection with his critical reporting on the European Games. Meydan TV is a Berlin-based online television station that provides alternative news coverage of Azerbaijan. During the European Games, Meydan TV’s materials were widely used by international media, including critical cartoons, stories on an Azerbaijani bus driver who crashed into three Austrian swimmers and an interview by a national television station of a fake British tourist – both of which were highly embarrassing to the ruling regime.
International human rights watchdog organizations expressed their concerns over “an increase in the government harassment of independent journalists” in Azerbaijan in the wake of the European Games. “We fear that this growing harassment is a forerunner of a new crackdown targeting Meydan TV’s staff,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. There are currently about 100 political detainees, at least 20 of whom are identified as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.
Sport for Rights calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to put an end to their ongoing attempts to silence critical reporting, and to take immediate steps to improve fundamental freedoms in the country, including by releasing all the journalists and human rights defenders currently behind bars for political reasons.
The campaign further calls on the European Olympic Committees to speak out, publicly condemning the threat against Milli, as well as the broader human rights crackdown taking place in the country. Finally, Sport for Rights calls on German authorities to provide Milli with immediate and full protection.
By Eka Janashia (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Anti-western rhetoric has in recent years gained momentum in Georgian social networks, online media, and some radio and television channels. Behind the trend, observers easily detect Russian “soft power” promoted by certain Georgian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
An “Initiative group,” committed to inform the public about actions aiming to undermine Georgia’s independence, published the report “Russian influence on the Georgian non-governmental organizations and the media.” The document lists numerous pro-Russian NGOs, founded in Georgia mostly after the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition’s ascent to power in 2012, and presents a detailed analysis of their makeup and modus operandi.
According to the research, pro-Russian propaganda in Georgia’s civil sector stems from two key organizations: the “Eurasian Institute” (EI) and “Eurasian Choice” (EC), which have further spawned several other organizations and platforms.
EI is a founder of the “Young Political Scientists Club” and the “People’s Movement of Georgian-Russian Dialogue and Cooperation,” and is also a partner of “Historical Legacy” and the information portals “Sakinformi” and “Iverioni.” Historical Legacy, in turn, founded the online portal “Georgia and the World” (Geworld.ge). EI closely cooperates with various Russian organizations, including the “Caucasian Scientific Society.”
Another set of pro-Russian organizations – the “Erekle II Society” and the internet television “Patriot TV” are united under EC’s umbrella. The latter is also a partner of the “International Eurasian Movement,” led by prominent the ideologist of Kremlin expansionist policy Alexander Dugin.
While EI mainly focuses on analytical activities and outreach through organizing conferences and workshops, EC is committed to social activities by arranging protest rallies and demonstrations. The functional diversity makes the organizations effective in enhancing Russian soft power and churning anti-western rhetoric throughout Georgia.
Notably, the founders of pro-Russian NGOs as well as the participants of their conferences and meetings are mostly the same people. For example, the former public defender Nana Devdariani is a founder of several pro-Russian organizations, including “Caucasian Cooperation,” “The Center of Global Studies” and "People’s Orthodox Christian Movement.” The leader of EC, Archil Chkoidze, a person frequently quoted by Russian propaganda media, simultaneously established “Erekle II Society.”
As for cultural activities, EI conducts free Russian language courses for Georgian citizens with support of the Russian state-funded organization “Russkiy Mir.” Another Russian organization, “Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund,” launched the “Russian-Georgian Society Center” in Tbilisi which, among other activities, organizes tours for Georgian journalists in Russia.
In parallel, the multimedia project “Sputnik,” which is known as the locomotive of Russian propaganda media internationally, has also recently expanded its activities in Georgia. Although Georgia’s National Communications Commission deprived Sputnik of its radio broadcasting license, it has managed to secure a place in Georgia’s internet space by actively posting video materials and radio stories. Only a small share of pro-Russian NGOs in Georgia make the sources of their funding public.
The Initiative Group’s research unveils that Georgia’s pro-Russian NGOs are promoting a shift in public attitudes towards issues that were previously supported by a vast majority of the population. In a referendum held in 2008, 75 percent of the voters supported Georgia’s accession to NATO. Although the Georgian government has declared their country’s Euro-Atlantic course irreversible and that Georgia remains a committed partner to NATO and a contributor to Euro-Atlantic security, pro-Russian NGOs are cogently styling the West as an oppressor, propagating that it just needs “cheap” Georgian soldiers for its missions and will exploit the country’s territory for deployment of NATO bases and anti-missile weapons. A new referendum is therefore one of the priorities on the agenda of these NGOs.
Another component of the anti-Western discourse includes xenophobic and homophobic narratives where the U.S. and EU are depicted as destructive forces and threats to traditional social institutions in Georgia and Russia as a powerful defender of Orthodox Christianity. Most Georgians believe that Christianity is the foundation of their identity and faith the only means by which their culture can be preserved in the context of intensified globalization. Russian ideologists seek to leverage conservative attitudes among Georgians to alter the perceptions ensuing after the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, which strengthened the view of the Kremlin as the enemy and enhanced public support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. By labeling the EU as a protector of LGBT rights, Moscow seeks to change its role as an occupant into that of a generous guardian of Georgia’s historical values and identity. In this sense, the Kremlin also casts itself as a force against Islamic expansion. In 2014, EI along with the Institute of Strategic Studies, held a roundtable on the topic “Islamic ideology and security problems of the Caucasian region.” Pro-Russian NGOs promote an anti-Turkish narrative in Georgia and encourage the idea that it is better to be under Russian influence than becoming an object of the Islamic State’s expansion.
Another theme relates to the Kremlin’s “constructive” role in the resolution of Georgia’s conflicts. Proponents of this approach insist that if Georgia changes its Euro-Atlantic course and restore its strategic partnership with Russia, the latter will certainly support a peaceful settlement of the conflicts.
According to the report, the pro-Russian lineup has supporters in both the executive and legislative branches of the government. For example, the parliamentary majority member Gogi Topadze is well known for his anti-NATO statements.
While the activities of pro-Kremlin NGOs in Georgia will not easily affect the country’s foreign policy priorities, they will certainly contribute to the polarization of an already fragmented Georgian society and against the background of the country’s ongoing economic crisis, will also increase the skepticism of Western values.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On June 10, Kyrgyzstan marked the fifth anniversary of the tragic inter-ethnic violence that claimed more than 400 lives, displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed thousands of households. In the aftermath of the bloody events, the President of neighboring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, issued a statement that third forces provoked the clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and the Kyrgyz leadership agreed. However, recent developments indicate that Karimov’s position vis-à-vis the authorities in Bishkek and the conflict has changed into a more confrontational stance.
Karimov’s changing mood became apparent after his remarks to his Kyrgyz counterpart at the informal summit of the CIS states held in Moscow on May 8, in connection with the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the victory against Nazi Germany. At the summit, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev stated that, “It is of course sad that not everybody could make it to this summit because, to some extent, it is a tribute and respect for fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers who were in the war. I think that this day should remain in the memory of all countries because the future will punish those who forget the past.”
In response to this statement, the Uzbek President said that every democratically elected leader is in a position to decide what to celebrate and where, and no one has the right to force his opinion on others. Karimov continued by referring to his Kyrgyz colleague as simply “Almaz” and described his statements as incorrect and tactless. Atambayev interfered, stating that he was simply expressing his opinion, but Karimov ironically interrupted him by saying, “We all know your opinion already.”
Nevertheless, during his bilateral talks with the United Nations’ Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Karimov described the June 2010 events in southern Kyrgyzstan as a full-scale war. “Power holders in Kyrgyzstan did not draw any conclusions. The causes of the conflict need to be investigated at an international level,” Karimov noted, despite the fact that the inter-ethnic clashes were investigated by a national as well as an international commission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This is in stark contrast to the Andijan massacre of 2005, which were never evaluated either by national or international commissions.
Yet Karimov touched on a weak spot by pointing to Kyrgyzstan’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. Well-respected international human rights organizations have also called on the Kyrgyz authorities to retry all those convicted following the June 2010 inter-ethnic clashes, a trial that according to them saw ethnic Uzbeks sentenced at a higher proportion that then their Kyrgyz counterparts. Such a retrial would involve the case of the human rights defender and ethnic Uzbek Azimjan Askarov, sentenced to life for organizing mass disturbances and instigating inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. According to Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch, “In the case of Azimjan Askarov, the Kyrgyz justice system has utterly failed to deliver justice. The case was riddled with blatant flaws from start to finish, and it is astounding that the court did not order a thorough investigation into the way it was conducted.”
In general, Bishkek-Tashkent relations have always been uneasy. The two countries have been divided not only over the ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan, but also on numerous border conflicts and the constant struggle for water resources. According to local political analysts, Karimov’s increasingly critical statements addressed to Bishkek might be guided by geopolitical interests. In a number of interviews, Uzbekistan’s president has stated that Tashkent will not enter the Eurasian Economic Union, the Customs Union or any other alliance that is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, unlike Bishkek, which is pursuing the opposite foreign policy.
Also, earlier this year Kyrgyzstan approved the sale of its gas network to Russia’s Gazprom for the symbolic price of US$ 1 and is now receiving its energy supplies without any delay. This has removed Tashkent’s leverage, which it has previously deployed to bully Bishkek by cutting off supplies during winter. Such developments, along with Bishkek re-equipping its military with the Kremlin’s assistance might are indeed irritants to power holders in Tashkent.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.