US Policy on Kyrgyzstan, Real & Imagined

by Nathan Hamm on 3/18/2005 · 3 comments

First, here is US Ambassador Stephen Young’s March 16th Press Conference via the Kyrgyz Elections listserve and its superb moderator, Dr. David Mikosz of IFES. On the second page of this post, find details of a hoax document allegedly coming from the US embassy that is floating around on the internet.

I know this is long, so I’ll highlight what I found to be a key element and a reminder of what US policy towards Kyrgyzstan is in regards to elections and democracy.

As you’ve heard me say before, the United States has not, nor will it in the future, support individual candidates or political parties. But we will continue to work both with the government and the NGO community to support the sort of programs we have conducted in the past, to educate voters, train local election commission members and observers, underwrite the expenses of the very successful program to use indelible ink, and so forth.

For our commitment is to improving the process, and I emphasize that word process, so that the citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic can make informed choices about who will govern them in a fair and open process.

Ambassador Young’s press conference
March 16, 2005

I’d like to thank you all for coming, and AkiPress for arranging this press conference today. I’d like to particularly thank my friend Marat Tazebekov for hosting this press conference and for running one of the most respected establishments for hosting press conferences in Bishkek and now in Osh too. I am very glad to see that the electricity is on today. But as a former boy scout, I always want to be prepared. So I brought a lantern in case it goes out (holds up small keychain flashlight).

I’m going to begin with a short statement and then I’ll be pleased to take questions from you.

As I have said before, my mission as U.S. Ambassador here has been to support the efforts of the people and government of Kyrgyzstan to promote a stable, prosperous and democratic society.

Frankly, I was surprised last fall when some commentators questioned this statement, as if it somehow was inappropriate for a foreign diplomat to speak in this manner. For I consider these to be shared goals with both the people and government of Kyrgyzstan, and I am very proud of the work that the dedicated men and women in my Embassy perform toward this end.

It has been in this spirit that we have worked very hard with all sectors of society to support an election process that was free, fair, transparent and met international standards.

As noted in the OSCE/ODIHR report which was issued on Monday (3/14), the results of Sunday’s second round of balloting were mixed, with some improvements alongside significant remaining shortcomings.

On the positive side:

There was the presence of independent observers and representatives of candidates and parties in the local voting stations, which was a real step forward, as was the use of indelible ink and transparent ballot boxes; and also the ability of observers to get copies of the protocols immediately following the counting. We welcome the decision to allow greater political party and NGO participation on electoral commissions. Finally, I have been most impressed at the restraint that both demonstrators and the militia have displayed in recent weeks, as both sides honor the right to free assembly.

On the other side, however, the entire process was marred by a number of measures that did not provide a level playing field for all candidates:

For example, administrative and sometimes judicial deregulation of some independent candidates, harassment of the independent media, bias on the part of the pro-government media and numerous reports of interference in the campaign by government organs on behalf of their preferred candidates. I was also disturbed by reports of rampant vote buying by candidates on all sides.

The result was that, despite notable signs of progress, these negative tendencies have damaged Kyrgyzstan’s reputation for promoting democracy.

The fact that demonstrations have occurred in several corners of the country is a sign that many Kyrgyz citizens felt disappointed by their government’s failure to run a truly free, fair and transparent process, not only during the balloting itself, but throughout the campaigning period.

As you’ve heard me say before, the United States has not, nor will it in the future, support individual candidates or political parties. But we will continue to work both with the government and the NGO community to support the sort of programs we have conducted in the past, to educate voters, train local election commission members and observers, underwrite the expenses of the very successful program to use indelible ink, and so forth.

For our commitment is to improving the process, and I emphasize that word process, so that the citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic can make informed choices about who will govern them in a fair and open process.

We look forward to supporting these goals in the months between now and this October’s Presidential campaign and election.

There is much more to our relationship than the promotion of democracy, important as that is. I am also proud of the programs we have to support education, exchanges, healthcare, economic reform and development, as well as our extensive cooperation in the security field. The coalition airbase at Manas, which President Akayev visited in January, is a strong symbol of this cooperation, aimed at strengthening Kyrgyz military forces’ ability to defend their borders against terrorism, narcotics trafficking and other threats. We look forward to continuing all of these programs in partnership with the Kyrgyz government and people.

Thank you. I’m prepared to take your questions, and I ask you to identify yourself and your media organization when you ask the question.

National TV (Government TV station, reach of 3 million): The OSCE recognized the past elections as a significant step forward compared with the last one. Do you agree with this assessment?

Yes, as I’ve said, we agree with the assessment both of the first round and the second round that OSCE and ODIHR has produced. I think it’s possible to say that the actual day of the voting, on the 27th of February and the 13th of March, was a step forward for Kyrgyzstan in promoting transparency. And in that regard, Kyrgyzstan continues to be a leader in Central Asia. But, the fact is that many of the problems we’ve seen in the campaigns tarnish that image. For example, the removal by local election commissions or local courts of several candidates took the choice out of the hands of the country’s voters. And in particular those decisions seemed to be made arbitrarily and without equal application of the law throughout the country. I think that if you look at the reaction of the voters in Kochkor and Tunsky election districts, you can see that they were very disappointed, in that they chose by overwhelming majorities to vote for none of the candidates presented to them. That is a strong rebuke to those who thought that they should take candidates off the ballot. And attempts to intimidate the independent media during the campaign were also very unhelpful.

I discussed all these things with President Akayev in a meeting I had with him last Wednesday. I urge the government to carefully investigate the many claims of violations during the campaign and on the election days, and try to correct these problems so that they do not mar the presidential election this fall. The United States has released a press statement on the elections that is available here and you can get a copy at the end of the press conference. The goal is not simply to criticize, but to work with the Kyrgyz government and people to improve the situation. Because the creation of a modern and mature democracy is a long-term process, and Kyrgyzstan is on the right path, thought much work remains to be done.

Turkish Press Agency: You have said that the Manas Airbase is a symbol of your relations with Kyrgyzstan. Recently, there were some talks regarding AWACS planes. Will there be further talks or are they over? And secondly, will your policies change regarding the presidential elections after seeing how the parliamentary elections went?

On AWACS, as I’ve said before, there’s not an issue here. We’ve never made a specific request for AWACS so it’s not an issue. To answer your second question, obviously the attention of all of us is turning to question of the elections in October. I would like to take this opportunity to make a couple of observations. First of all, it’s very important, as I’ve said, that lessons learned during these elections be applied to the next elections, so that we continue to work together to improve the infrastructure of democracy in this country.

I’d like to make a few comments about President Akayev. President Akayev has said he will not run, and we respect that. The constitution says that he cannot run, and we respect that. President Akayev has said he will not change the constitution, and we respect that pledge, for to our thinking, constitutions should be changed rarely and with great care. It seems to me, given these facts, that it would be highly contradictory if President Akayev permitted his supporters to launch a campaign to change the constitutional ruling on term limits. President Akayev has done a great deal to develop a modern Kyrgyzstan in the last 14 years, so he will leave a legacy that he should be proud of. I also think his decision to step down this fall would mark a major advance in the development of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy, and serve as a powerful example to other states in the region.

MSN (Independent, opposition newspaper, circ. 8,000): Ambassador Young, how would you comment on the fact that in Jalalabad the government has practically no power and instead there is a so-called popular or people’s government? Yesterday people in Jalalabad elected their own government and decided who will represent them.

Thank you for your question and thank you MSN for continuing to provide different points of view for the readers of Kyrgyz newspapers. I must say that I’ve been disappointed by attempts to intimidate your newspaper in this period of election campaigning because I think that they damage Kyrgyzstan’s reputation for free media. As to the demonstrations in Jalalabad, I think the important thing is that both sides respect the right of free assembly and free speech and do nothing to raise the prospect of violence or conflict as a result of the demonstrations, not just in Jalalabad, but in Uzgen, Osh, KaraSuu, Talas, Kochkor, Bakanbaeva and Naryn. It is a positive development that both sides have shown great restraint in allowing these demonstrations to go forward and allowing people to express themselves.

As an observer of Kyrgyz politics, I have been somewhat disappointed to see the great gap between the government and the opposition. There is insufficient effort by one side to understand the other. Because a core concept that is associated with democracy is that of mutual respect, acknowledging that all parties in the political process are, in their own way, talking about their concern to make the country of Kyrgyzstan stronger and more democratic. And, unfortunately, I have the impression as I follow the debates here, that the government has sought to demonize the opposition, that is to paint them in a very negative and unrealistic light. What is needed is more dialogue, I think, between the two sides, and I think, mutual respect. I have to say on the part of the opposition, sometimes they have made very strong statements about the government. There needs to be more of an attempt to find common ground and identify the problems that have created this great gap.

I’m going to give you an example that particularly disturbs me. Roza Otunbayeva, former Foreign Minister and Ambassador to both the United States and London, had a grenade thrown at her apartment a few weeks ago. There was an investigation that confirmed that it was a grenade, undertaken by the government’s law enforcement agencies. But I think the claim by the Presidential spokesman that this was a publicity attempt organized by Ms. Otunbayeva is outrageous. To me, unless they are able to present proof to the public that this in fact the case, the government has no business making such an accusation. Instead I think that the efforts of the government should be to find out who perpetrated this crime and to bring them to justice. I use that example because I think it demonstrates how the two sides aren’t talking to each other and they’re not trying to understand each other, and I think that that’s a real weakness in the current stage of democracy in the country.

The Australian: Ambassador Young, could you describe your office’s relationship with the Kyrgyz government at this time?

I think that we have a very good relationship. I think that we have a candid one in which we can speak clearly with each other. I think that the United States has done a lot to support development in Kyrgyzstan over the last 14 years and we look forward to continuing that relationship. I believe that our security partnership has brought an improved security environment not only to Kyrgyzstan, but has improved security throughout Central Asia and Afghanistan. I appreciate my ability to go in to see any member of this government or the presidential administration and get a cordial reception and exchange views in a candid and friendly manner.

Interfax (Russian press agency): Mr. Young, you talked about the necessity of dialogue between the government and the opposition. Considering that the opposition has demanded for an early resignation of the president and the president himself in yesterday’s TV appearance said the organizers of disturbances would be brought to responsibility, who, in your opinion, will lead the dialogue? And what are your comments to the opposition’s argument that the parliament is illegitimate and their demands to hold another election.

Well, I think that’s why the dialogue is so necessary. Obviously they’re talking past one another. But, again, as far as demonstrations are concerned, they need to be peaceful, orderly and legal. And I think it’s very important that both sides demonstrate maximum restraint, as they have thus far, in order to ensure that there’s no escalation of tensions, no clashes, no violence.

Limon (independent, youth-oriented weekly newspaper, circ. 5,000): The recent decision of the Paris Club was understood as an approval of all these events. How would you comment on this?

Thank you for that question. There was no connection between last Friday’s Paris Club decision to reduce and restructure Kyrgyzstan’s international debt burden — under what is known as the Evian Approach — and the recent elections. I was pleased to see that the International Monetary Fund presented a favorable report of Kyrgyzstan performance under the last Poverty Reduction and Stabilization Program. For it is entirely due to this country’s successful macro-economic programs and its commitment to undertake necessary economic reforms that it has received this favorable treatment by its bilateral creditors. What is important now is that Kyrgyzstan utilizes this debt relief to continue restructuring its economy, improving the climate for both domestic and international investors, adopting an anti-corruption program with real effectiveness, and otherwise bolstering its reputation as one of the most progressive economies in the region. For the real measure of economic success will be when Kyrgyzstan moves from working to reduce its debt burden to managing a strong investment climate that brings businessmen and investors from around the world, including from America, here to participate in your country’s development. As a member of both the Investment Council and the Council on Good Governance, I have a personal stake is this process, and will continue to do all I can to register real progress in both areas.

Agence France Press: Recently the President’s Press Secretary said that the opposition might force the President to announce a referendum for another term in office, while the President said in Moscow that he hopes to control the country for many years to come. What are you comments on this?

Well, President Akayev can do a lot as a former president. We have a fine tradition of former presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. and now Bill Clinton who make a great contribution to their country, so I welcome that role for him. And, as far as your first question is concerned, I didn’t take that as a serious suggestion, I thought that was sort of a joke. Mr. Sigizbayev is a real joker.

Delo No (independent, criminal reporting, circ. 25,000): Can you please confirm or refute the information about your alleged appointment as the director of the American Institute in Taiwan? Is this information true? If yes, what are the reasons of your appointment?

I figured this question would come up. First of all, I want to say how proud I am to be the American Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, and how much I enjoy my work. But when I was asked to take this job in 2003 I requested that my assignment be limited to two years, because I was unable to bring my wife and three children with me. So there’s no truth whatsoever to the allegation that I am being recalled or sent home early. I have worked in Taiwan before, so I know the Taiwan media is much like the Kyrgyz media, prone to much speculation. And the story about my possible posting back to Taipei, while flattering, is pure speculation. I serve here at the will of President Bush, and until he indicates it is time for me to move on, I will continue to concentrate all my efforts on advancing American interests in the Kyrgyz Republic.

National TV (Government TV station, reach of 3 million): Mr. Ambassador, we would like to hear your comments on separatism and on some group’s call to separate the south from Kyrgyzstan.

I think the respect for the territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan is very important to stability in the region. We all know that Stalin drew some strange borders to the Republics back in his heyday. Therefore I am very respectful and impressed by the efforts of the Kyrgyz people and the people in the other Republics in Central Asia to create a sense that all the peoples along the borders are equal members within their societies. So I don’t think that there’s any question that separatism should be discouraged, but I really don’t feel that there’s a strong move toward separatism in this country or frankly in any other part of Central Asia. I would suggest, from my own personal view from having visited the south seven times, that it would be helpful if the borders with Uzbekistan were not so tightly regulated. Because this is an important precondition both for economic transactions and for the flow of people.

KOORT (Pro-government TV, reach 3 million): Coming back to the events in Jalalabad, we would like to know your opinion regarding the methods of the demonstrators in reaching their aims, including taking over the administration buildings and blocking the roads.

Well, I think that the passions of this election have caused some crowds to be very upset with some of the things that have taken place. And as I’ve said, I think it’s important to review some of those steps and try to rectify them if possible. But any such demonstration must be peaceful, orderly and respecting the laws of the country.

Turkish Press Agency: Do you think the U.S. government could become a mediator in the dialogue between the government and the opposition?

I don’t think that that issue has come up. We would do what we could to support such a dialogue, but I think that it has to be between the two parties.
Can I say one last thing please. I want to simply make you aware that as of today, and we’ve warned of this, the old Kyrgyz passport will no longer be recognized by the United States for entry into the United States. And we have a statement that we can make available to you that explains in more detail what’s going on there. The new passport looks like this one, which is my personal sample copy.

Journalists approach table after conference ends

Pyramida TV (Independent TV, reach 3 mil): Excuse me. I want to clarify. Will you be assigned as American ambassador in Taiwan?

No, as I said, these were just rumors. We do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. We have an unofficial office, which is called the American Institute in Taiwan. Before I worked as the deputy. Regarding my future work, I cannot add anything to what I have already said.

MSN: Do you know that Vecherniy Bishkek wrote that the Paris Club had written off all our $450 million debt? They are deliberately misleading us, or as we say pretending to be fools. Doesn’t [Evgeniy] Denisenko [PAS: head of the political office at Vecherniy Bishkek] know what he is writing?

You can find more details on this issue on the Paris Club’s website.

MSN: We know that, and Vecherka knows, too.

Most importantly, Kyrgyzstan has a program of macroeconomic development in bilateral relations with creditors and members of the Paris Club. Their decision was based on…(cut off)

MSN: But, the point is that we are being lied to!

Write it in MSN. It is important that readers read your assessment. We will support your right to operate to the end.

UNKNOWN: Is there freedom of press in Kyrgyzstan?

It is not sufficient. In one respect I am very disappointed that the electronic media is almost entirely controlled by the Government. Unfortunately the bulk of the people of Kyrgyzstan do not read newspapers, but instead watch television or listen to the radio. And that’s why it’s so important that Azattyk radio is not restricted in their ability to broadcast all over the country. As Kyrgyzstan modernizes, I think it’s going to be important to create independent television and radio stations so that there will be different points of view, not only in the newspapers, but in all of the media.

I think that the attempts to harass the Freedom House printing press were also very unfortunate. I had a dialogue with a number of high level Kyrgyz officials, who all assured me that it was merely a “technical problem.” There is a good Russian expression for this: «this is not accidental!» I am pleased that the electricity has now been restored, but I think that this was a rather poor page in the Government’s respect for freedom of media during this important election period. Because the independent printing press, the first of its kind in Kyrgyzstan or in all of Central Asia, has been a major step forward in promoting press freedom in this country.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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