Strange things happen in Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital. One morning this autumn the sounds of loud protests outside parliament almost drowned out conversation in our meeting nearby.
That wouldn’t stand out in cities where street protests are common. But it’s highly unusual in Central Asia - where prison sentences, even torture, can await protesters who question their governments.
The government’s willingness to allow such protests is at the heart of why President Almazbek Atambaev will be shaking hands with Angela Merkel in her chancellery on Tuesday.
Many policymakers in Germany and elsewhere see Kyrgyzstan as the beacon of hope in an important but troubled region. Yet worrying human rights trends in the country mean that Berlin should not simply pat Bishkek on the back that day for being seemingly different from the rest of Central Asia. Unless Merkel reminds her guest that Kyrgyzstan needs to live up to the international standards it has committed itself to, the visit could do more harm than good, in the region as well.
Central Asia is significant for the West for its natural resources and strategic location, especially as troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Yet Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the world’s most authoritarian and brutal regimes, and human rights have recently worsened dramatically in Kazakhstan, the region’s dominant player. Tajikistan is repressive and unstable.
In contrast, small and poor Kyrgyzstan, with 5.5m people, $1,000 GDP per capita, has at least recently embarked on some political reforms. It is the region’s only parliamentary democracy, and the election that brought Atambaev to power in October 2011, though marred by irregularities, was the first time in post-Soviet Central Asia that presidential power changed hands via the ballot box. Libel has been decriminalized, most opposition figures and activists can operate freely, and a there is a new mechanism to tackle the problem of torture in detention.
Yet if you scratch the surface, serious human rights abuses are alarmingly common, especially linked to the inter-ethnic violence in June 2010 in the southern part of the country. The violence left hundreds dead, thousands injured, and many homeless, exposing deep ethnic tensions, especially aimed at the country’s minority Uzbek population.
Although the situation in the south has largely stabilized, ethnic Uzbeks remain subject to detention and extortion schemes without redress. Hundreds of mostly ethnic Uzbek defendants have been found guilty in flawed trials over their involvement in the unrest, based primarily on confessions that many alleged were coerced under torture. A prominent human rights defender, Azimjon Askarov, is serving a life sentence following a flawed trial linked to the unrest and torture in detention.
There are recent worrying signs of new abuses with the same old impunity. In October, two ethnic Uzbek men were given life sentences for alleged involved in the 2010 violence, after flawed trials. In one case, hearings were marked by attacks on the defendant and his lawyers, and allegations of torture (despite the torture prevention mechanism).
Last month the GKNB, Kyrgyzstan’s security agency, summoned five human rights defenders and others for questioning after they met with an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental group, during a trip to the south. On November 17, security agents temporarily detained the analyst and illegally searched and interrogated him, without explanation.
In moves that violate the government’s commitments to free expression, authorities restricted access to Ferghana.ru, a prominent Central Asia news website, and banned a documentary film about gay Muslims from a human rights film festival in Bishkek.
Still, the chancellor was right to invite Atambaev to Germany. Such gestures send important signals. Yet signals need to be combined with other clear messages.
During our meetings in Bishkek, a European diplomat told us with a sigh that visiting political delegations from Europe often come “wearing rose-tinted spectacles” regarding Kyrgyzstan’s progress. “I have to tell them – ‘Don’t get too excited, there are certainly serious problems here,’” the diplomat said.
Merkel should not fall into the same trap. She should, of course, welcome Bishkek’s positive steps, but also insist that the measuring sticks Germany cares about are international human rights standards and the rule of law - not questionable comparisons with Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours.
Mihra Rittmann is a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Hugh Williamson is Europe & Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.