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Kyrgyzstan Reaches Out to Europe – While Inching Closer to Russia

EU leaders should encourage president to drop anti-gay laws and free political prisoners

Published in: The Guardian

(Berlin)—President Almazbek Atambaev of Kyrgyzstan, one of Central Asia’s smaller and poorer republics, is a man in a hurry.

Last week he was in Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin on closer bilateral ties. This week and next he’s in Europe for talks with leaders in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere to “deepen the political dialogue”, as his spokesperson puts it, between Kyrgyzstan and Europe. He will meet European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels today.

On his returns his agenda will shift gears again, as he oversees Kyrgyzstan’s entry in May into the Eurasian Economic Union, the economic trading club including Russia and other former Soviet countries. And in the autumn Kyrgyzstan will hold elections, which, the president and government hope, will reinforce the former Soviet republic’s reputation as a vibrant parliamentary democracy – the only one among the five Central Asian states.

Atambaev’s busy schedule highlights the challenges Kyrgyzstan faces, in a region already overshadowed by both the Ukraine crisis and concerns over the rising threat of extremism. As Bishkek moves to tie its economy more closely to Russia’s, it also says it remains committed to a democratic political path. It became a parliamentary democracy in 2010, peacefully transferred presidential power in 2011, and has a vibrant civil society.

The European Union and member states have an important role to play as a supportive – but also plain-talking – partner for the country’s economic and political reform process. On human rights, Europe’s leaders need to remind Atambaev of his country’s international commitments, especially to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and restrictions on non-governmental organisations.

The mountainous country of 5.7 million people went through traumatic ethnic violence in June 2010, in which hundreds were killed and thousands injured. The failure to provide justice for the victims of this violence or to hold those responsible to account is major unfinished business. Azimjon Askarov, 63, a human rights defender convicted for alleged involvement in the violence, remains in prison for life, despite an unfair trial and credible allegations of torture in custody.

Yet Atambaev can point to some positive developments. Since 2010 the government has pushed some human rights reforms, such as creating a national torture prevention mechanism. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch representatives earlier this year, a senior government official seemed open to addressing proposals made by other countries, via the UN, for human rights improvements in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile the head of the parliament’s human rights committee stressed the need for more discussion of human rights, among MPs, in public and in cooperation with civil society.

On both counts this felt like a breath of fresh air, in a region where human rights are under near-constant attack and in some cases open discussion of the topic could land you in prison.

Europe’s politicians should seize Kyrgyzstan’s openness to discuss human rights and other issues to remind Atambaev of the importance of respect for human rights and rule of law. In this regard, there’s plenty of work for Kyrgyzstan to do.

An anti-gay “propaganda” bill under debate in parliament, would, if adopted, violate free speech and freedom of assembly, and inevitably encourage discrimination and violence against LGBT people.

Modelled in part on a similar law in Russia, the bill aims to silence anyone seeking to openly share information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan.

Another draft bill that would require NGOs that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” should also be scrapped.

Both drafts have been heavily criticised by the US, UN bodies and others, while in January the European Parliament also issued a resolution against Kyrgyzstan’s “propaganda” bill. Atambaev, who can veto this bill, should not be swayed by MPs who say they are standing up for the country’s “traditional values”. He should side with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, which bans such discrimination.

A spokesperson for Atambaev claimed last week that Europe supports Kyrgyzstan’s chosen political path. To that end, European leaders have an excellent opportunity to send the unequivocal message that the country could do more to address long-standing abuses, including by releasing Askarov.

Last year Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to gain special “partnership for democracy” status with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. And the EU recently praised the “Kyrgyz leadership for efforts to stabilise a parliamentary democracy in the country in a challenging context”.

Now is the time for Europe’s leaders to be clear with Atambaev on the steps necessary to ensure that the warm words don’t dry up.

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