Kyrgyzstan: President’s patriarchal turn threatens constitution, warn critics

Kyrgyzstan: President’s patriarchal turn threatens constitution, warn critics
Soul man: Japarov has positioned himself since coming to power as the traditionalist-in-chief. / Presidential administration
By Ayzirek Imanaliyeva for Eurasianet July 25, 2023

Earlier this month, Kyrgyz Facebook user Kamchybek Tashiyev took to his account and posted a crudely worded, two-line status update.

“No to ‘matronymics,’ whoever backed them should cancel [their decision]! That is my civic position!” he wrote without elaborating further.

Tashiyev is no ordinary citizen, though. He is the head of the State Committee for National Security, the successor agency to the KGB.

The decision he was referring to was a June 30 ruling by the Constitutional Court to allow citizens to be permitted, once they reach the age of 18, to adopt their mother’s name to form a matronymic. The custom now is the one originally adopted from Russia, wherein children are given a patronymic – the name of their father – as a second name.

In the instance of the litigant who first brought this case to the courts, Altyn Kapalova, her children would one day get to use Altynovna or Altynovich as their second names.

The Constitutional Court ruling was greeted as a victory in the battle against patriarchal norms in Kyrgyzstan, but the celebrations now look premature.

In a move that stands not only to reverse the matronymic breakthrough but also to undermine the independence of the judiciary, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov on July 17 proposed passing legislation to comply with Tashiyev’s wishes.

The specific provision of the draft bill suggested by Japarov is to allow the president to overrule Constitutional Court rulings whenever they are deemed to go against the “moral and ethical values ​​and public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic.”

Under the proposed legislation, the review can be triggered by the president or the chairman of the Constitutional Court.

As things stand now, the Constitution Court is the ultimate court of appeal, and its rulings are considered definitive.

Another section of Japarov’s bill stipulates that the court’s ruling may be revisited if the constitution itself has been amended or new and “significant” circumstances regarding the object of the case come to pass.

Under Japarov’s steamroller rule, the bill is unlikely to meet any institutional resistance. On July 17, Almazbek Moldobayev, the presidential representative to the Constitutional Court, described the proposal as a check on judicial error-making and a fillip for citizen rights.

“Nobody gives guarantees. Judges make mistakes too. Somebody might have given them the wrong documents … It will be the Constitutional Court itself that reviews the rulings, nobody will control them,” Moldobayev wrote in a Facebook post. “The president is the guarantor of the constitution. If the courts allow a mistake, he may make suggestions.”

It is unclear from either Japarov’s bill or Moldobayev’s remarks what the exact review mechanism would be.

This proposed legal tinkering has drawn sharp criticism among the civil society community.

Reacting to the Japarov bill, Tattuububu Ergeshbayeva, the director of Tandem, a coalition of law practitioners, wrote that what the president is putting forward violates the principle of the independence of the judiciary.

Ergeshbayeva said that it is only the Supreme Court – and not the president – that has the authority to initiate changes to the workings of the Constitutional Court.

“The proposal of the presidential administration to amend the constitutional law should be considered as an abuse of the powers of the president and a violation of constitutional rights,” Ergeshbayeva wrote on Facebook.

Commenting further beyond the legal aspect of the case, Ergeshbayeva argued that the backlash against matronymics should be considered “pseudo-patriotism” since this is an issue that will be relevant to only a small subset of citizens. And citing morality as grounds for law-making is a slippery slope, she argued.

“Public sentiment not based on facts and research cannot be the basis for taking decisions, just as morality cannot always be objectively measured,” she said.

Opposition lawmaker Dastan Bekeshev likewise spoke out against the president’s bill. Leaving the way for the Constitutional Court’s ruling to be overturned will lead to it being “neutered” as an institution, he said. Although public opinion may be opposed to matronymics, many fail to appreciate the implications of this proposal going into law, he argued.

“Few people realise that their right to appeal to the Constitutional Court will become meaningless,” he said.

By hitching his wagon to the anti-matronymic bandwagon, Japarov is further building his own brand as the nation’s traditionalist-in-chief.

From soon after he seized power in a violent street uprising in October 2020, Japarov placed morality and traditional values at the heart of his agenda. A bout of constitution-amending that began in late 2020 culminated in a ban on any material perceived as violating the values and traditions of Kyrgyzstan.

Among the first decrees that he adopted, in January 2021, were ones making the case for developing a “spiritual-moral development” agenda. That led later in the year to the adoption of an action plan that covered activities through 2026. This blueprint laid out a nine-point vision for addressing what officials had described as a “spiritual and moral crisis” and the need to “preserve and develop [Kyrgyz] heritage and traditions” in a period of globalisation.

In this particular instance, though, the ostensibly traditionalist agenda may be a means to an end. Japarov has already done much to limit the constraining capacity of other branches of government when it comes to his own authority.

It used to be the case that a president could be removed from office if he was accused by parliament of committing a crime, and if the state prosecutor concurred with this assessment. Since the latest round of changes to the constitution, it is now required that the Constitutional Court also confirm the legitimacy of any claims of criminal conduct made against the president.

That, of course, being the same body that Japarov wants to subject to nebulous morality standards that he himself has devised.

Political scientist Emil Juraev told Eurasianet that he believes that Japarov’s legislative commitment to spirituality and morality may be an expedient since it achieves the double whammy of giving him a populist message with which to sway the public and offers him the opportunity to introduce power-boosting loopholes.

“It is clear that this bill will weaken the independence of the Constitutional Court and its rulings, and it will leave the way open for the country’s leadership to resort to these provisions when a … ruling does not suit their interests,” he said.

Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.