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KYRGYZSTAN: Election Falls Short for Intl Observers

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Jul 28 2009 (IPS) - Several days after what many have called an unfair election in the Kyrgyz Republic, the U.S. has shown its own reluctant agreement.

“The United States shares the concerns voiced by many observers of the Kyrgyz Republic’s Jul. 23 presidential election,” said the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, in a statement on Tuesday.

“While the electoral process had some positive elements, the United States concurs with the preliminary findings of independent observer groups like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that the election failed to meet many of the Kyrgyz Republic’s international commitments,” the statement said.

Kyrgyzstan’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, won reelection with 76.4 percent of the vote, the Central Asian country’s electoral authority said on Monday, citing final results from Thursday’s disputed election.

“More than 1.7 million voters, or 76.4 percent their ballots for Kurmanbek Bakiyev,” Central Election Commission member Toktogul Sultakayev told reporters.

Official results gave opposition challenger Almazbek Atambayev eight percent of the vote.

Atambaev, a former prime minister, withdrew from the election before voting had concluded, claiming that there was widespread fraud.

He said his monitors had documented cases of widespread ballot stuffing, and that a number of his monitors had been harassed. But the central election commission said it had no evidence of serious violations.

“The Central Election Commission has concluded that violations reported during the vote did not influence the results in general,” commission chairman Damir Lisovsky said.

Most foreign assessments of the election have been negative, though the Russia-led alliance of former Soviet republics, the Commonwealth of Independent States, announced Friday the elections were “open and free”.

European monitors on Friday described the conduct of Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election as a “disappointment”, saying that it failed to meet key international standards.

“Sadly, this election did not show the progress we were hoping for and it again fell short of key standards Kyrgyzstan has committed to as a participating state of the OSCE,” said Radmila Sekerinska, the head of the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

“Election day was marred by many problems and irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, inaccuracies in the voter lists and multiple voting,” the OSCE said in a statement on Friday.

“The process further deteriorated during the vote count and the tabulation of results, with observers evaluating this part of the process negatively in more than half of observations,” the statement continued.

Sweden, the European Union’s presidency, agreed Friday, saying that the election had fallen short of acceptable standards.

“The presidency is concerned that… the Jul. 23 presidential elections failed to meet key OSCE commitments for democratic elections, including the commitment to maintain a clear separation between the ruling party and the state,” Sweden said in a statement.

The OSCE also said Bakiyev used administrative resources to ensure his reelection, and that campaigning in the Central Asian state was uneven, with candidates having unequal access to the media.

The Alliance of Civic Organizations for Voters’ Rights, which had 2,886 short-term observers at 1,403 polling stations to monitor the election, concluded that “the polling process included serious violations, such as ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, and intimidation of voters and observers.”

Several quasi-government democracy promotion groups agreed with the findings, poiting out that these violations have been a continuation of the government’s lack of concern for human rights.

Prior to the election, the International Republican Institute said that, “President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s efforts to consolidate power in recent years have resulted in a significant reversal of the democratic advances made since 2005.”

Its assessment of the situation leading up to the election showed a great deal of hostility toward the opposition in Kyrgyzstan. “In this election cycle, voters are reporting that they are afraid to attend opposition campaign events because of strong police presence and the fear of harassment,” the Institute said in a statement. “Opposition voices have little media access and attacks on journalists have been on the rise.”

Kyrgyzstan’s election fits a disturbing pattern Freedom House has observed over the last five years in which elections in a number of former-Soviet states have become increasingly uncompetitive and unfair, the organisation said in a statement.

“These elections should be seen in the context of an overall worsening environment,” said Miriam Lanskoy, senior programme officer for Central Asia and the Caucuses at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Kyrgyz Republic gained independence in 1991. Bakiyev took power after the 2005 Tulip Revolution ousted a government considered to be corrupt.

Though there were positive trends toward democracy in the beginning of his presidency, these halted in 2006, said Lanskoy. Bakiyev’s regime has been accused of violence against opposition politicians and journalists in the past year leading up to the election.

Amnesty International’s latest assessment of the state of human rights in the Kyrgyz Republic, “Human Rights Concerns in Central Asia,” shows the former Soviet nation to be lacking in all aspects, including religious freedom; state of human rights defenders, refugees, and asylum seekers; freedom of expression; and freedom of assembly.

Kyrgyzstan has recently been the subject of a tug of war between the U.S. and Russia. It is the only country in the world that hosts separate military bases for the two countries, which see its position in central Asia as key to maintaining their influence in the region.

In 2001, after its incursion into Afghanistan, the U.S. opened Manas Air Base outside of Bishkek in order to help its military operations there. Earlier this year, after receiving a roughly 2 billion dollar package of loans and aid from Russia, President Bakiyev vowed to close the base.

Some experts opine that this move was meant only to exert more money from the U.S. In June, Bakiyev recanted the closure and it was announced that the rent on Manas would increase to 60 million dollars annually from 17.4 million, and Kyrgyzstan was to receive more than 100 million dollars in other grants.

This month, the Kyrgyz government also announced that it may let Russia open another air base, its second in the country.

The U.S.’ delayed and guarded reaction to the election, as well as its lack of criticism of Bakyiev’s obvious violations of human rights in the past year, may be the result of a desire to maintain good relations with Bakiyev, according to some. The U.S., which lost its military base in Uzbekistan in 2005 after its critique of the government for its handling of protests, does not want to muddy relations with Bakyiev in order to maintain the crucial base.

Atambayev’s campaign manager, Bakyt Beshimov, told the Wall Street Journal on Friday “he doesn’t expect any harsh criticism from Washington because ‘the U.S. only seems to care about the base.'”

“‘It is a very cynical game being played here in Central Asia,'” he said. Members of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition plan to hold demonstrations on Wednesday to protest the final results of the country’s presidential elections, Atambayev said on Tuesday.

“The country’s united opposition has called for all citizens to come onto the streets on Jul. 29 for peaceful demonstrations, protests and other peaceful actions to protect our rights and freedom, in a protest against the unprecedented falsifications during presidential elections,” Atambayev said at a press conference in Bishkek.

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