The President of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, has told IDLO Director-General Irene Khan that creating an independent judiciary is crucial to shaping his country into the region’s democracy engine. The pledge came as Ms Khan visited Bishkek in early March, in a sign of support for the ailing state.
Central Asia’s freest country is also its second poorest, with a barely functioning, severely underfunded judiciary. Less than one percent of a meagre national budget is allocated to the sector. Political arguments have held up confirmation and selection of judges, with more than 400 stuck in professional limbo, and none newly selected. A perception endures — including among judges themselves — that the judiciary is, in effect, an extension of the government and legislature. Chaos and corruption blight the system: correspondents report verdicts passed on a Monday, only to be overturned on the Thursday.
Yet Kyrgyzstan, Ms Khan said, “deserves to be better known and better helped.” And as he laid the groundwork for her visit, the man who runs IDLO’s five-year program in the country sounded upbeat. “We’re hopeful that the judge confirmation logjam will be broken in the next thirty days,” Fred Huston stressed, on the line from Bishkek. “And there are good rumblings within both the government and the court system.”
During Ms Khan’s meeting with President Atambaev, those rumblings turned into firm commitments. What IDLO was hoping to achieve in five years, the Kyrgiz leader said, he wanted done in one. Drawing on local folk lore, he asked for a sword to fight the battle while it was raging.
Mr Atambaev, who has a record of pro-democracy statements, took over last December, after Central Asia’s most open election to date. Political life in Kyrgyzstan is freer than anywhere in the region, and civil society singularly dynamic. But the country remains fragile: it only overthrew authoritarian rule in 2010, and lost hundreds of its citizens — many of them minority Uzbeks — to interethnic strife just months later. Democratic institutions have yet to take root, with the south in particular racked by instability. Ms Khan’s visit coincided with a the staging of a mass protest there.
Rights organizations say torture in custody remains a problem, as does the courts’ reliance on evidence obtained through its use. The lack of a clean, independent judiciary further shackles Kyrgyzstan’s frail economy: weak and poorly enforced property rights have combined with the recent turmoil to deter foreign investment in Kyrgyz mines, a source of great potential wealth.
All of which only seems to spur Fred Huston on. His voice becomes animated as he details the various fronts he and his small team are working on: training in the judicial sector, promoting integrity ¬(Kyrgyzstan ranks a dismal 164th out of 182 nations surveyed by Transparency International) and grooming the sector to independence.
IDLO’s man in Bishkek knows full well that even with President Atambaev’s endorsement, an independent judiciary will take a while to emerge. But a consensus may just be forming among the Kyrgyz that whether it happens in a year, or five, or ten, the goal is worth striving for.