An analysis of the Kyrgyz tradition of ‘Kurultay’ and its contemporary use

Thursday 7 January 2021

Ernest Zhanaev is a MECACS postgraduate student.  He is a researcher and he formerly worked as a human rights advocate in Kyrgyzstan 

Kyrgyzstan has drafted its new Constitution and has forced its discussion and adoption in a short time, in a rush to gain legitimacy after a brief and relatively bloodless coup. The currently effective Constitutional Law prohibits amendments up to 2020. It is worth noting that each coup brought about a new constitution, rather than amending past ones, which had been the case when the power was continuous. 

The discussion on the wider and bigger roles of Kurultay has been simmering for years, if not decades. It includes proposals to make Kurultay a substitute for the high chamber of the Kyrgyz parliament which was dismantled during the Tulip Revolution in 2005. The term Kurultay is now a centre of the draft text proposed by the incumbent government and parliament.

Sadyr Japarov, who had been released from prison during the uprising in October 2020, after the controversial parliamentary election and who had his conviction quashed, has led the Kyrgyz government for some time before becoming the main contender in the presidential election Kyrgyzstan set for 10 January 2020. Japarov, promoting his constitutional reform to be held as a referendum on the same day with the presidential election after the incumbent president Jeenbekov has resigned before the end of his term, insists that “the people’s Kurultay will be an effective leverage to control government’s work”.

The presidential candidate also shed a light on how many members will form Kurultay – once a year “about 2,000 representatives will convene and hear the presidential and parliamentary report” and “this will be a people’s control over government”.

An ancient institution, Kurultay is mostly known when associated with the military council of Genghis Khan. Comparison with traditional institutions in other countries would not be appropriate due to substantial differences. This particular example in Kyrgyzstan is indeedsomehow unique. Traditionalists see it as a continuation of the pre-Russian Kyrgyz customs when Kyrgyz tribes practised a relatively independent life and coordinated their efforts to protect themselves from external aggression by gathering and counselling at Kurultay. 

According to the Regulations (there is still no law), Kurultay is a representational form of local community members to discuss important issues of a local community and local authorities’ reports. The creation of a national Kurultay would be new. 

While in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan the national leader’s role is proclaimed by the law, Kyrgyzstan, it seems, would join them by adopting specific norms that shield the President from potential criticism of undermining democratic principles. Kyrgyzstan is already under fire after the Venice Commission concluded that the incumbent parliament should not push for constitutional reform before its re-election after the last one failed. 

It is still unknown what would be the role of the soon to be established Kurultay and whethersuch a norm will be adopted in the Constitution. The current procedure on how Kurultayfunctions is already encased into the legal regulations in Kyrgyzstan, signed by the President, that stipulates the consulting role of the body. 

Initially, Kurultay was supposed to alleviate cleavages between the South and the North in the country and had, and still retains, the power to direct recommendations to the national authorities on a variety of issues. 

The primary cause for Kurultay were crises associated with rising contempt of the opposition with those in power. The opposition was able to mobilise a large number of delegates and be heard in Parliament. Other local Kurultay conventions were associated with violence in Osh and Jalalabad. Finally, Kurultay plays a key role in swift political change and coups, as actorsusually seek its public approval before initiating referendums, re-elections, and other reforms dismantling the government.

The new amendments to the Consitution increase the role of Kurultay, making it a national council institute that advises the President, who solely would have a right to convene it. Among other duties, Kurultay would have a right to discuss state and law issues, human rights and freedoms, recommendations for dismissing ministers or heads of state and local authorities. 

The proposed amendments would empower the President with more authority, taken from Jogorku Kenesh (national parliament). When combined, Kurultay and the President would be a supreme institute of power, impairing the democratic roles of the parliament and courts. Among many duties associated with elaborating proposals to the state authorities on “the state and society development”, human rights and freedoms, interfaith and interethnic relations, Kurultary would also be enabled to hear reports of the President and parliamentary speaker, “to make proposals to the President on the main issues of internal and foreign policies of the state” and to dismiss the local and state officials.

Establishing Kurultay as a national power branch would resemble a post-colonial Kyrgyzstan, inasmuch as it would reproduce medieval practices of its traditional way of governance. The proposed increasing role of Kurultay would bring some legitimacy to the President, as it hasbeen formed by local communities and called during crises such as botched elections andgovernment demoralised. However, it would also remain under the control of the President, granting the government even more control. 

Such a step would suggest that Kyrgyzstan is moving towards a gradual elitisation of the power, as only financially successful or openly pro-presidential activists and community leaders would be able to win support to join Kurultay. Its opaque functions would be alluring for the individuals striving to join it for access to the mightier president and personal gain.

In comparison with Jogorku Kenesh, the selection for Kurultay does not seem competitive. At least, according to the current regulations.

This process is also supported by another notable change in the Constitution, that would specifically prohibit media contradicting “moral values, traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan”. Thus, it would be less possible to analyse how Kurultay is effective without criticising it, or question revolution as it has become somehow traditional for Kyrgyzstan. 

Should this reform be given the green light, it would represent the final step towards what Johan Engvall has called the “privatisation of the state” by power groups who have been striving for the legalisation of the current state of the business.

Erosion of the rule of law and persecution of political opponents in Kyrgyzstan has persisted for years, despite the overwhelming support of the international organisations and Western powers. Once again echoing Engvall’s research, an illusion of “a people’s control” would masquerade the patron-client relations in “an island of democracy” by the groups successfully surviving each violent change of power and usurping all the channels to check and balances enshrined in the current Constitution.


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