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With Bishkek Calm, Kyrgyz Leaders Draft New Constitution

MTA deputy head of the provisional government, Omurbek Tekebayev, third from left, chairing the Constitutional Assembly on Tuesday, May 4. Acting Justice Minister Aida Salyanova is seated at far left.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Residents in the Kyrgyz capital celebrated Constitution Day on Wednesday with the city's streets in full bloom and a new government promising to turn the troubled state into an oasis of democracy in authoritarian Central Asia.

Less than a month after violent protests toppled the five-year rule of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, few signs of the rioting remain. Demonstrators held a picket commemorating those killed when police opened fire on protesters, and a few scorched buildings still dot Bishkek, most notably the Prosecutor General's Office.

People were milling around in the city's abundant parks, while a fair was being held next to the presidential palace, where the shootings took place.

But deep skepticism remains as members of the interim government work on a new constitution, which they say will bring radical political reform that is unprecedented in the region.

The draft document stipulates swapping the hitherto top-heavy presidential system with a parliamentary democracy, in which the prime minister is more powerful than the head of state. It also would limit presidents to a single-five year term, whereas most neighboring presidents have been in power since the Soviet era.

“We are surrounded by authoritarian countries, and now we want to become the first to introduce a real, working democracy,” said Mirzad Adzhiyev, an activist with the Kebel youth movement and a member of the Constitutional Council that is drafting the new document.

If the constitution is approved in a referendum scheduled for June 27, political observers say Roza Otunbayeva, head of the provisional government, could become the first female president of a post-Soviet country outside the Baltic states.

Parliamentary and presidential elections have been preliminarily scheduled for early October.

Erkin Alymbekov, a deputy speaker in the Kyrgyz parliament and one of the new constitution’s prime authors, said that unlike in Russia, the law should serve as a real blueprint for the country’s politics.

“We want this constitution to shape the political reality,” he told The Moscow Times on Tuesday after the first session of the Constitutional Council in Bishkek.

He said it should be seen as a direct contrast to present-day Russia, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely regarded as being more powerful than President Dmitry Medvedev, even though the Constitution gives the president more power.

“In Russia the political reality is exactly the opposite of the Constitution. We want theory and reality to coincide in Kyrgyzstan,” Alymbekov said.

The new constitution should both strengthen the role of the parliament and respect for human rights, acting Justice Minister Aida Salyanova told the convention: “The task is to ensure that liberties and human rights are guaranteed.”

She cautioned, however, that changes to the law alone would not be enough to achieve that goal. “Nobody doubts that the most important thing is a mature civil society,” she said.

But most people interviewed for this article on the streets of Bishkek expressed little optimism that the proposed changes would bring any real improvements.

“We have fed two dictators and now we are going to feed a third,” said Altynbek Ermekov, 20, who is studying computer science.

Askar Akayev, the country's first post-Soviet president, and his successor Bakiyev were both overthrown in violent revolutions amid allegations of widespread nepotism and corruption.

“We will overthrow the third one too, and then I will become president,” Ermekov joked.

“The constitution may change, but the mentality of the people will remain the same,” said Nazik Ibraliyeva, a hairdresser. “They will just do what they want.”

Alexander Knyazev, a Bishkek-based analyst for the Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States, a pro-Kremlin think tank, said it was too early to make any predictions about the future of Kyrgyz politics because the interim government was beset with internal contradictions and hesitant to make important decisions.

“They have not even convened the parliament to give themselves any legitimacy,” he said in an interview.

Knyazev also cautioned that the chances for a female president were not good. Otunbayeva was more likely to become head of state if her constitutional powers were cut, he said, suggesting that her only real future was as a compromise candidate.

“Others [in the provisional government] have more ambition,” he said.

Observers are also concerned that violence might return on May 17, when both Orthodox Christians and Muslims will mourn on the 40th day for those killed April 7. Support for Bakiyev remains strong in southern Kyrgyzstan, and analysts have warned of a deepening north-south divide in the sparsely populated country.

Because of the lingering uncertainty, major regional powers have been reluctant to give their backing to the new leadership. “China, Iran and Turkey have not established any high-ranking contacts yet,” Knyazev said.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has been overtly hostile to the new government, offering refuge to Bakiyev and criticizing Moscow for recognizing Otunbayeva's government a day after the coup.

Knyazev said Russia would have more say with the new rulers than it did over Bakiyev. “The new government will be more susceptible to outside influence,” he said.

While most experts have dismissed accusations — both indirect and direct — that the Kremlin was behind the April 7 overthrow, Moscow had been frustrated by Bakiyev since he prolonged the United States’ lease of the Manas airbase outside Bishkek, despite earlier promises to close it.

Washington, on the other hand, had continued its good relations with Bakiyev and has been accused of being caught off guard by his ousting.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama dispatched Michael McFaul, his senior adviser on Russia and the former Soviet Union, to improve ties with the new leadership.

After friendly talks with Otunbayeva, a former diplomat who has known McFaul well for many years, the U.S. envoy got a chilly reception from Almazbek Atambayev, the first deputy head of the interim government.

“In recent years we saw clear signs of double standards, and that disturbed us very much,” Atambayev said, referring to Washington’s support for Bakiyev.

Yet Atambayev also hinted that Bishkek would not renege on the $60 million annual lease agreement for the Manas air base, repeating the interim government's pledge to "fulfill all international obligations."

McFaul told reporters later Tuesday that the Obama administration was paying a $15 million tranche of the lease to the new Kyrgyz authorities.

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