In its first national vote since an October 2020 uprising over alleged parliamentary election fraud, Kyrgyzstan faces a choice on January 10 not only about a president and the country’s future form of government, but, also, about another, unasked question: Do voters have the right to laugh at presidential candidates?
In a country often described as Central Asia’s only democracy, the answer to that question might seem straightforward. But one popular comedian’s recent decision to scrap a routine that officials considered critical of Acting President Sadyr Japarov has raised doubts among some voters about how far the government’s tolerance of humor actually goes.
Sixty-five-year-old actor Rakhman Razykov, a nationally known satirist, was on tour in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, when he was “politely” summoned to the local office of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK), the descendant of the Soviet-era KGB, and informed that a skit in his performance had violated Kyrgyzstan’s ban on negative advertising during an election campaign.
The officials claimed that the skit in question, which features three prisoners arguing over who would make the best president of Kyrgyzstan, had targeted Japarov, Razykov recounted to Current Time Asia.
The 52-year-old politician had been freed from prison during October 2020 protests over Kyrgyzstan’s official parliamentary election results that led to the overthrow of its government. Japarov became prime minister and, subsequently, acting president just over a week later.
But his roughly three years in jail on kidnapping charges – a conviction he calls politicized -- are not the mainstay of Japarov's campaign. A former parliamentary deputy and anti-corruption aide to ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the Kyrgyz leader, the assumed favorite among 17 contenders for president, prefers to focus on his pledges to end Kyrgyzstan's rampant corruption.
The Razykov skit did not appear to echo that emphasis. Though the routine did not mention Japarov by name, the prisoner played by Razykov boasted that people call him a “light bulb” – a name recently bestowed on Japarov by one enthusiastic fan. To audience laughs, the character observed that he is actually “a spotlight.”
The UKMK, now run by a longtime friend of Japarov, Kamchybek Tashiev, apparently did not see the humor.
“It seems that, according to the law, it’s forbidden to joke or to use those words that candidates have said, allegedly,” Razykov commented.
Though angry, the comedian, who has performed for decades, agreed to heed the UKMK’s warning.
Performances at his tour’s next stop, in the southwestern city of Jalal-Abad, did not feature the prisoner sketch. Wanting to avoid problems with the government, local organizers objected to its inclusion, Current Time Asia reported.
Yet the UKMK’s grounds for intervening in the matter remain unclear. A June 2020 regulation bans negative campaign advertising in Kyrgyz media, but makes no mention of theatrical performances. The regulation does not endow the UKMK with any enforcement powers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the scrapped October 2020 parliamentary election, has noted, however, that the regulation has “resulted in legal ambiguities.”
As yet, officials do not appear eager to clarify.
Though Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) decides on allegations of negative campaign advertising, it has not examined Razykov’s performances.
Semetei Amanbekov, a member of the CEC’s Working Group on Advertising, advised Current Time Asia to ask the UKMK what their reasons were for objecting to Razykov’s humor.
The agency told Current Time Asia that it would answer written questions about the Razykov case. A UKMK spokesman later confirmed the receipt of these questions, but did not respond to them.
Since coming to power, Japarov has insisted that “There will be freedom of speech,” but, increasingly, rights activists question the depth of those assurances.
The bulk of their concerns appear to focus on a potential constitutional referendum that could follow Kyrgyzstan’s January 10 vote.
The country’s 3.5 million voters decide that day not only between 17 presidential candidates, but, also, whether or not to agree with Japarov that Kyrgyzstan should become a presidential republic.
If they agree, a subsequent referendum would ask them to approve constitutional amendments that would render the president both head of state and head of government. He or she could issue decrees with the force of law if parliament, as is the case now, was not reelected on schedule. The president also would gain a “supreme” consultative body whose members he or she would appoint, while the current 120-seat parliament would shrink to 90 deputies.
Room for criticism could narrow as well, some rights organizations fear. Among other measures, the proposed constitution would no longer protect against criminal prosecution for defamation. Another proposed change would declare “anti-constitutional” those media outlets and public events that contradict the “generally acknowledged moral values, traditions of the people of Kyrgyzstan.”
The overall package has prompted social-media critics to dub the draft amendments a “Khanstitution” – a reference to the former despotic rulers, or khans, who governed throughout Central Asia.
Against that backdrop, the recent measures taken toward Razykov do little to reassure one critic of the proposed constitutional changes.
Humor is a way to endure both “injustices” and “shocking events,” underlined Begaim Usenova, director of the Media Policy Institute, a Kyrgyz media-development non-profit.
“It’s difficult to live if we’re also deprived of the possibility to joke,” she said.