TINY and turbulent, Kyrgyzstan likes to tout itself as a trailblazer for democracy in Central Asia, a region otherwise presided over by autocrats. The former Soviet republic of 6m has “proven to the world that it is a democratic country”, its new president, Sooronbay Jeyenbekov (pictured), trumpeted triumphantly as he was sworn into office in November. But the unusually competitive election that brought him to power may have been less an affirmation of democracy than its last gasp.
Mr Jeyenbekov was making history. In the 26 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, his election marked Central Asia’s first peaceful handover of power from one democratically elected leader to another. But the election was flawed. Mr Jeyenbekov, a dour 59-year-old, has admitted that it was marred by vote-buying. International observers were also troubled by media bias and the strong-arming of civil servants to vote for Mr Jeyenbekov, who was prime minister at the time and had been endorsed by the outgoing president.
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Things have got worse since the election. On December 30th Mr Jeyenbekov’s main rival for the presidency, Omurbek Babanov, announced that he was quitting politics and resigning his parliamentary seat. That came as no surprise. Mr Babanov—whom Mr Jeyenbekov had personally threatened to lock up—had already fled the country after the election to escape spurious charges of inciting ethnic unrest that could have led to a long spell in prison. Kanatbek Isayev, an MP who endorsed Mr Babanov, did not escape so lightly. On January 4th he was jailed for nine years for corruption, in a case that had been dormant since 2011 but which the authorities suddenly decided to press ahead with last year. He faces a separate, implausible charge of plotting a coup that could see another sentence slapped on top.
Jailing obstreperous politicians is becoming a habit. Last year the authorities abruptly accused Omurbek Tekebayev, another opposition leader, of taking a bribe in 2010. He was subsequently imprisoned for eight years, preventing him from mounting an electoral challenge to Mr Jeyenbekov.
Kyrgyz journalists who fail to toe the government line are also under pressure. After the election a plucky website named Kloop published allegations that Mr Jeyenbekov’s campaign team had got hold, and made unfair use, of government data on voters to swing the closely fought election. It was rewarded with threats of libel action. Mr Jeyenbekov has form when it comes to suing journalists. In October he won a fierce libel suit against another media outlet. Police have also impounded the property of a television station belonging to Mr Babanov, ostensibly over a disputed payment to another business.
Foreign journalists and watchdogs have not fared well under Mr Jeyenbekov either. In December one of the few Western reporters based in Kyrgyzstan, Chris Rickleton, a correspondent for AFP, a news agency, was summarily deported on claims that he had violated immigration law, which he denies. The authorities have prevented Mihra Rittmann, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, from visiting the country for two years on similar grounds. Last year the government also barred a campaigner from a respected Russian rights group, Memorial. Azimjon Askarov, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent human-rights advocates, is serving a life sentence, also on flimsy charges of fomenting ethnic unrest.
As Mr Jeyenbekov recently noted, Kyrgyzstan remains the first and only Central Asian country with a functioning, if flawed, parliamentary democracy. Protesters have toppled wayward governments twice in recent years. Democracy, Mr Jeyenbekov said poetically in his inauguration speech, “has two friends: first freedom, second responsibility”. Alas, he does not seem to be taking his responsibility to protect the country’s democratic freedoms at all seriously.