Kyrgyzstan’s president has never made a secret of his disdain for independent nongovernmental organisations.
“The state and civil society should cooperate and work together to develop the country as partners,” Sadyr Japarov said at a public meeting in October 2021, one year after he seized power by force. “As for those NGOs that undermine statehood and political security, legal measures will be taken against them.”
He had fired his initial salvo a few months earlier, in June, when he approved changes to the law that stiffened financial reporting rules for NGOs.
But that was only the beginning.
A sizeable group of lawmakers is now returning in earnest to the task of pushing through a bill further regulating and complicating the activities of NGOs that receive funding from abroad. The legislation has been popularly dubbed the “foreign agent law” for its similarity to eponymously dubbed legislation adopted in Russia in 2012.
More than 30 MPs – one third of the 90 deputies in the Jogorku Kenesh – have to date put their name to the bill.
Its leading sponsor is Nadira Narmatova, who proposed a similar law nine years ago and has latterly come to prominence for suggesting the government ban young men from leaving the country until they have completed their military service. Another anti-NGO lawmaker is Shairbek Tashiyev, the younger brother of the head of the GKNB security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev.
Their oft-stated position is that among the 18,500 or so NGOs currently registered in Kyrgyzstan, a sizeable portion destructively meddles in political affairs. Another vocal proponent of the foreign agent bill, Shailoobek Atazov, is candid about whom he perceives as ultimately lying behind this interference. NGOs “support our country’s enemies” and agitate for “pro-Western policies,” he has said.
In order to minimise that influence, government-aligned MPs have devised the designation of “non-profit organisation acting as a foreign representative.”
Opponents to the legislation object from the outset to a name that they believe is designed to make them look like activists doing the bidding of a foreign power, instead of regular Kyrgyz citizens simply pursuing the public good.
If the draft law is passed, any group receiving money from a foreign partner can expect to be slapped with the label. Bill authors moreover note that any such organisation engaging in criticism of government actions or calling on the authorities to pursue a particular policy can be deemed to be "participating in political activities." This in effect welcomes the prospect of even further scrutiny.
Oversight rules will be onerous. Annual accounting reports will be subject to audits and NGOs will have to regularly provide the government with a detailed breakdown on their work, management structure and spending. For smaller NGOs, the costs entailed in hiring additional staff needed to conform with these requirements may be unsustainable, critics have noted.
Other legislative efforts being pursued in parallel with the foreign representative law appear specifically engineered to target investigative media organisations. The Kyrgyzstan-based outlets that have been most robust in exposing cases of corruption and cronyism are recipients of foreign funding.
Under one mooted amendment to the criminal code whose title has been copied word for word from a 2012 Russian law, NGOs perceived as infringing on the personal liberties of citizens could be subject to prosecution.
Another proposal is to bring in stiff fines and possible prison sentences for NGOs deemed to be exhorting harm to the public or calling on fellow citizens to violate the law. This would mean, for example, that an activist group found to have encouraged people to attend an unauthorised picket could be in the firing line.
On point of fact, Japarov owes his current station to the unabashedly violent and unlawful protests that took place after contentious parliamentary elections in October 2020.
This is the second run that MPs are taking at getting this bill onto the books. When an initial version of the legislation was presented in November, it came under sustained criticism.
The Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights noted at the time that the “draft law falls seriously short of Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the provisions of which the country is bound to respect as a state party to the covenant.”
The bill was withdrawn for an ostensible do-over, but the Adilet legal clinic, one of the organisations liable to fall prey to the law, said that the revised version of Narmatova’s bill is virtually identical to the previous one.
“The draft law submitted to parliament remained unchanged and none of our proposals were taken into account,” Adilet’s experts wrote.
There are other indications that Kyrgyz lawmakers in the pocket of the government intend to thumb their nose at any possible objections from foreign partners.
After Narmatova presented her bill last year, the then-human rights ombudswoman, Adyr Abdrakhmatova, petitioned the Venice Commission and the democracy and rights bureau at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to weigh with an evaluation. At the start of May, Abdrakhmatova was turfed out of her job by MPs incensed at her perceived activism on behalf of self-described political prisoners.
For the potential targets of the NGO law, the stakes are high.
“The most important democratic institutions, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful assembly … may soon become completely unavailable in Kyrgyzstan,” Adilet said in its statement.
Akmat Alagushev, a lawyer for the Media Policy Institute, a press freedom-promotion NGO, has harsher language for backers of the law. The government of Kyrgyzstan is being hypocritical in pursuing the bill since, unlike Russia, it is itself a major recipient of foreign funding in the form aid, Alagushev told Eurasianet.
"Our NGO and mass media put together do not get as many grants as our state and government do,” Alagushev said.
For Alagushev, the intent here is simple: to apply psychological pressure and enforce conformism.
“It might appear like this is a narrowly directed [legislative] thing, but in reality, it affects everybody,” he said. “This is what you call a tightening of the screws, so that there can be no pluralism or a civil society with an alternative opinion.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.