Kyrgyz NGOs Fear Tougher Legislation

But legislators backing new bill say too many non-profit groups behave like political parties.

Kyrgyz NGOs Fear Tougher Legislation

But legislators backing new bill say too many non-profit groups behave like political parties.

Legislation going before the Kyrgyz parliament this week would restrict the rights of non-government organisations, NGOs, by barring them from any activity that brings them too close to politics, civil rights activists warn.

Opponents of the bill say it has been conceived as a way of clamping down on election monitoring groups, in particular, with a view to the presidential election expected later this year or in 2010.

When Arapbay Tolonov and Nurgazy Aydarov of the governing Ak Jol party and Communist leader Iskhak Masaliev proposed the package of amendments to the Law on Non-Commercial Organisations on February 20, they said in an accompanying statement that it would “ban non-profit organisations from any engagement in political activity and in elections”. Such matters, they argued, should be left to political parties.

“If NGOs want to be involved in politics and pursue those ends, they should form parties and participate in political life,” Masaliev told IWPR.

Avtandil Arabaev, deputy chairman of parliament’s committee for constitutional law and human rights, supports the amendments, arguing that “what happens in Kyrgyzstan is that NGOs are set up and get grants, and then act as if they were political parties”.

The amendments would also require NGOs to be more transparent about their funding sources, and would allow the justice ministry to block grants of money or property to locally-registered branches of foreign non-profit organisations.

Here the bill’s backers cite national security concerns, arguing that Kyrgyzstan must follow the example of other states which tightened up on NGO funding flows in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in September 2001.

“No one know how all the... NGOs are financed,” said Arabaev. “Some of them may be funded by religious extremists, although we can’t prove that. So it’s best to avert danger and make information about their funding sources transparent and accessible.”

Tabyldy Orozaliyev, deputy leader of Ak Jol’s parliamentary group, alleges that some NGOs misspend donor money on political activity, while others act as cover for extremist groups.

“Extremist and terrorist organisations are becoming more active, and often finance their propaganda through local organisations,” he added.

Since the content of the bill was announced, Kyrgyz NGOs have mounted a vociferous campaign against changes that they say would hamstring them.

As parliament gets ready to debate the amendments, a number of groups have mounted what they call a “fax attack”, bombarding legislators with appeals not to approve the changes.

Leading activists like Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of the Сoalition for Democracy and Civil Society, argue that the real aim is to prevent NGOs from engaging in election monitoring, and the idea that it will curb the activity of al-Qaeda-type groups is a red herring.

“Under the pretext of combating religious extremism, the authorities are trying to exclude NGOs from the election process so that they are unable to monitor the transparency of the upcoming presidential ballot,” she said.

Aziza Abdirasulova, head of the Kylym Shamy human rights centre, believes Kyrgyzstan risks going down the slippery slope to authoritarian rule, exemplified by its neighbour Uzbekistan.

“The phrase ‘combating religious extremism’ can be used to suppress freedom of speech and expression. The authorities are using it in order to stop people talking about violations of human rights or about social and economic problems,” she said.

Oshurakhunova points out that Kyrgyzstan’s thriving non-profit sector deals with many of the challenges the government is failing to address – helping vulnerable groups, and building capacity for both the business sector and government itself. The authorities could thus be shooting themselves in the foot if they rein in the activities of NGOs.

Masaliev, one of the MPs who drafted the bill, insisted that NGOs whose formal mandate includes election monitoring would not be prevented from doing so.

“There are international and local organisations that have a legal mandate to monitor elections, so I can't see any reason to worry that no one is going to do election observation,” he said.

Some NGOs believe the amendments, if passed, will be only the latest in a series of concerted attempts to reduce rights and freedoms in Kyrgyzstan.

Three rights organisations – Kylym Shamy, the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, and the Mir – Svet Kultury group – issued a statement on March 2 saying that this process had been going on for just over a year now. As a result, they said, “the rights that citizens of Kyrgyzstan no longer enjoy include freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of confession, and electoral rights”.

The Ak Jol party’s Orozaliev rejects claims that the bill is anti-democratic.

“This is not a retreat from democracy; it’s about putting this [NGO] sector in order,” he said. “Everyone should do their own thing.”

Political scientist Nur Omarov argues that the bill follows other restrictive legislative changes, such as a change to the law on public assembly finalised last August which means anyone planning to arrange a rally has to get permission from the authorities, and can only hold it in a designated area.

Omarov believes the NGO law is being changed to prevent foreign-funded groups playing an active role during the presidential election, especially now that Kyrgyzstan appears to have moved closer to Moscow and has asked the American military to vacate the Manas airbase it was using near the capital Bishkek.

“This is being done right before the election. Everyone knows that NGOs can be powerful levers of influence on society, and it is no secret that their foreign partners use them to exert influence on the political situation,” he said. “The authorities are concerned that now that they have evicted the US from the base, it will start sponsoring opposition parties, movements and NGOs.”

While Omarov agrees with the view that “many NGOs in Kyrgyzstan act as political parties”, he adds a note of caution, “At the same time, foreign donors fund many social programmes, and Kyrgyzstan needs this assistance.”

Mirgul Akimova is a pseudonym for an independent journalist in Bishkek.
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