Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan: Anti-NGO Bill Unlikely to Pass

Russian-style restrictions opposed by politicians as well as civil society groups.
By Timur Toktonaliev

The Kyrgyz authorities look set to reject a bill which would force many of the country’s NGOs to register as “foreign agents” and curtail their activities.

Proposed in September by parliamentarians from the Ar-Namys party, the draft legislation is explicitly modelled on a restrictive law passed in Russia last year.

It would apply to all NGOs in Kyrgyzstan receiving foreign funding and involved in “political activity” – a definition that would be decided by the justice ministry. They would need to register as “foreign agents” and would then be subject to stricter controls, including spot-checks and vetos on certain grants.

However, the bill is highly unlikely to make it into law. Given the public outcry about it, it may not even get as far as a debate in parliament.

The Ar-Namys party is particularly well-disposed towards Moscow, but that does not seem wholly out of step with a government that has presided over a gradual return to Moscow’s sphere of influence in recent years. The authorities have sought Russian economic aid and in return they have pledged to close down the American military airbase near the capital. Most recently, they have taken steps to join the Russian-led Customs Union.

At the same time, post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has developed a strong NGO sector that sets it apart from its neighbours. When it comes to repressive legislation, Ar-Namys party seems to be on its own. Observers say the government is reluctant to embark on the extreme measures outlined in the bill, as this would cut off much-needed funding flows as well as damaging the country’s international image.

Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev said in September during a visit to Brussels that he would not support the bill, and would veto it if it got through parliament.

A coalition of NGOs roundly condemned the legislation, and the national human rights ombudsman, Bakyt Amanbaev, urged parliament to block it.

His comments followed a public meeting on November 18 in Bishkek attended by lawmakers, civil society activists and international representatives including a delegation from the OSCE, at which the bill came under fire. Human rights groups fear the law is an attempt to imitate Russian legislation by curbing groups that work on governance, transparency and human rights issues.

Tursunbai Bakir Uuly, one of the Ar-Namys politicians behind the bill, told the EurasiaNet news site that it was indeed inspired by the Russian law.

He and another Ar-Namys lawmaker, Nurkamil Madaliev, insist they will keep trying to push the law through, arguing that foreign-funded NGOs need to become more transparent and stop exerting undue influence over government policy.

“They should not interfere in politics, which should remain the domain solely of political parties,” Madaliev told IWPR. “If, nonetheless, they would like to do so, they must declare themselves foreign agents, say how much money they have received from abroad for their work, and report on it.”

Tolekan Ismailova, who heads the Bir Duyno NGO, warned that the architects of the draft law were confusing activism with political power. NGOs want to actively participate in the political process but are not interested in acquiring power for themselves, she said.

“The most alarming thing is the failure to understand that if there are no actively engaged people, no honest citizens, then their place will be taken by silent ones, which is bad for Kyrgyzstan’s future development,” she told IWPR.

Bishkek-based analyst Erik Iriskulbekov pointed out that international funding of NGOs was normal practice around the world and did not mean that such groups then represented the interests of foreign donors.

“By the same token, the Kyrgyz Republic must be also considered a foreign agent, as the government is the biggest recipient of foreign aid,” he added.

Erkin Alymbekov, head of the parliamentary committee for human rights, predicted that his colleagues would reject the bill if it got as far as being debated, as it ran contrary to the democratic direction he country had chosen.

Madaliev, however, said he was determined to see the law being passed eventually, even it took time.

“I think that if it isn’t during this parliamentary term, then it will happen in the next one,” he said.

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.