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NGOs Avert Russian-Inspired Restrictions in Central Asia’s Only Democracy

NGOs Avert Russian-Inspired Restrictions in Central Asia’s Only Democracy

In a surprise move, the Kyrgyzstan Parliament rejected a controversial Russian-style bill Thursday that would have placed tough restrictions on groups that receive funding or donations from abroad and forced them to register as “foreign agents.”

The vote against the bill, which was modeled after similar legislation passed in Russia in 2012, came after protests in Bishkek, the country’s capital. It also followed a concerted grassroots campaign by civil society groups — from human rights to health care organizations — to lobby lawmakers in the small Central Asian nation to shoot down the proposed law. The groups argued to lawmakers that the bill would hurt Kyrgyzstan’s already obscured image to the outside world and impede much-needed social programs to the cash-strapped country.

In Parliament, those arguments seemed to resonate Thursday.

“Many international organizations expressed their concern,” Zhanar Akayev, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party, told Parliament. “We get financial assistance from them in many fields, including health care, education, and agriculture, among others. We need this money.”

The reversal in Kyrgyzstan’s legislature caught many observers off-guard. The bill, which sought to label and slap internationally funded groups with expensive regulations, was the center of a two-year political fight in the former Soviet republic.

But after many of the proposal’s conservative supporters failed to win re-election to Parliament after elections in October 2015, new liberal lawmakers mounted opposition against it. After vigorous debate in April, the bill was rewritten to drop the foreign agent label. The new version angered many of the legislation’s original nationalist backers, who viewed it as too watered-down — ultimately garnering the 65 votes necessary to strike it down.

“The vote today came as a big surprise to us and our colleagues and partners on the ground,” Viorel Ursu, regional manager at Open Society’s Eurasia program, told Foreign Policy. Open Society, an affiliate of the Soros Foundation, funds programs in Kyrgyzstan and would have been limited by the legislation. The organization also assisted grassroots activists in their campaign. “The combination of the two different types of votes made the majority possible,” Ursu said. “It was a happy accident.”

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has set itself apart from its neighbors in former Soviet Central Asia as the region’s lone democracy and a country that openly embraced international donors and organizations. But instability, geopolitics, and revolutions also have marred Kyrgyzstan’s 25 years of independence.

In addition to hosting a Russian military base, Kyrgyzstan’s Manas air base served as a hub for American personnel and equipment transiting to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. The dynamic made Kyrgyzstan a battleground for Moscow and Washington’s growing rivalry, which deepened following Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution, part of a series of similar revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine that Russia viewed as Western-backed regime change in its backyard. Popular protests unseated another Kyrgyz president in 2010, but violence in the aftermath of the revolution between the country’s ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities left 420 dead and over 80,000 displaced, according to the United Nations.

Since the Manas air base’s closure, Bishkek has moved deeper into Russia’s orbit, joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. Some critics of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign agents legislation said it and a Russian-inspired bill against “LGBT propaganda,” was evidence of Moscow’s growing influence on local politics.

“A group of MPs started promoting this bill, and we could see that the hand of the Kremlin was behind this,” Tolekan Ismailova, head of Bir Duino, a human rights organization in Kyrgyzstan, told the Kyrgyz news site Kloop.kg.

Many commentators also viewed the Kyrgyz government’s decision last summer to repeal a 1993 aid treaty with the United States — which happened after the State Department gave imprisoned ethnic Uzbek activist Azimjan Askarov a human rights award — as a sign of Russia’s growing influence on the Central Asian government.

Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert at the National Defense University, said the Russian-style laws should be viewed against the backdrop of Kyrgyzstan’s domestic politics — not its relations with Moscow.

Presidential elections are slated for October 2017, and the controversial bills have been an opportunity for conservative politicians to drum up support. The original foreign agents bill can be re-introduced into Parliament in six months, and the anti-LGBT legislation has already passed two readings by lawmakers and is close to becoming law.

“The laws are modeled after Russia, but Kyrgyzstan is also a Muslim majority country that is more and more nationalist,” Marat told FP. “Especially for the LGBT bill, there is genuine grassroots support.”

Moreover, when it comes to Bishkek’s relations with Washington, Marat says the Kyrgyz government’s decisions are based more on impulse rather than calculation. For instance, after shredding the treaty with the United States, the government is now trying to renegotiate a similar agreement, and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev called out Russia for not respecting “his countryman” in a speech on Monday.

There is no grand strategy to different Kyrgyz foreign policy moves,” Marat said. “If there is a trend, the trend is that the foreign policy is based on spontaneity and emotion.”

Photo credit: EPA/IGOR KOVALENKO