By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On June 4, after more than two years of deliberations, the Kyrgyz Parliament overwhelmingly approved amendments to the law on “non-commercial organizations” in its first reading. According to the new amendments, NGOs receiving funding from abroad will be labeled “foreign agents.” If passed in two more readings and approved by the President, the bill will impose severe limitations to the activities of civil society actors and will put the country’s democratic development into a great jeopardy.

In his address to the Kyrgyz Parliament, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, a lawmaker and one of the initiators of the amendments, stated that locally registered NGOs have received around US$ 10 million from foreign countries over the past 3 years. In his words, “NGOs receive funding from abroad and try to influence our internal politics. Therefore, we have the full right to know where their money goes and for which purposes they are used. The bill will improve our national security.”

By contrast, local and international human rights organizations believe that the law fully resembles the one passed in Russia in 2012 and has nothing to do with national security. “The bill is aimed at taking full control of the institutions that speak against certain unpopular policies of the Government,” according to Dinara Oshurakhunova, a Bishkek-based civil society activist. The bill would indeed, as the Russian experience shows, limit the activities of civil society institutions. It will impose burdensome reporting requirements on them and allow governmental agencies to send representatives to participate in internal activities and decide whether this or that organization complies with its objectives or not. Failure to do so will result in their immediate termination.

Local experts are therefore hotly discussing the degree of Russia’s involvement in the development of these legislative changes that speak against the fundamental values of democracy. Several media sources have even reported that the Kremlin has a direct influence on these processes by buying off MPs and exercising direct pressure on the government, and that this process will likely exacerbate as Bishkek is now an official member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

The position of Kyrgyzstan’s President is another interesting aspect of the controversy. During his trip to Brussels in 2013, President Atambayev stated clearly that there was no need for Kyrgyzstan to adopt a law on “foreign agents.” However, in a recent interview to the public channel, the president seemed to be in favor of adopting the bill. Atambayev said, “I will check if the law corresponds to the interests of the country, whether it complies with human rights standards. Now I do not want to promise you anything. Today we are facing the fact that under the guise of human rights organizations, NGOs are opening and trying to destabilize the situation in the country and international relations.” The sudden shift in the president’s opinion can be explained by Bishkek’s new international orientation, which seemingly comes at the expense of the country’s relatively successful democratic transition.

In its first reading, the bill was supported by 83 parliamentarians against the 23 who opposed it. Daniyar Terbishaliev, an MP from the ruling coalition, argued that based on the suggested law, all MPs must also register as “foreign agents.” In his words, “all the MPs interact with international organizations and civil society groups go on study tours funded by them. We all know that our country is donor dependent, and it is wrong to underestimate the degree of the international community’s assistance.”

Some experts also believe that the initiators of the bill want to pass it before the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2015, in an effort to take control over the democratic institutions. If adopted, the law will pave the way for persecution and pressure on NGOs that will observe the elections and address political concerns.

In the meantime, civil society activists have already launched a campaign to collect citizens’ signatures against the bill. According to the legislation, 10,000 signatures will allow for the submission of a new bill to the parliament, which would repeal the document on foreign agents.

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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