Kyrgyzstan may be on the verge of ditching a contentious draft bill on designating internationally funded nongovernmental groups as “foreign agents” in a development possibly related to a thaw in relations with Washington.
Members of parliament discussing the bill on February 29 seemed divided over its benefits or what the law was even supposed to be about. Meanwhile, the groups most threatened by the legislation have been lobbying hard for the proposal to be scrapped.
Asides from an undesirable label, the law would dramatically increase the amount of paperwork that NGOs would have to submit to justify their continued existence. That kind of red tape saps time, energy and resources, while increasing government control over the sector.
Commentators have commonly characterized both the foreign agents law and another proposed bill to criminalize open support for homosexuals punishable by jail time as extensions of Russian potlical and cultural influence. President Almazbek Atambayev has proven highly receptive to anti-Western rhetoric emerging from Moscow.
That attitude was best epitomized by the Kyrgyz government decision to repeal a cornerstone 1993 cooperation treaty with Washington in July after the US State Department bestowed a human rights award on Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek activist jailed following lethal unrest in the country’s south in 2010.
Among other things, the repealed treaty allowed for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of US aid programs. The prospect of beneficiary nation slapping taxes on assistance caused consternation among American policymakers and donors, prompting a rethinking of aid strategy.
Kyrgyzstan might now be having a rethink of its own, however, since having arguably the most pro-Russian foreign policy orientation in the Central Asian region has won it few goodies so far.
In January, the parliament revoked deals signed with Russian companies to build hydropower facilities worth around $4 billion as it became increasingly evident that the companies tasked with doing the work were making little headway.
A joint Kyrgyz-Russian fund supposedly worth over $1 billion has also drawn criticism for being stingy with its loans. The fund was originally earmarked to develop businesses following the country’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union last year.
Kyrgyzstan is now reported to be seeking a new US cooperation treaty to replace the one it ripped up, although both Bishkek and Washington have been coy on the matter.
Almambet Shykmamatov led calls for the abandonment of the legislation during the February 29 session.
“My position has not changed. For 20 years, NGOs have been reliable partners of the state in the sphere of the protection of the rights and freedoms of citizens, in social and other spheres,” he was quoted as saying. “During his visit to Europe, the president actively discussed this bill during his meetings there [President Atambayev met with a number of European leaders during a visit to the continent in March 2015]. I think it should be entirely rejected.”
But booting the bill out of parliament may not be a formality, since many of the120 members of parliament are sympathetic towards Moscow.
One such deputy is Onuguu Progress’s Iskhak Masaliyev — also de facto leader of the Party of Communists of Kyrgyzstan — who said at the hearing there is “nothing offensive” about calling an NGO a “foreign agent”.
“If we were calling them spies, it would be another matter,” he said, while noting that that his own NGO was happy under the control of the state organs.
Semantics aside, those looking for implications of a foreign agent law in Kyrgyzstan would only have to look at a similar law passed in 2012 in Russia, where foreign-funded groups have reportedly dropped by one-third with thousands of others mired in the bureaucracy spawned by the vague legislation.
If anything, the effect of the law would be more damning in Kyrgyzstan, where, unlike Russia, civic groups occupy a significant chunk of economic activity.
Over 120 NGOs signed a recent petition reminding the parliament that “tens of thousands of citizens [are] working the non-commercial sector” in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan risks becoming a “totalitarian country”, if it passes the legislation, the groups said.