Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan mostly seem to agree that the West is bad news.
Just to make sure, though, more than two dozen of them are at present applying for long-term visas to the United States.
This inconsistency has sparked claims over rampant hypocrisy in a legislative chamber where members frequently condemn perceived Western values, while themselves not-so-secretly enjoying them.
The revelation that as many as around 30 Jogorku Kenesh deputies may be pursuing U.S. visas was broken on June 6 by MP Marlen Mamataliyev, who leads the government-aligned Yntymak faction. Mamataliyev said that the nine members of his faction are already in possession of long-term U.S. visas.
“I had proposed that those MPs who are members of the U.S. friendship group should also submit their documents,” Mamataliyev said.
There are multiple foreign nation-focused parliamentary friendship groups in the 90-seat Jogorku Kenesh, but no countries are as popular as those in North America. The appeal of belonging to such clubs is that it greatly improves the prospect of securing long-term visas. And so, fully 60 Kyrgyz MPs are understood to be members of the U.S. and Canada groups, while members interested in nurturing friendship with Russia number only 49. Turkey, China and a few Middle Eastern countries are also-rans.
This ardor for amity with the United States is particularly striking as many of the lawmakers in U.S. group are seeking to push through a draft bill regulating and complicating the activities of nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad – often from the United States. The legislation has been popularly dubbed the “foreign agent law” for its similarity to eponymously dubbed legislation adopted in Russia in 2012.
Of the 33 lawmakers that have endorsed the NGO law, fully 19 are members of U.S. and Canadian friendship groups. One particularly prominent figure to straddle both camps is Shailobek Atazov, who has stridently condemned NGOs for promoting "pro-Western" policies.
"There have even been instances when they supported our enemies," Atazov told fellow lawmakers in February, albeit without specifying which enemies he was alluding to.
While decrying the West, Atazov is also a member of friendship groups with Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.
A deputy with an equally confused love-hate relationship with the West is Nadira Narmatova, who initially presented this NGO bill, as well as an earlier version of it in 2014.
"Foreign institutions with Western ideology [...] promote gays, LGBT, and same-sex cohabitation," Narmatova told her colleagues in December while exhorting them to give their backing to legislation explicitly framed as anti-Western.
This unease with the iniquities of European values have not stopped her from joining friendship groups with France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy, and the Vatican.
This ongoing conversation about MPs traveling to the West began back in early May, when lawmaker Balbak Tulobayev, also a member of Yntymak, announced that their entire faction was planning to travel in summer to the United States at the invitation of the National Democratic Institute, or NDI. Going by Tulobayev’s remarks, it appears the MPs hope to make family holidays out of the opportunity.
“The NDI only promised to cover the expenses of the deputies. Everyone will take care of their own families’ expenses,” Tulobayev told 24.kg news agency.
Mamataliyev has denied this. He says that while the NDI used to fund MP expeditions to the United States, no such project is mooted this year. While confirming that about 30 colleagues had applied for visas, he said they would travel at their own expense.
When queried about these differing accounts, the NDI office in Bishkek appeared to support Mamataliyev’s version, although it did not deny that it is in regular dialogue with Kyrgyz lawmakers.
“The office of the NDI in the Kyrgyz Republic continues to actively interact with deputies with varied party-political views as part of its support for activities aimed at the needs of citizens. The NDI program does not envision international study visits for individual parliamentary factions,” it said in a statement to Eurasianet.
Critics of the anti-Western turn in the Jogorku Kenesh that is fueling legislative efforts like the NGO law argue that this constitutes a patent double standard. While NGOs are being discouraged from receiving money from abroad, no such objections are voiced when it comes to the state itself.
According to Nash Vek, a public spending monitor, Kyrgyzstan has over the past 30 years received more than $13 billion in financial assistance, of which $3.6 billion has come in the form of grants. A chunk of that money has, in fact, gone to funding the Jogorku Kenesh itself. Indeed, between 2016 and 2021, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in concert with the NDI spent more than $14 million on projects to improve the effectiveness of the legislature.
Political scientist Emil Jurayev said he believes that the appeal for Kyrgyz lawmakers in belonging to friendship groups with “prestigious” countries indeed lies in how it opens up opportunities to visit.
“Almost everyone wants to go to developed countries, which are not easy to visit without support. It is predictable and understandable on a human level that so many deputies want to be in a friendship group with [the United States],” he said.
Some faint uncertainty persists, meanwhile, over whether the visa applications will be successful. Late last month, a coalition of Kyrgyz civil society groups appealed to the United States and European Union nations to deny such requests from MPs on the record as having supported the NGO-quashing legislation.
As the activists noted, the lawmakers often use the visas not for work purposes, but simply for leisure. They likewise dwelled on the double-standards of MPs who warn of the dangers of Western influences while readily availing themselves of benefits of travel to the United States and Europe.
“The children of many officials receive education in foreign educational institutions, and also live there on a permanent basis,” they wrote, before adding a bitterly sarcastic observation that quoted language featured in the NGO bill: “We consider it inappropriate and even dangerous for the above persons to stay in states that ‘may pose a threat to the national security of Kyrgyzstan.’”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.