Kyrgyzstan Q&A: Author of “Foreign Agents” Bill Seeks to Thwart “Sabotage”
The lead author of a controversial bill that would label most of Kyrgyzstan’s non-profit organizations “foreign agents” says the country must protect itself from foreign “sabotage” and “sexual emancipation.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org this week, MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a former human rights ombudsman, said he was inspired by almost identical legislation that came into effect in Russia last November, but that he’d been musing over the idea since 2006. The bill would require organizations that accept foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to identify as “foreign agents,” a term widely understood throughout the former Soviet Union to denote traitors and spies.
Though President Almazbek Atambayev said on September 19, during a visit to Brussels, that he would not support the bill, Bakir uulu says the president has made a “shallow statement to please the West” and would eventually fall into line.
Noting that the bill mirrors the Russian law, on September 27 a coalition of human rights groups led by the International Partnership for Human Rights, said the sweeping draft law “appears primarily aimed at the same category of groups that has been the main target in Russia, i.e. human rights NGOs and other groups that are inconvenient for those in power.”
Critics have also noted that foreign governments fund parts of Kyrgyzstan’s budget, in effect turning Bakir uulu himself, as a paid government employee, into a foreign agent.
When confronted with this irony, Bakir uulu said the questioning suggested EurasiaNet.org was a foreign agent.
The interview has been translated from Russian and edited for length.
EurasiaNet.org: Why does Kyrgyzstan needs this law?
Tursunbai Bakir uulu: I know our NGOs. […] I know all the human rights activists and they are ready to do anything for money. Because they don’t have other jobs. They live on grants, and it’s clear why they break their codes of conduct and the constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic. In 2006 or 2007 I told them, if you’re involved in politics, then register yourself as a political party. But they remained as not-for-profit organizations, because according to the constitution and according to the laws of the Kyrgyz Republic, political parties cannot be financed from abroad. They found a loophole. They are NGOs but are financed for political aims. That's not only illogical, but also hostile to the Kyrgyz Republic.
EN: What kind of political aims are they trying to achieve?
TB: Starting with the organization of rallies, pickets and other protest actions, up to attempts to influence the decisions of parliament, the government, and the president. Sometimes it’s open sabotage. […] That’s why I think we should limit financing from abroad. But I’m not against all not-for-profit organizations. There are some great organizations that work with people with special needs. I bow in front of them because we in the government cannot help them as much as these organizations do. […] But when they try to influence politics, I’m absolutely against it, because for these aims we have political parties, we have more than 150 parties. Let them be the 151st or 152nd parties, but not not-for-profit organizations that are financed from abroad for well-known aims.
EN: Much of the country’s budget is financed from abroad. Does that mean our politicians are foreign agents?
TB: The government receives grants, credits, and investment for the development of Kyrgyzstan. Not-for-profit organizations receive money for the destruction of Kyrgyzstan. There’s a huge difference. Second, we are accountable to the government and to the people. The Auditor Chamber, the Tax Service, the security services, the Interior Ministry, and other agencies can check us. They can check whether we’re working in favor of our country or against it. Not-for-profit organizations are not accountable to anyone, that’s why they are trying to attack the authors of this bill. I understand that they’re trying to hide their sources of income and expenditures, but society wants to know how these huge grants are spent. We know that many of our strikes and revolutions are financed from abroad; we must know who gets the money and how the money is distributed.
One of the leaders of a not-for-profit organization admitted that he earns $12,000 per month, and they [the NGOs] seek to find out how much our ministers, MPs, the president and the prime minister earn. MPs don’t hide. I’ve said openly that I earn $700 [per month]. Now compare this $700 with $12,000 or even a half of it – $6,000 – that’s earned by a not-for-profit organization. Is there a difference? Yes, there is. We provide our income tax returns. I’ve never seen a leader of a not-for-profit organization identify how he bought a house or bought an expensive car, how he feeds himself or his family.
[Bakir uulu refused to name the non-profit head earning $12,000.]
EN: Don’t employees of NGOs also pay taxes?
TB: It’s one thing when they show their income, but it’s another thing when they show the whole grant and expenditures. We might be losing millions of dollars here.
EN: Russia passed a similar law last year. Did the Russian model inspire you? They look identical.
TB: Good laws are always similar. Not only this law on NGOs, but the whole Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic is similar to that of Russia because we live in one region, we have a similar mentality and background. If our colleagues abroad come up with a good idea, why not adopt it?
EN: How do you define a “foreign agent”?
TB: This is an international organization or a state that finances a not-for-profit organization in Kyrgyzstan. You can call the [receiving] organization a foreign agent since it receives money from abroad and pursues the goals set by a foreign state or an organization. […] We think a foreign agent is an organization that is financed from abroad and at the same time it acts according to the interests of the foreign state or international organization.
EN: President Almazbek Atambayev has spoken against the bill. Are you going to fight him over this?
TB: First of all, it’s not Atambayev himself [speaking]. His circle, which is not really well informed, has defined that position. […] Second, we shouldn’t forget where he made this statement – in Belgium, the heart of NATO, the place [the European Union] that finances most of the not-for-profit organizations. He had to say this because many international organizations are located there, many European organizations too. They want Kyrgyzstan to develop according to their scenario, not its own. That’s how I understand his statement. If he were in Russia, he’d never say anything like that.
EN: So you think his position changed upon returning to Kyrgyzstan?
TB: Of course. He will hear the parliament’s arguments; he will read the bill thoroughly. Atambayev hasn’t read it yet. He was asked a question and answered emotionally because he was in Belgium.
EN: So you think he hasn’t studied the bill yet?
TB: No. That was a shallow statement to please the West.
EN: When did you start this bill?
TB: I started thinking about it in 2006. We had a draft. The Russian implementation of such a law inspired us.
EN: Do you think there are foreign spies in Kyrgyzstan?
TB: There are many: in the government, in parliament, not to mention the civil society sector. I think 60 percent of not-for-profit organizations are foreign agents. It’s rare that not-for-profit organizations work toward noble objectives.
EN: You’re saying there are many foreign agents among employees of state agencies. Why then does the bill concerns only not-for-profit organizations?
TB: Well there are laws that regulate the work of civil servants, […] but the law on not-for-profit organizations is outdated. In the 1990’s not-for-profits worked voluntarily based on their enthusiasm. But over the last ten or fifteen years, not-for-profits started working for the interests of foreign customers.
EN: But do you have any proof that they work in this way?
[Bakir uulu pointed to a statement by a former activist and government official who, when contacted by EurasiaNet.org, denied ever making the statement.]
EN: Do you think I work for a foreign agent?
TB: Well, judging by your questions, I feel like you do.
EN: And me personally?
TB: Well, you’re hired by it, so you can be replaced by anyone. We have to think of people higher than you. You’re just an executor, not a leader. But I do suspect your organization. I’ve been working with international organizations since 1992. […] First, they came to investigate, to see what kind of country we have, what kind of society, and [look for] potential leaders. Starting from the 2000s, they started systematic target programs.
EN: Targeting what?
TB: Subordination and control over the situation. That’s probably why Uzbekistan is fighting it. [Editor: presumably he means Tashkent’s moves in the mid-2000s to close most independent NGOs.] Uzbekistan realized from the example of Kyrgyzstan that a society shouldn’t be so open. Kazakhstan also. And Tajikistan. Turkmenistan was always closed.
EN: So you think Kyrgyzstan should follow the example of authoritarian regimes like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan?
TB: No, of course not. I’ve never supported authoritarianism, but I think a society that is too open doesn’t fit Kyrgyzstan. We’re [even more open than] the West and the USA.
EN: Are you afraid that Western values are taking hold in Kyrgyzstan?
TB: It’s already too late. We’ve become the worst copy of the West. We’re going through wild capitalism now. […] What is happening in Kyrgyzstan now the West went through in the 18th and 19th centuries. We’re repeating their mistakes. Not to mention prostitution and lechery. It was a mistake of the state to let foreign ideology occupy the minds of Kyrgyzstanis. […] That’s why I always talk about returning to our values.
EN: What kind of Western values threaten our culture?
TB: Sexual emancipation. Last year I tried to ban advertisements by international marriage agencies. […] [MP] Irgal Kadyralieva has been trying to ban girls from traveling abroad without parental permission. We’re trying to preserve our gene pool [from] sexual emancipation and lechery.