After two years of tortuous debates in parliament, civil society in Kyrgyzstan has cause for celebration.
A contentious bill, modeled on a similar piece of legislation in Russia, that would in an earlier form have seen internationally funded nongovernment group designated as “foreign agents” was rejected by Kyrgyz deputies on May 12.
Out of the 111 members of parliament present, 65 voted against the bill, which was undergoing its third and final reading.
The legislation was first presented in 2014 by Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, two deputies that have since left parliament, and has proceeded in fits and starts ever since.
In the days preceding parliament’s final decision on the bill, rights groups mounted a lively campaign of opposition. On May 11, around a dozen activists rallied in front of parliament, urging deputies to reject the bill.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Bir Duino human rights organization, which gathers information on cases of torture and corruption, said at the protest that the bill was “discriminatory and inhumane”.
“A group of MPs started promoting this bill and we could see that the hand of the Kremlin was behind this,” Ismailova told Kloop.kg. “The discrimination concerns those NGOs that monitor corruption and the activities of parliament.”
But on May 12, some deputies came out in their strongest opposition yet to the legislation. Janar Akayev, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), suggested the bill would dent Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials.
“Many international organizations expressed their concern. We get financial assistance from them in many fields, including healthcare, education and agriculture among others. We need this money. The original sponsors of the bill — Madaliev and Bakir uulu — cannot provide these funds,” Akayev said.
Almambet Shykmamatov of the left-leaning Ata-Meken party, a former Justice Minister and critic of the legislation since its introduction, also offered an impassioned argument against the bill.
Shykmamatov said that while citizens of Kyrgyzstan had every right to vet how government money was spent, they were not necessarily entitled to “decide the fate of money provided by the Soros Foundation or Doctors Without Borders.”
The drawn-out final debates at times turned distinctly unseemly.
Another SPDK, Galina Skripkina, has long been a supporter of the legislation, saying that it would in fact bolster democracy by making the financing of nongovernment organizations more transparent.
“People should know what aims NGOs are pursuing and whose interests they are lobbying. That is what our law states. Only then will we have real democracy,” Skripkina said in remarks cited by Vecherny Bishkek.
Skripkina was then confronted by Aida Salyanova, of the Ata Meken party, who asked her to elaborate further on the core concept at the heart of the bill. Skripkina airily waved away this challenge, provoking Salyanova’s ire.
“Don’t you tell me what to say and when,” Salyanova said. “You’re always doing this. I ask a question about potential inconsistencies, and you just can’t answer.”
Critics of what was dubbed the “Foreign Agents Law” considered the legislation to be a clear result of Russia’s overbearing influence on political life in Kyrgyzstan, which has in the past prided itself as a relative beacon of democracy in the region.
The bill was rewritten during the second reading, which scrapped the foreign agent designation and proposed watered-down financial reporting requirements for NGOs. Although the revised version of the bill ditched the undesirable label, the law would nonetheless have dramatically increased the amount of paperwork that NGOs would have had to submit to justify their continued existence. That kind of red tape saps time, energy and resources, while increasing government control over the sector.
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.
The change in mood in Kyrgyzstan seems to have been brought on by internal and external factors. The preeminent champions of the legislation — figures notable for their hardline conservative and anti-Western outlook — failed to make it back into parliament in the elections in October.
Attitudes toward Moscow have also grown more ambivalent since the failure by a pair of Russian companies to live up to their commitments to complete two major and economically vital hydropower projects.
In January, the parliament revoked deals signed with the Russian companies to build hydropower facilities, which were supposed to generate some $4 billion in investment.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about the vote in parliament was that it directly contradicts the preferences of President Almazbek Atambayev, who is also the de facto leader of the SDPK. That is something inconceivable in any other country in Central Asia. A generous interpretation would be that this is proof of Kyrgyzstan's commitment to a certain kind of parliamentary democracy. Less kind observers might suggest that Kyrgyzstan is desperate for all the help it can get at a time when its main economic sponsor, Russia, is going through a rough patch.