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Fears Over Kyrgyzstan's Latest Attempt To Push Through Russian-Style 'Foreign Agents' Law

Police detain an RFE/RL journalist covering a protest near the government building in Bishkek in January.
Police detain an RFE/RL journalist covering a protest near the government building in Bishkek in January.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Politicians in Kyrgyzstan have for years attempted to push through controversial legislation that would impose restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad.

But lawmakers have rejected multiple draft bills, fearing it would harm the Central Asian country's democratic credentials and lead to donors pulling foreign aid.

Now, there are fear that the authorities' latest effort to force through a Russian-style "foreign agents" law could succeed, with observers citing growing authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan and attempts by Russia, Bishkek's ally, to stamp out Western influence in the country.

More than one-third of lawmakers in the 90-seat parliament have backed a draft bill that was submitted for public consideration last month. If approved, the legislation would force NGOs that receive foreign funding to submit to onerous registration and reporting procedures, audits, and other restrictions.

Observers expect the proposed legislation to pass, possibly even before the parliament goes on break on July 1.

Sadyr Japarov waves to supporters in Bishkek in January 2021.
Sadyr Japarov waves to supporters in Bishkek in January 2021.

Attempts to introduce a "foreign agents" law come amid a widening crackdown on civil society in Kyrgyzstan. Since coming to power in 2020, President Sadyr Japarov has also targeted his political opponents and the free media, his critics say.

"We really fear it will go through this time," said Erkina Ubysheva, a human rights activist based in Bishkek. "We see since the arrival in power of Japarov that the constitution was changed, the political system was changed, and there is now a clear course to liquidate civil society."

Kyrgyzstan 'Reaps Rewards' Of Kremlin 'Requests'

Kyrgyzstan is the second former Soviet republic where the authorities have tried to introduce legislation targeting so-called "foreign agents" this year. In March, violent protests broke out in Georgia, forcing the government to shelve its plans.

Fears over creeping Russian influence in Georgia were one of the reasons for the opposition to the proposed law. The two countries went to war in 2008 over the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia's own law on the designation of "foreign agents" was passed in 2012. The legislation originally targeted NGOs and rights groups but has since been expanded to target media outlets and individuals, especially journalists.

Russia's 'Foreign Agent' Law: A Blunt Instrument To Silence Dissent
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Borubek Kudayarov, a journalist at the Kaktus Media news website, told RFE/RL that the events in Georgia are unlikely to be repeated in Kyrgyzstan.

Few prominent Kyrgyz politicians are likely to follow the example of Georgia's figurehead President Salome Zurabishvili, who joined protesters in opposing the ruling government's draft law, Kudayarov said.

A court ban on protests in central Bishkek -- with the exception of sanctioned rallies held in a designated area -- is another factor that might curb public shows of resistance.

The ban was introduced in March 2022, "perhaps at the request of the Russian government," after several small rallies outside the Russian Embassy to protest Moscow's invasion of Ukraine last year, Kudayarov said.

"But it is the authorities that are reaping the rewards of this ban," in terms of fewer protests in Bishkek, the journalist added, noting that Kyrgyz courts have continued extending the ban.

"The law on foreign agents might be another example of this trend," he said.

Difficult To Register, Easy To Close

The latest version of the draft bill on "foreign agents" was published on May 19, with government-allied lawmaker Nadira Narmatova leading the push.

Nadira Narmatova
Nadira Narmatova

The bill defines a foreign agent as an NGO that fulfils "the function of a foreign representative" and "participates in political activities carried out on the territory of Kyrgyzstan," or influences public opinion.

In addition to mandatory audits, such organizations would have to justify all expenditures to the Kyrgyz government and even consent to the presence of government officials at their events.

The draft law prescribes punishments of up to five years in prison for representatives of NGOs that are judged to be responsible for "violence against citizens, or other harm to their health or inducing citizens to refuse to perform civil duties."

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), a nonprofit organization, says the law's broad definitions discriminate against workers in the nongovernment sector.

The ICNL added that "more than 90 percent" of the draft law's text had been copied from the Russian "foreign agents" law. It warned that, if approved, the bill would help Kyrgyzstan "earn the image of an undemocratic country."

"The process for registering a noncommercial organization will now be made more complicated. The process for liquidating one has been made simpler," said Cholpon Djakupova, the head of the legal nonprofit Adilet. "I think that tells you everything you need to know."

More Distress For Media?

Adilet was among several Kyrgyz NGOs that were named in a May 26 article by the pro-Kremlin website under the headline "List of foreign agents in Kyrgyzstan. Time to begin."

Djakupova told RFE/RL that the article, which accused prominent Kyrgyz civic figures of having ties to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is just one of many published by pro-Russian media in support of the draft "foreign agent" law.

"Since the war in Ukraine, the international environment has become very difficult. People say that the Kremlin is losing influence over Central Asia. But in Kyrgyzstan, it is gaining it," she said.

Kyrgyzstan's civil society and free press have traditionally been the most vibrant in Central Asia. But that has changed amid a deepening government crackdown.

More than 20 people, including NGO leaders and other activists, are currently facing trial on serious charges for their opposition to oppose a controversial border agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan last year.

The annual media freedom rankings published by the Reporters Without Borders watchdog last month showed Kyrgyzstan falling 50 places to 122nd out of 180 countries.

In April, a court in Bishkek approved the request of the Information Ministry to shut down the operations of Azattyk, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, after the broadcaster's refusal to remove a video about clashes along a disputed segment of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

The legal pretext used to threaten Azattyk came from the Law on Protection from False Information, legislation that drew widespread criticism when it was adopted in August 2021.

Mahinur Niyazova, editor in chief of the private news website, said the law against false information, the likely approval of the draft bill on "foreign agents," and a new proposal to further restrict the free press amounted to "the end of independent journalism" in Kyrgyzstan.

"The law on media will make it impossible for a media outlet to exist without registration. The law on nongovernmental organizations will make it impossible for a media outlet to register as a nongovernment organization," Niyazova said.

"Everything will be shuttered, blocked, or will simply not be given a license for further work," she said, predicting that Kyrgyz society is "too inert and fragmented" to resist the changes.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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