At 10 a.m. on February 29 Galina Skripkina walked into the main conference hall at Park Hotel in Bishkek city center. A tense silence quickly descended on the room, packed with attendants to the roundtable. A member of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s own Social Democratic party, Skripkina heads the Parliamentary Committee in charge of revising a series of draft amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations of the Kyrgyz Republic. The Committee had invited representatives of local nongovernment organization (NGO) activists and international organizations to discuss the changes to the law and provide input on how to improve the draft.
Following similar legislation adopted in Russia in 2012, in its current form the “foreign agents” law would require any non-profit organization that receives foreign funding and is involved in political activities to register as a “foreign agent.” The bill was introduced in early September 2013 and passed the first of three compulsory readings on June 4, 2015, with 83 votes for and 23 against. A second reading promised for last autumn before parliamentary elections never materialized, and a new date has yet to be fixed.
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Many believe the long arm of Putin’s Russia is behind this initiative, as Kyrgyzstan – which in the past few years has steadily gravitated towards its powerful northern neighbor – accuses civil society organizations of spreading so-called Western values such as human rights. The country’s small but active LGBT community appears a close second in line for the vitriol of self-styled nationalists, as “non-traditional sexual relationships” seem to top their charts of Western-backed depravity, encapsulated in the “Gayropa” pun found on Russian-language Internet sources.
It is unsurprising, then, that another piece of legislation closely mimicking a June 2013 Russian law and running almost in parallel to the one on “foreign agents” aims to prohibit “gay propaganda” in the small Central Asian republic. Introduced in March 2014, its authors took almost a year to define the “non-traditional” label attached to “sexual relationships,” finally settling on “sexual attraction between people of the same sex and sexual relations between them.” The Kyrgyz version passed the first two readings in October 2014 and June 2015 with crushing majorities. The date for a third and final reading has yet to be set.
Writing in Coda Story about Putin’s Russia, journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev points out that “the increased frequency with which anti-gay messages crop up in Russian media is not due to an inherent culture, values, or ideology,” but to the need to “refocus national anger elsewhere.” This applies to Kyrgyzstan, too, where the political elites have diverted the public’s attention from the slumping economy to purported enemies of the state (‘foreign agents’) intent on eroding national sovereignty and undermining the country’s traditional values by propagating alien codes of behavior, such as being gay.
The reality is that the average Kyrgyzstani citizen has plenty of reasons to be angry, none of them related to NGOs or the LGBT community. Following Kyrgyzstan’s August 2015 accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), then Economy Minister and current Prime Minister Temir Sariyev gave upbeat statements about “new trade and economic opportunities” for the country’s entrepreneurs. Six months later, the EEU has failed to deliver on those promises.
As Russia – Kyrgyzstan’s main trading partner and the top destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyzstani seasonal migrant workers – reels from low oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, the Kyrgyz economy is feeling the heat. Russian investments in the country have dried up. Increased customs clearance fees with countries outside the EEU have hit Kyrgyzstan’s flourishing shuttle trade business of Chinese goods to its northern neighbors. As a consequence, tax revenues at Dordoi bazaar, a source of income for tens of thousands with an estimated annual turnover of over $2.9 billion, have plummeted.
Civil Society Fights Back
In December 2014, the head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society Dinara Oshurahunova presciently told Eurasianet how the foreign agents and gay propaganda bills were “distractions to keep civil society watchdogs busy while parliament quietly approves reams of EEU legislation.” With all odds arrayed against it, Kyrgyzstan’s civil society is fighting back.
At the roundtable that February morning, activists charged that the foreign agents law is unconstitutional and violates Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations. It contradicts Article 35 on freedom of association in the 2010 Kyrgyz Constitution, as well as Article 19 on freedom of opinion and expression as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Kyrgyzstan acceded on October 7, 1994).
The bill, they argued, discriminates against both local and international NGOs with a presence in the country by imposing burdensome financial reporting and auditing requirements, while giving the Ministry of Justice broad authority to interfere into an NGO’s internal affairs. Moreover, the broad definition of what constitutes political activities – “organizing and conducting political actions, dedicated to changing state policy as well as to influencing public opinion for such purposes” – gives the state wide leeway in curbing NGO activities in the country, including hefty fines and imprisonment of up to three years for breaking the law.
Finally, there is the “foreign agent” label. “Although the latest draft has basically scrapped most provisions for local NGOs, the ‘spirit’ of the law still stands,” Tolekan Ismailova told The Diplomat. The Director of the Bir Duino NGO and a veteran human rights defender, Ismailova believes that the bill should be dropped altogether. Most participants concurred, calling the draft “totally pointless” and warning of the dire consequences for the country’s image abroad.
“The ‘foreign agent’ designation has been preserved. Once that becomes law, the government will start eating away at all our rights and freedoms, whether we are local or international,” Ismailova sighed, adding: “This law creates a permissive environment in which people feel entitled to target us. Recently, two ladies attacked me in the street shouting ‘foreign agent’ at me!”
Vigilantism and Its Discontents
Many in Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community can relate to Ismailova’s words. Amir, a member of Kyrgyz Indigo, an LGBT rights organization, told The Diplomat that “in the past two years we have seen a real escalation of violence against members of the LGBT community, and this trend started with the introduction of this homophobic bill. Many people who attack us justify their behavior with the fact that this bill allows them to punish and harm the LGBT community.”
Another LGBT activist with the Labrys organization confirmed to The Diplomat that since 2014 their “help hotline has been receiving many more calls than before for cases of discrimination, extortion and violent attacks on LGBT members.” He ascribed the increase to the “gay propaganda” bill.
While homophobia is nothing new in Kyrgyzstan, it is undeniable that the draft law has created a permissive climate in which vigilante groups feel justified to take the law into their own hands, often with the silent approval of state institutions. In one such incident, members of the self-anointed patriotic group Kyrg-Choro (“Kyrgyz Knights”) and Kalys (“Justice”) crashed a private party on May 17, 2015, where participants were celebrating the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. An amateur video of the event shows one of the attackers shouting “I will punish you” at the guests.
A detailed account of events on Labrys website reveals how the police, once it intervened, allegedly took the side of the attackers. Back at the police station, the LGBT activists weren’t given food, water, or access to the toilet, despite being held for five hours. They were harassed, threatened and some were even asked to show their genitals (for the police to identify the transgender among them). Their written depositions were disclosed to Kyrg-Choro and Kalys members, who noted down their addresses. During this time, the latter could walk around the station, drink and eat.
This is hardly surprising. Already back in 2014, Kyrg-Choro leader Zamirbek Kochorbaev boasted that his organization “had carried out a few raids [targeting migrants and sexual minorities] with the Ministry of Interior and the State Committee for National Security,” allegations officials deny. Two of the attackers involved in the May incident are now on trial, although few believe that they will be sentenced. One monitor who attended a court session in February told The Diplomat that “Kyrg-Choro and Kalys members appeared relaxed, as if confident they’ll be acquitted.”
The growing phenomenon of vigilantism should be reason enough to worry, as it offers a glimpse of the uncertain future awaiting Kyrgyzstan. In the short term, the elites may have succeeded in redirecting public anger at the enemies of the day, but at the cost of exacerbating social polarization. As the socioeconomic causes at the heart of the general public’s discontent remain largely unaddressed, the chances of a backlash are very real. Kyrgyzstan’s elites would better take notice or face the consequences.
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst.