Controversial 'Foreign Agents' Bill Shot Down in Kyrgyz Parliament

 
 

In news sure to please nongovernmental organizations and human rights advocates in Kyrgyzstan, the country’s parliament voted Thursday to reject the so-called foreign agents law. After the bill’s third reading, Kyrgyz parliamentarians voted 65-46 against the law, which rights advocates say would have placed onerous reporting burdens on civil society groups that receive foreign funding.

In April, the latest draft of the bill dropped the controversial “foreign agent” label–switching instead to “foreign non-commercial organization”–and watering down the heavy reporting burden for such groups to a simpler requirement to publish annual expenditure and funding reports online. The label, David Trilling has written, is “widely associated with espionage in the former Soviet Union.” Despite the moderating of the draft, rights organizations said it was still discriminatory and contrary to international human rights standards.

Originally proposed in 2013 and first considered officially in 2014, the law’s supporters argued that, like the 2012 Russian law on which the Kyrgyz bill was based, it was necessary to keep track of foreign elements seeking to influence the state. The bill passed a first reading in June 2015, 83 in favor and 23 against (it passed a second reading that month as well). As I noted at the time, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has had a shifting opinion on the issue, once saying there was no need for such a law (while in Brussels in 2013) and in 2015 commenting: “Today we are facing with the fact that under the guise of human rights organizations, NGOs are opening and trying to destabilize the situation in the country, international relations.”

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The revised draft passed two readings again in April, though was preceded by greater debate about the bill’s intent and whether it was necessary at all. As I wrote in March:

The debate surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s foreign agents law–and in particular the bill’s drawn-out progress–highlights conflicting impulses among Kyrgyzstan’s politicians and its people. On the one hand, there is deep-seated suspicion of outsiders funding organizations in the region for their own purposes… On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan’s people have benefited greatly from NGOs, which don’t just pursue sometimes controversial human rights issues (such as LGBT issues) but tackle broad public health issues and also fill gaps in government services.

Thursday’s vote to reject the draft indicates that Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentarians, who were voted into office last October in an election considered largely free and fair, are taking into consideration the international and domestic pushback against the law. A small protest was staged in front of the Kyrgyz Parliament earlier this week.

A February article on Eurasianet noted growing ambivalence about the law in parliamentary debates and linked its ebb and flow to Kyrgyz relations with the United States and Russia. After last year’s hiccup in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations (more about that here) and tangible evidence that Russia’s friendship wouldn’t be able to finance much-needed hydropower projects, MPs may have found it wiser to punt the issue of legislating control over NGOs. The rejected bill has to wait six months before it can be proposed again, though it’s not clear that will happen. In his opposition to the bill, SDPK MP Zhanar Akayev pointed out that Kyrgyzstan’s image would suffer if the bill were passed.

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