This week, the human rights committee in the Kyrgyz Parliament neglected to comment on a draft law that, if passed, could result in many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) labeled as “foreign agents.” According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), “the provisions of the bill could be used to force virtually any NGO that receives foreign funding to either adopt the stigmatising label of “foreign agents” or otherwise put an end to its activities.”
The so-called “foreign agents” law has been working its way through Kyrgyzstan’s legislature for some time. First proposed in 2013, the law emulates a 2012 Russian law that has been used to shut down and shove out NGOs, dissenters, and civil society organizations. In an ironic twist, the labeling of a Russian NGO, the Committee Against Torture, is leading to an awkward set of questions regarding torture and Russian state policy. The committee was ordered by a judge to register as a foreign agent last year, as The Guardian reported, the judge claimed it “had tried to change state policy by broadcasting information about its campaigns and activities.”
In challenging the label, CAT and the court became tangled in a debate – at times leaning on the philosophical – about the hopelessly broad tenets that lie at the centre of the law: over what constitutes “state policy” and “political activity”, terms which have been applied in damaging trials against NGOs on a case-by-case basis.
The group’s founder, Igor Kalyapin, explained the incongruity of the state’s accusation to Russian media: “By the prosecutors’ logic, it turns out that state policy is torture in police departments and the covering up of torture by investigative bodies,” he said.
Human Rights Watch warned this week that passage of the “foreign agents” law in Kyrgyzstan could lead to the same crackdown on civil society as has occurred in Russia. HRW challenges the law’s vague language–which requires domestic NGOs that receive foreign funds and engage in “political activities” to register.
In late March, in coordination with President Almazbek Atambayev’s visit to Brussels FIDH encouraged the EU to press human rights with the Kyrgyz leader–specifically relating to the “foreign agents” law and a second law, also modeled on a Russian dictum, that bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.”
On his return to Bishkek, Atambayev told 24.kg that the issue of the “foreign agents” law did come up in Europe. But although Atambayev acknowledged that he has the power to veto such a law, he made a troublingly Russian-sounding comment:
When the bill comes to me, of course I’ll think. There are two versions of the law on foreign agents – adopted in Russia and another in the United States in 1937. I even don’t know which of the versions will come to me. In any case I will check if the laws correspond to interests of the country, whether they complied with human rights. Now I don’t want to promise you anything. 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.
The same analogy has been made by Russian President Vladimir Putin and others, attempting to liken the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the United States with the Russian, and now Kyrgyz “foreign agents” laws.
The analogy is weak, if not outright false.
FARA was passed in 1938 specifically to target Nazi propaganda, in 1966 it was amended to change focus to political lobbying and narrowed its definition of a “foreign agent,” distinctly increasing the burden of proof needed before the Justice Department could use the label. An organization or person can only be listed as a “foreign agent” in the United States if the government can prove that organization acts “at the order, request, or under direction or control of a foreign principal” and was engaged in “political activities for or in the interest of such a foreign principal,” including “represent[ing] the interests of such foreign principal before any agency or official of the Government of the United States.”
Thusly, most of the “foreign agents” listed in the FARA database are law firms and lobbying groups representing foreign governments, foreign political parties, tourism boards, and wealthy individuals. NGOs are not specifically targeted by the U.S. law. In fact the law includes specific exemptions for organizations engaged in “religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or of the fine arts,” as well as for those “not serving predominantly a foreign interest.” Even NGOs with political aims, that have foreign origins or funders, are not required to register as long as they do not act specifically “in the interests of a foreign principal.”
Is the U.S. system perfect? Of course not, but it is not distinctly punitive to foreign-funded civil society organizations. The U.S. law focuses on the issues of control and interests.
The Russian law, and the proposed Kyrgyz law, do target NGOs–focusing on the issue of funding and a broad understanding (that can be quite contradictory, as the CAT example illustrates) of “political activities,” without concerning itself with the issue of control. Central Asian regimes have long resorted to vague claims of foreign agents destabilizing their countries, without accepting the possibility that dissent may come from within. Kyrgyzstan has long had Central Asia’s most vibrant civil society, but many fear that that light may be dimming as Kyrgyzstan moves closer into Russia’s orbit.