At a meeting of the Presidential Council for Human Rights on October 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to rewrite the foreign agents law with more precise definitions. Adopted in 2012, the bill requires all Russian NGOs to register as foreign agent and to disclose any overseas financing.
The announcement came after criticism from Lyudmila Alekseyeva, one of Russia’s oldest human rights activists and head of the Moscow Helsinki group. Alekseyeva asked the president to cancel the controversial law:
“You said many times that this law is executed incorrectly. It means it’s written incorrectly, and it’s unlikely it can be corrected. [You should] abolish this harmful law. The non-government organizations that fall under the definition of a foreign agent use all the funds they receive from abroad for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Don’t suspect us in something we are not guilty [of]. Our organizations are founded and operated by Russian citizens, and we are labelled as a foreign agents by own government, which is shameful for us.”
Another prominent NGO activist Mihail Fedotov also criticized the law at a meeting with Putin. According to Fedotov, 94 NGOs have already been registered as foreign agents, most of them human rights, women, ecological, and animal rights organizations. “The attitude of state agencies toward human rights organizations reminds me of a kind of witch-hunt.”
The first action that Putin took in May 2012 when he regained the presidency was to sign a law that requires all NGOs to register with a special registry maintained by the Ministry of Justice, before receiving any funds from foreign donors. Under this law, such NGOs are called “NGOs carrying functions of a foreign agent.” In post-Soviet countries, the term “foreign agent” carries strong connotations of “spy” and traitor,” leading many to believe that the Russian government chose the term to discredit NGOs in the eyes of ordinary people.
Fine for Noncompliance
Many Russian NGOs have tried to fight the law, but typically end up facing substantial penalties. Consequently, many decided to cease their activities. Under the law, if NGOs fail to register they risk paying fines from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles (roughly $5000 to $8000). According to Human Rights Watch, the prosecutor’s office and Ministry of Justice filed at least 12 administrative cases against NGOs for failure to abide by the “foreign agents” law and at least six administrative cases against the heads of NGOs. By February 2015, at least 13 groups chose to shut down rather than wear the shameful “foreign agent” label.
Most NGOs and human rights activists in Russia are very skeptical of Putin’s promise to change or to rewrite the law. Aleksandr Cherkasov, head of the Human Rights Center Memorial, told The Diplomat that it is impossible to change the law. “This law can only be abolished and that’s all. If Putin changes some words in this law, the nature of the law will remain the same. Imagine someone comes to you and ask ‘I am going to eat you, but you can choose the sauce.’ The problem is that we cannot be eaten. We don’t want to be eaten. We should stay alive and work for the benefit of the Russian people protecting human rights and freedom in Russia.”
The Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights NGOs, was declared a foreign agent in 2014. “The Russian government did not ask us, we refused to register and they registered our organization by force,” said Cherkasov. Then, in September, a Moscow court fined Memorial 600,000 rubles for violating the law. The court ruled that Memorial had twice violated the law distributing its own materials without stating that they were published by a foreign-agent NGO.
Eurasia Follows Suit
Other countries in Eurasia have begun to copy the Russian law. Sarah E. Mendelson, Senior Adviser and Co-Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs that in most countries it has become impossible to work for NGOs:
Throughout Eurasia, from Astana to Minsk, from Baku to Tashkent, governments have stigmatized public and private donors that support social justice. The efforts have made it nearly impossible for NGOs to function inside these countries and have greatly complicated the lives of those they help. The international norms that have shaped nonprofit work over the last several decades are under attack, creating a serious dilemma as donors decide whether and how to continue supporting civil society and human rights work overseas when it is technically illegal to do so.
On October 6, 50 NGO leaders in Kazakhstan lodged an appeal with President Nursultan Nazarbaev, asking him to veto a bill that resembles the Russian foreign agents law. The bill has been adopted by Majilis, the lower house of the Kazakh parliament, and sent to the Senate. According to the law, a new state institution will be responsible for distributing funds to NGOs. Grants from foreign sources will be passed to NGOs via a special procedure and conditions determined by this new institution.
Tajikistan also decided to amend its law on public associations, which requires any funding to be registered with a “state humanitarian fund.” The Ministry of Justice states that there will be no restrictions on NGO activities and the amendment is designed to combat terrorist financing and corruption. The draft has yet to be adopted, but the process is moving forward.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Diplomat that civil societies in Central Asian countries are now facing some serious difficulties. “The foreign agents law has become problematic in the region, governments don’t respect the need of association and want to restrict and label politically active NGOs. This is a worrying development. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, there are many examples of human rights defenders, NGOs not being able to operate at all. In Tajikistan there is total crackdown on NGOs. It is a very difficult period for NGOs and human rights defenders, but governments should not forget about their human rights commitments.”
Fears in Kyrgyz Civil Society
A similar foreign agents law targeting undesirable NGOs is moving towards enforcement in Kyrgyzstan, traditionally Central Asia’s most open and democratic country. The bill was adopted in the first read by the old parliament and must go through two more votes in a new parliament. With Russia’s influence in Kyrgyzstan rising steadily, NGO activists worry that the new parliament will adopt this law.
Medet Tiulegenov, an associate professor at the American University of Central Asia, told The Diplomat that as relations with Russia are strengthening, there is little hope that Kyrgyz democracy will prevail and the bill will be rejected by the new parliament. “This is a Russian-style law that totally jeopardizes all activities of civil society. The new parliament of course will consider this law and are unlikely to reject it. All initiatives that Russia has practiced little by little are moving forward towards Kyrgyzstan. Mostly this is related to the NGO sector and I think certain dangers await civil society.”
The new elected parliament will begin its session in early November, and could consider the bill before the end of the year. At the moment, there is very little optimism among human rights defenders and NGOs in Kyrgyzstan. Elmira Nogoibaeva, director of the Policy Asia think tank in Bishkek, says that Kyrgyzstan has become the most pro-Russian country in the post-Soviet area, copying Russian legislation and running its foreign politics through the prism of Russia’s relations with the world. “Thus, now enemies of Russia have become our enemies. Belarusian President [Alexander] Lukashenko refused to host a Russian military base, while our president [Almazbek] Atambayev even supported Russian bomb attacks on Syria.” Nogoibaeva believes that the policy of adopting repressive laws will continue and that the new parliament will pass the foreign agents law.
Dinara Oshurahunova, leader of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, meanwhile hopes that new parliament members are able to understand the role of NGOs in the society. “However, I am afraid that the new parliament will adopt it and the president will sign. I have been following all speeches of President Atambayev and I noticed that most of the time he is negative about NGOs. I ask myself how the president would have forgotten the truth-telling role of NGOs during the previous regimes. As opposition leader, he saw how we worked hard and he was very content with our work at the time. I am really shocked how he has changed his position and opinion towards NGOs.”
Atambayev has spoken several times so far on this issue, but his position remains unclear. Speaking in Brussels in 2013, he said Kyrgyzstan had no need for a law on “foreign agents,” such as the one Russia adopted. Two years later, again in Brussels, Atambayev had slightly changed his opinion. This time he was more neutral. “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,” he said.
Most politicians and experts emphasize that NGOs in Kyrgyzstan have always been very strong and played a significant role in two color revolutions that overthrew the regimes of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Edil Baisalov, a well-known Kyrgyz politician, told The Diplomat that it is ironic now that Kyrgyzstan has bought into the anti-color revolution rhetoric that formed the basis of the law in Russia. “President Atambayev stood in the forefront of both ‘revolutions’ and greatly appreciated the truth-telling powers of foreign-funded NGOs in the darkest years of the oppression by the Akaev-Bakiev regimes.”
Baysalov says that the law was initiated first by those lawmakers in the Kyrgyz parliament who came in for the greatest criticism from active civic groups who monitor the Jogorku Kenesh. “I believe in the last five years that civil society groups have become more marginalized. But this is not because there is pressure on them. It is just a result of the general shift of attitudes, influenced by the recent anti-Western propaganda of the Russian government and media. President Atambayev is acting on his own, not only to please his Russian patrons, but also because he doesn’t like to be criticized and feels frustrated by the NGO community.”
Omurbek Tekebaev is a member of parliament who supported the bill in the first read. “Now when we start working in a new parliament, we will look into details. I think we have to change many things there. First, I do not agree with the name. Labelling NGO as a foreign agent is shameful. Of course, we will change its name. Kyrgyzstan is a country that has chosen a democratic way, so we cannot pressure the NGO sector. If we adopt this law, we will change it in a way that do not damage our democratic values,” he says.
Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) won a plurality in the recent parliamentary election and will form the coalition. The destiny of the draft legislation therefore very much depends on the position of SDPK party. Janar Akaev, a new MP from the presidential party and a former press secretary for Atambayev, says that he will fight the law. “It is nonsense to label NGOs as foreign agents. This is a Russian-style law and has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan. We have always had vibrant and very active NGOs. In the new parliament we have now many young members, I am sure we will block this law. Kyrgyzstan is a democratic country that experienced two revolutions and we cannot go the other way. It is impossible because we have an immunity to such repressive methods earned in the fight against previous dictators.”
What about the SDPK leaders? Bolot Otunbayev, a member of the party’s political council, says that Kyrgyzstan is proud to have well-developed NGOs which is an attribute of a democratic country. “Some experts even call us as the ‘country of NGOs.’ We have approximately 15,000 registered NGOs, although not all of them function at the moment. Civil society in our country is the strongest in the whole Central Asian region and we have to recognize their contribution and professionalism in building transparency and democracy in our country.”
At the same time, Otunbayev suggested that NGOs are not always consistent. “We used biometric registration in the last election which guaranteed transparency. Thanks to fingerprints to verify identity before voting, we managed to eliminate doubles in the voter rolls. Some NGOs, despite the fact that they already gave their fingerprints to different embassies in Western countries to get a visa, became opponents and refused to accept biometric registration in their own country [Kyrgyzstan]. They even challenged this initiative in Constitutional court.”
Meanwhile, international human rights organizations are watching the issue closely. Human Rights Watch’s Williamson said that Kyrgyzstan should comply with its human rights commitments. “We do expect new parliament members to reject this law and respect human rights commitments of Kyrgyzstan. Every country has to respect human rights obligations under the UN and other international organizations.”
Cholpon Orozobekova is a Geneva-based journalist and analyst specializing in Central Asia.