As of November 4, most foreigners traveling Kyrgyzstan will be required to register with the state within five days or face a 10,000 som fine ($145). The law, which applies to travelers from countries with established visa-free regimes with Kyrgyzstan, risks driving tourists away from the country and opens opportunities for graft.
The law was passed in mid-September and signed on October 25 by President Almazbek Atambayev. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs published an informational note on November 1 outlining the impact of the new migration law, which establishes mandatory registration for foreign nationals traveling to the country — regardless of whether they are required to have a visa or not. Foreigners already in Kyrgyzstan when the law goes into effect don’t need to register, but those who leave the country and re-enter or arrive after November 4 must.
The U.K. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan provided an English translation of the note and list of registration centers on its Facebook page. The U.S. Embassy posted a message on its website explaining the legislation:
Travelers should present themselves at the local State Registration Service Passport Desk within 5 days of their arrival in the Kyrgyz Republic. Travelers will be required to fill out a form, which they can obtain at the Passport Desk, and pay a fee. Currently the fee is 120 som; however, this fee is subject to change at any time… Travelers staying in a rented apartment or house must appear with their landlord who is required to present their original passport, proof of property ownership, and a statement that he/he agrees to the traveler’s temporary residence at his/her property.
While similar laws — in Kazakhstan and China, for example — have not necessarily dented tourism numbers, both states have significantly larger tourism industries to begin with. In China, although foreigners are required to register, hotels are equipped to do so on their behalf. There doesn’t seem to be that mechanism or capacity in the Kyrgyz case.
Kazakhstan has made its share of tourism flubs, particularly an ill-conceived decree last spring which widened the areas along the border closed to foreigners without a special permit. Astana walked back the decision in August 2015. A forum post on the popular travel site Caravanistan says that foreigners covered by the visa-free regime no longer have to register with the migration police within five days of arrival, but the Kazakh Foreign Ministry still mentions registration under the “rules for staying in Kazakhstan.” (The law may have been changed but it has certainly not been communicated well).
Recently, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan agreed that Kyrgyz citizens could travel to Kazakhstan without registration for up to 30 days. So far, the only country reported to be exempt from the Kyrgyz law mandating registration is Russia.
Central Asia’s dissonant attitude toward tourism sets an ingrained suspicion of outsiders against the economic (and political) benefits of attracting tourists. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have both pursued visa-free regimes in recent years, with a focus on attracting rich Westerners.
The problem with opening the gates, however, is that ostensibly terrorists and others with ill-intent have another route in. This fear — whether justified or not — leads to reactionary policies and general confusion. Last December, EurasiaNet reported on increasing opposition to the visa-free regime within the Kyrgyz state. Abdil Segizbaev, the head of the State Committee for National Security, “publicly cast doubt on its usefulness during an anti-corruption-focused roundtable” last November. Last year’s criticisms were aimed, in part, at Turkey (at the time on the outs with Russia) and specifically about Islamic State (ISIS)-linked terrorists using visa-free regimes to infiltrate the state.
Another motivation, beyond the terrorism narrative, may be more targeted at temporary foreign workers, researchers, or others circumventing Kyrgyz law in order to work in the country. Even if they are not the target, they are certainly a casualty. The bit quoted above from the U.S. Embassy’s note about dragging a landlord to the registration office will be a nightmare for those renting apartments to foreigners. As most foreigners covered by visa-free regimes can stay in the country for up to 60 days, those looking to use the max amount of time are likely to seek housing in an apartment rather than a hotel.
A final problem with the new law is the opportunity for street-level bribery. A foreigner in Bishkek, for example, could be stopped by police and asked to prove that they’ve registered. Of course, this is entirely within the rights of the Kyrgyz state; except that men in police uniforms in Kyrgyzstan are not always actually police. There have been countless stories about shakedowns in Bishkek’s famous Osh bazaar and elsewhere featuring fake policemen flashing badges and collecting “fees.”