A decade after lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan first introduced an effort to force nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) receiving funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” late last month more than third of the 90-member Kyrgyz parliament backed a draft law proposing just that. This effort comes after the idea was resurrected in November 2022, to sharp criticism.
The draft law, if passed, would require organizations that receive funding from abroad and engage in political activity to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign representatives.” The draft law defines political activity as “actions aimed at changing state policy and shaping public opinion for these purposes” — a definition Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have called vague and overbroad. The International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) warned that “civil society initiatives to promote awareness on issues of public interest, advocate for improved protection of the rights of vulnerable groups of the population or demand action to address social or environmental problems could be deemed to fall within the scope of the law.”
Failing to register, under the draft law, could lead to the suspension of an organization’s activities including the freezing of its bank accounts for up to six months. There are also criminal penalties ranging from a fine up to 10 years in prison for involvement with an NGO that is found to be “inciting citizens to refuse to perform civic duties or to commit other unlawful deeds.”
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) noted in an analysis of the Kyrgyz draft law that more than 90 percent of it “is copied from Russian ‘foreign agents’ legislation.”
In 2012, Russia adopted its “foreign agents law,” which was really a series of amendments to various laws and the criminal code. In essence, the changes required organizations that received funding from abroad and engaged in political activity to register as “foreign agents.” (Sound familiar?) Later amendments expanded the law to cover individuals and any organizations that received foreign funding and published “printed, audio, audio visual or other reports and materials.” Among those labeled as foreign agents include the notable Russian NGO Memorial (in 2015, it was later ordered closed by the Russian Supreme Court in 2021), Transparency International (in 2013), and RFE/RL (in 2017) among others.
ICNL’s analysis argued that if passed the draft law “will significantly worsen the legal status of both local and foreign NGOs” and ultimately Kyrgyzstan would “earn the image of an undemocratic country.”
The first effort to push through a “foreign agents law” in Kyrgyzstan, proposed in 2013 and formally submitted to parliament in 2014, was deeply criticized both inside and outside Kyrgyzstan. It passed its first two readings in parliament in 2015, but ultimately failed in its third reading in 2016.
This time around, there are heightened concerns that the “foreign agents law” will finally become a reality based, in part, on the passage of complementary laws already.
In June 2021, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov quietly signed into law new financial reporting requirements for NGOs, despite already existing financial reporting requirements. That law was followed in August 2021 by the so-called “fake news law,” which in 2022 was used to block RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. Earlier this year, a Kyrgyz court ordered the outlet shuttered.
These laws fit into a pattern of pressure. But, in copying from Russian laws, they don’t take into account the circumstances in Kyrgyzstan. Many, if not most, NGOs in Kyrgyzstan received funding from abroad in one form or another. There simply isn’t enough funding available inside Kyrgyzstan, from the government or private sector, to support such organizations.
In an article about the draft law, independent Kyrgyz media outlet 24.kg remarked, “You get a grant, so you’re a spy.”
“Supporters of the unpopular initiative forget that in Kyrgyzstan, not only NGOs or the media, but also the Cabinet of Ministers, Parliament, and other authorities live on grants,” 24.kg noted. “The state itself depends on foreign aid.”
This was something also pointed out by Akmat Alagushev, a lawyer for press freedom-promotion NGO the Media Policy Institute, in an interview with Eurasianet: “Our NGO and mass media put together do not get as many grants as our state and government do.”
As criticism mounted in June to the draft law, some lawmakers have withdrawn their support. Kloop reported on June 9 that three MPs — Emil Toktoshev, Emil Zhamgyrchiev, and Baktybek Choibekov — intended to withdraw support. On June 12, 24.kg reported that MP Taalaibek Masabirov would withdraw his signature as well.
The Kyrgyz parliament is scheduled to recess on July 1. The draft law may be passed before that break or it may, like previous versions, get kicked down the road again.