Kyrgyzstan’s Shifting Politics: Foreign Agents, Civil Society, and Russian Influence

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Kyrgyzstan’s Shifting Politics: Foreign Agents, Civil Society, and Russian Influence

How did Kyrgyzstan become a standard-bearer in adopting Kremlin-inspired tactics – like the just-passed “foreign representatives” bill – to suppress civil society?

Kyrgyzstan’s Shifting Politics: Foreign Agents, Civil Society, and Russian Influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov pose for a photo prior to their talks in Kazan, the capital of Republic of Tatarstan, Russia, Feb. 21, 2024.

Credit: Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

“We decided to shut down our organization,” said Dinara Oshurahunova, a prominent human rights activist from Kyrgyzstan known for her foundation, Civic Initiatives.

When she spoke to The Diplomat, Kyrgyzstan was one step away from passing a draconian law on so-called “foreign representatives.” Mirroring the 2012 Russian “foreign agents” law, the law is expected to significantly erode space for civil society in the Central Asian nation.

Oshurahunova judged such a radical move prudent. She was confident that, if passed, the law would target her foundation.

On March 14, the controversial bill did pass in its third and final reading, without debate and with only five members of parliament opposing it. President Sadyr Japarov is expected to sign it into law.

“There are, of course, organizations that believe that you need to go and register as a foreign agent, that this is an honor,” said Oshurahunova. “But I don’t want to register [as a foreign agent], so we decided to simply shut down our organization and see how the situation unfolds.”

Oshurahunova founded Civic Initiatives in 2018 aiming to bring transparency to Kyrgyzstan’s parliament for the benefit of the public. However, faced with escalating pressure from the country’s authorities on civil society, achieving this goal has become more challenging than ever.

“They are trying to limit us from all sides, so that the organization cannot do anything at all. It will be very difficult to develop any new forms of work, it can only be partisan activism and that’s it,” she said.


The just-passed law on “foreign representatives” is poised to be a powerful tool in Kyrgyzstan’s seeming transformation from a flawed but functioning democracy to a state leaning into its authoritarian tendencies. How did this Central Asian nation – once celebrated as the region’s only democracy – become a standard-bearer in adopting Kremlin-inspired tactics to suppress civil society?

Russia’s attempts to sway the domestic policy of Kyrgyzstan in the 21st century align with the consolidation of President Vladimir Putin’s power in Moscow. The initial years of Putin’s presidential tenure were marked by geopolitical competition with the United States over military dominance in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan was a unique country in that for more than a decade it simultaneously hosted U.S. and Russian air bases, separated by just 35 miles. In these years of overlap, from 2001 to 2014, Putin’s objective to oust the United States from Kyrgyzstan became increasingly clear in Russian efforts to influence the country’s politics.

The Kremlin expanded its influence in Kyrgyzstan by openly working with local political allies, tapping into popular support. This strategy took center stage during Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 parliamentary elections, when Russia backed the then popular Ar Namys party, led by former Prime Minister Felix Kulov. Campaign visuals prominently featured photos of Putin shaking hands with Kulov.

This yielded results: Ar Namys secured third place at the elections with nearly 14 percent of the votes, claiming 25 out of 120 seats in the parliament. Among the beneficiaries was Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a conservative politician who later co-authored two pivotal Russia-inspired bills: the “gay propaganda” bill, and the first iteration of the “foreign agents” bill.

The timing of the introduction of these two bills was perfect.


On February 27, 2014, the same day that the first Russian soldiers were spotted in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, a new conservative movement called Kalys staged its first protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital.

Kalys urged the U.S. government to halt its “financial support for non-commercial organizations” in Kyrgyzstan. As a pretext for their cause, the movement asserted that U.S.-funded entities were “promoting homosexuality and advocating for the rights of sexual minorities.”

For Kyrgyz civil society, this day signified the onset of a new era of Russian influence that coincided with the emergence of Russia’s neocolonial ambitions.

Less than two weeks later, on March 12, Kalys organized a larger demonstration of 200 people in front of Bishkek’s White House, a building shared by the president and the parliament. Led by conservative activist Jenish Moldokmatov, protesters demanded the adoption of the law against “gay propaganda.”

Standing next to the White House entrance, Moldokmatov gave a speech full of geopolitical references.

“After the Ukrainian Maidan, there was information that foreign funding was raining on Kyrgyz NGOs,” Moldokmatov said, referring to an article from the pro-Russian tabloid Delo Nomer. “305 people working in non-governmental organizations received millions — this is almost as much as the village district receives. It is unclear what purpose this money is used for. How can we know? Maybe to train radicals, as was in Ukraine?”

The reaction of the conservative wing of the Kyrgyz parliament was quick. By the end of March 2014 a group of Kyrgyz MPs, led by Bakir uulu, registered a bill on “criminal liability for disseminating information about homosexual relationships.” Quickly nicknamed the “gay propaganda bill” by the press, human rights organizations, and parliament members themselves, the bill contained vague definitions that made it potentially easy to target nearly anyone for any mention of LGBTQ people.


The “gay propaganda” bill appeared to be a preliminary move by the parliament to gauge the reception of Russia-inspired legislation in Kyrgyzstan. Just three months later, in June 2014, the Kyrgyz version of the Russian “foreign agents” law was officially entered into the parliamentary records.

Authors of the bill used rhetoric similar to that used by the Kremlin, claiming that the law, if passed, would target only foreign funded non-government organizations (NGOs) that carry out “political activities.” Those organizations identified as “foreign agents” would have to submit additional financial reports, the bill proposed.

“We are not against NGOs. If they work strictly according to their charter and do not interfere in the politics of the country, then there are no complaints against them,” said parliament member Nurkamil Madaliev, one of the authors of the bill, in an interview with Kyrgyz journalists in 2015.

Kyrgyzstan’s then-president, Almazbek Atambayev, backed the bill, but he strategically delayed his endorsement of it until November 2014.

At that time, Kyrgyzstan boasted a genuinely competitive political landscape. Following the 2010 elections, five parties held seats in the parliament, with none securing a majority. The mere registration of the bill in the parliament didn’t assure its passage. Atambayev, navigating the complexities of the Kyrgyz political terrain, refrained from taking an early stance, as he had to delicately balance among various factions within the government.

Despite publicly expressing support for the “foreign agents” legislation in Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev maintained caution. He insisted on reserving his final opinion until he had the chance to scrutinize the final version officially registered in the parliament.

His patience was tested as parliament members modified the bill’s text multiple times between 2014 and 2016. This ongoing alteration mirrored a tug of war between Kremlin-backed Kyrgyz officials on one side and Kyrgyz human rights organizations, supported by Western governments and international organizations, on the other.

Meanwhile, toward the end of 2015, the parliament underwent a shift in composition following elections. Ar Namys, having lost Russian support, failed to secure any seats, contributing to the increased diversity of the parliament. After the October 2015 election, six parties entered parliament, up from the previous five.

Remarkably, most of the architects of the “gay propaganda” bill were not re-elected in 2015, and no other parliament members expressed a desire to pursue the bill’s advancement. Subsequently, the bill has remained absent from the parliament agenda ever since.


In May 2016, the Kyrgyz parliament, in a surprise move after two years of tinkering with the “foreign agents” bill, voted against it.

“In 2016, parliament was more accountable to the society in general, and Atambayev’s administration was not as tough on journalists and civil society as it happens today,” said Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. 

Oshurahunova was one of the leaders of the resistance against the “foreign agents” bill from 2014 to 2016. According to her, the parliament’s decision to step back from the bill was the outcome of extensive negotiations between Kyrgyz civil society and parliamentary representatives.

“Almost the entire civil society tried to influence parliament at that time. There were constant meetings, constant persuasion, both from the non-governmental sector and from international organizations, embassies, and that is how we managed to stop [the bill],” recalled Oshurahunova.

Agreeing with Marat’s perspective, Oshurahunova acknowledges that the diversity within the parliament played a crucial role in activists achieving their objective.

“Kyrgyzstan was still a parliamentary democracy, political parties in the parliament at least had some position and some independence,” said Oshurahunova. “While there might have been instances of intimidation against parliament members, overall, the parliament enjoyed a higher degree of freedom.”


In the following six years, Kyrgyzstan experienced substantial changes, including two shifts in leadership. The most recent change happened after the country’s third revolution, in 2020.

Sadyr Japarov, who rose to power amid the October 2020 unrest and was elected president in early 2021, displayed signs of favoring a conservative authoritarian approach even before taking office. His pre-election campaign, following the revolution, centered on promises to strengthen the powers of the president and reduce the influence of the parliament. He fulfilled these pledges by orchestrating a referendum on constitutional reform in April 2021.

Under Japarov’s leadership, Kyrgyzstan has witnessed a decline in its standing across various global ratings, including measures of political and civil liberties, as well as press freedom.

Presently, opposition politicians and civil society are being subjected to an unprecedented level of pressure. Several opposition leaders – such as former Parliament Speaker Adakhan Madumarov and former MP Ravshan Jeenbekov – are behind bars, as are eight of 11 investigative journalists detained in January 2024.

Russia’s influence in Kyrgyzstan entered a new phase with the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Kyrgyzstan, in turn, became a strategic transit point aiding Russia in circumventing sanctions.

The authorities in both Russia and Kyrgyzstan find themselves interdependent, sharing a mutual interest in maintaining the existing status quo.

“Following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has expanded its influence in Central Asia, one of the few regions that can directly or indirectly support Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” explained Marat.

Simultaneously, the Kyrgyz ruling duo, comprising President Japarov and his close ally Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, perceive Russia as a “protector” for their regime, according to Marat.

“All of the regimes in Central Asia are ready to cooperate both with Russia and with China because they know that these governments will never request those regimes to democratize or respect human rights and support freedom of speech, so they are gravitated towards other autocratic leaders,” said Marat.

By the end of 2022, the bill on “foreign agents” resurfaced in the Kyrgyz parliament. This time, the authors opted for the term “foreign representatives,” though the essence remained the same.

The power struggle between Russia and the West concerning the bill echoed the earlier clash witnessed from 2014 to 2016. At one point, there were indications that the new bill might follow the fate of its predecessor, when in the summer of 2023 several of its authors withdrew their signatures.

But the Russian agenda began to gain ground again, notably with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu openly advocating for “preventive measures” against “pro-Western” NGOs in Central Asia.

Despite losing several authors, the bill successfully cleared its first reading in October 2023 and proceeded to a second reading in February 2024. On March 14, without further debate, the parliament passed the bill. Japarov is expected to sign it into law.

“There are perhaps two to three members of the parliament who are against the bill, but the odds are not in their favor. With numerous arrests, mounting pressure on freedom of speech, journalists, civil society leaders, and political opposition, the circumstances make it nearly impossible for the bill to be rejected,” Oshurahunova told The Diplomat before the third reading was completed.

One of the few members of parliament who opposed the “foreign representatives” bill was Dastan Bekeshev, who said that there is Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan to promote the legislation.

“Geopolitically, historically, we have been with Russia for a long time. This can be considered bad or good, but it is a given, and there is no way to escape from it,” said Bekeshev.

Bekeshev’s political journey serves as an example to the complexity of Kyrgyz politics. Initially elected to the parliament in 2010 with the Ar Namys party – the one that featured Putin on its billboards – Bekeshev supported the “gay propaganda” legislation in 2014. Simultaneously, he emerged as an early critic of the “foreign agents” legislation.

Since 2021 Bekeshev has been an independent parliament member. Despite being one of the last critics of the government within the parliament, he navigates carefully, maintaining a neutral geopolitical stance when discussing the “foreign representatives” bill.

“In fact, there is pressure from the two countries,” said Bekeshev, referring to the United States and Russia. “Our government is attempting to identify common ground, steering clear of offending either side. In 2014 it was not as tough as it is now, because today the whole world is very polarized. But now we need to choose one side. I understand this very well too.”

In contrast to 2016, the United States and the European Union display less persistent support for Kyrgyz civil society and exert less pressure on the Kyrgyz government. Their involvement often extends only to issuing statements, which are frequently disregarded by Kyrgyz politicians.

According to Marat, this shift is also directly linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“[The] European Union and the United States need cooperation from Central Asian governments against allowing Russia to bypass sanctions. There is still hope in the West to convince Central Asian governments to stop helping Russia in re-exporting dual-use products and re-exporting products and equipment that can be used by Russia in the war against Ukraine,” said Marat.

“There is a sense of how much we can pressure Central Asian governments not to completely alienate them against us.”