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Open Society Foundations Closes Down Kyrgyzstan Operation

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Open Society Foundations Closes Down Kyrgyzstan Operation

In announcing the closure of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan, the Open Society Foundations cited the new “foreign representatives” law.

Open Society Foundations Closes Down Kyrgyzstan Operation
Credit: Depositphotos

On April 15, two weeks after Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov signed the “foreign representatives” bill into law, the Open Society Foundations cited the law in its announcement that it would close its Kyrgyzstan foundation after 31 years.

The Open Society Foundations, formerly the Open Society Institute, is a grantmaking network founded by George Soros. According to an April 2024 fact sheet, the Foundations’ total expenditures in Kyrgyzstan in 2022 amounted to $3.4 million. The fact sheet highlighted projects in education, public health, internet connectivity, and other areas. Over the course of three decades, $115 million in funding was provided to Kyrgyzstan. 

In announcing the closure of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan, as the national foundation was known, Open Society Foundations cited the “passing of a new law which imposes restrictive, broad, and ill-defined regulations on the activities of internationally funded local organizations.”

The press release went on to clarify that Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan “is locally governed and staffed…” But because it receives funding from abroad it will be subject to the new law, which introduces restrictions that “would require all foreign funded nongovernmental organizations to report broadly defined ‘political’ activities to the authorities, and risk other ill-defined consequences.”

The president of the Open Society Foundations, Binaifer Nowrojee, defended the organization’s record: “I believe the foundation’s record over the past 30 years speaks for itself; the foundation and its dedicated staff have been able to provide important support for ordinary people across Kyrgyzstan in ways that bolster national aspirations toward democracy and open society. We are deeply saddened that this work cannot continue and that this repressive new law will see civil society operate in a climate of uncertainty and intimidation.”

Reacting to the news, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Radio Azattyk reported that a “high-ranking official” in the presidential administration was “perplexed” that the Foundations linked its Kyrgyz closure to the new law. 

In 2023, 92-year-old George Soros handed over leadership of the organization to his son, Alexander Soros. Soon after, in late June 2023 the Board of Directors, which Alexander chairs, approved “significant changes to the Foundations’ operating model.” A spokesperson told CNN at the time that the Foundations’ expected to lay off no less than 40 percent of its staff globally. 

In August of that year, Reuters reported on internal Foundations emails, which outlined a plan to withdraw or end significant parts of its work in the European Union. “This shift is not a reflection on past work and the many contributions by staff over the years, but rather a forward-looking decision rooted in future opportunities to make a significant impact,” the email stated, highlighting aims to shift focus to other parts of the world. At the time, an Open Society Foundations spokesperson told Reuters that the organization would continue funding programs in Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Western Balkans through national foundations in those countries. 

The Kyrgyz official cited by Azattyk pointed to the broad reconsideration of approaches the Foundations had announced to cast doubt on the link the recent statement made between the closure of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan and the new “foreign representatives” law. But this is also exactly what a whole range of stakeholders – from NGO workers in Kyrgyzstan to foreign governments that fund local NGOs – had warned would happen if the “foreign representatives” bill was passed. 

One possible explanation is that institutional changes within the Open Society Foundations dovetailed with the increasing pressure in Kyrgyzstan on foreign-funded NGOs – and the likelihood of difficult days to come as the new law begins to be implemented – to result in the closure.

In short: the law was the straw that broke the camel’s back.