Two illiberal, Russian-style bills passing through Kyrgyzstan’s legislature are moving at such a snail’s pace that civil society activists are beginning to hope they are destined to fail.
A year has passed since conservative lawmakers introduced a bill targeting foreign-funded non-profits that is copied almost word-for-word from Russia’s notorious “foreign agents” law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2012. Like the Russian version, it would label non-profits that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents,” stigmatizing them in the eyes of many, and introduce numerous financial inspections and other burdens that critics say would deliberately hinder their work.
After parliament’s human rights committee endorsed the bill on May 19, it went to parliament for a first reading of three. There on May 27 it met some unexpected resistance from MPs who noted numerous inconsistencies and delayed a vote.
Daniyar Terbishaliev from the president’s Social Democratic Party claimed that provisions in the bill would require members of parliament to register as foreign agents because they receive support and trainings from foreign governments and organizations.
“I would like to note that a broad interpretation of many of the terms in this bill, including ‘political activities’ could […] be used against every one of us here. Almost every MP has interactions with international organizations to some extent. Almost every MP goes on foreign business tours funded by international organizations. Tursunbai Bakir uulu [one of the bill’s chief backers], you have also been on such trips. We all know, that most of them are sponsored by international organizations. Tomorrow anyone of us could be said to have offered help to a foreign agent, to a spy,” Terbishaliev said during the session.
Terbishaliev also complained the bill does not clarify which government body is responsible for determining who is a “foreign agent.”
Also on May 27, parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, Constitutional Legislation and State Structure published a 30-page conclusion criticizing the bill for being vague and encouraging corruption by giving state officials excessive and arbitrary power over non-profits.
Ultimately, should it pass in parliament, the bill would go to President Almazbek Atambayev. But his position appears to change depending on his audience. Back in September 2013, at a meeting in Brussels with concerned European Union officials, Atambayev claimed Kyrgyzstan did not need a “foreign agents” bill. However, a year later, in December 2014, just before signing a treaty to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, Atambayev told a Bishkek television channel that he supports the bill. Parroting Russian state media, he said he saw “hidden political forces” in the activities of some foreign-funded non-profit organizations.
Activists hope time is simply running out for parliament to consider these bills. The legislature will leave for summer recess at the end of June. When MPs return to work in September, they will have less than two months before new elections, during which time many are expected to be out campaigning.
Should the bill not pass a first reading this session of parliament, according to parliamentary regulations the process must start again from scratch after the elections. (The regulations are vague about what happens to a bill that has passed the first reading, whether it too must go back to the drawing board during the next session of parliament.)
Activists hope a similar fate may be in store for another vaguely worded bill banning so-called “gay propaganda” – also copied almost verbatim from Russia – which has stalled since passing a first reading in parliament with overwhelming support in October 2014.
Still, many feel irreparable damage has been done, that legislators have created an atmosphere that encourages hate and intolerance: for example, on May 17 nationalist groups Kyrk Choro and Kalysattacked a private event in Bishkek in honor of the International Day Against Homophobia. After the violence the groups held a press conference demanding parliament pass the “gay propaganda” bill.