After stalling for almost two years, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has overwhelmingly passed a bill that will have a chilling effect on the Central Asian country’s vibrant civil society, if it becomes law. Local media reported that legislators voted 83 to 23 on June 4 in favor of the “foreign agents” bill.
The bill – which must go through two more votes in parliament before landing on the president’s desk – is modeled on a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that has been used to crack down on independent groups there. Kyrgyzstani rights activists fear that with Russia tightening its grip on the region, and lawmakers seemingly eager to please Moscow, the walls are fast closing in on free speech and other civil liberties.
The bill would require non-governmental organizations that receive money from abroad to register as “foreign agents” – a term widely associated with espionage in the former Soviet Union. It would also saddle NGOs with burdensome reporting requirements.
Human Rights Watch has said the bill “would be incompatible with the right to freedom of association” and has called on Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to reject it.
Lawmaker Nurkamil Madaliev, who co-sponsored the bill, told EurasiaNet.org last autumn that “not all the funds that finance NGO activities in Kyrgyzstan are aimed at creating a favorable situation.” He said his legislation would help protect an embattled nation from two existential threats: Islamic extremism funded by wealthy Gulf Arabs and the efforts by some Western-funded organizations to educate young Kyrgyz about gay rights and reproductive health.
Questions about Moscow’s influence over the legislature are hotly debated in Bishkek. The city is rife with rumors about the Kremlin buying MPs, local media outlets, and even whole ministries.
Madaliev concedes his bill is based on Russia’s, but denies Moscow has pressured or bought him or his colleagues. “This particular bill gives us an opportunity to resist the influence of all interested parties, including Russia,” he insisted.
Yet last month Kyrgyzstan signed the final paperwork to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, a post-Soviet group that critics fear is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to expand Russia’s influence.
President Almazbek Atambayev has said he supports the “foreign agents” bill, which had met resistance in parliament in recent weeks, even from some members of his party.
Social-Democrat MP Daniyar Terbishaliev claimed that provisions in the bill would require members of parliament to register as foreign agents because MPs receive support and trainings from foreign governments and foreign-funded organizations.
Another similarly Moscow-inspired bill that activists fear will inevitably become law is a close copy of Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” law. It passed its first reading with a vote of 79 to 7 last fall. Rights groups say the bill’s vague provisions amount to re-criminalizing homosexuality.