Kyrgyzstan, once hailed as the most democratic of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, is on the way to adopting a “foreign agents” law modeled on one in Russia that eviscerated civil society there. As the Biden administration seeks to cultivate relations with the region to weaken the grasp of Russia and China, it should press for Kyrgyzstan’s return to democratic standards and, as a first step towards that goal, drop this draconian legislation.
A landlocked country bordered by China to the east and south, Kyrgyzstan has, for most of the past three decades since independence, offered its people more than a semblance of freedom of speech, expression, and the ability to petition and seek redress from their government. Kyrgyzstan has been particularly known for its vibrant and energetic civil society.
But since taking office in January 2021, President Sadyr Japarov’s administration, influenced by Russia, has rolled back those democratic gains, first by consolidating power in a referendum that weakened the parliament (known as the Supreme Council), and by cracking down on a free and independent media and attacking civil society organizations.
Kyrgyzstan recently plunged 50 points in the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, and 16 points in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. Kyrgyzstan also scored only 27 of 100 points in Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World report. For the 2022 calendar year, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global democracy index ranked the country 116th of 167 countries.
Last year, a prominent investigative journalist, Bolot Temirov was deported from the country and has been barred from returning on trumped up charges of “document fraud.” Temirov’s work on human rights abuses and corruption in Kyrgyzstan has been widely cited as the true reason for his expulsion. RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, was banned in April for several months for coverage that was unfavorable to Japarov’s administration, before being allowed back on the air in July amid international and local outcry.
Executive and Legislative Assault on Civil Society
Now, Japarov’s government is using executive branch powers to curtail the rights of civil society organizations. Additionally, some members of parliament have proposed the draft “foreign agents” law, which would allow the government to even more severely limit civil society’s ability to operate. Prominent organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the International Partnership for Human Rights have condemned the draft, which is similar in language and scope to the so-called 2012 foreign agents law in Russia, which gutted Russian civil society.
An analysis by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law found that “more than 90 percent” of the language in the draft law is identical to the Russian one, indicating extremely high levels of influence from a range of sources. As in Russia, the draft Kyrgyz law would impose criminal liability and a penalty of imprisonment for anyone found guilty of encouraging citizens “to refuse to fulfill their civic duties or commit other unlawful acts.” The law also would significantly expand the power of the Ministry of Justice, enabling it to use aggressive oversight against any organization that violated the law. The vaguely defined scope of the law would create broad discretionary powers for the government, which many civil society organizations believe could easily be used against them.
More than 100 Kyrgyz civil society organizations in September signed a public letter opposing the legislation, despite facing potential danger in doing so. But the legislation passed its first reading on Oct. 3, just 10 days before Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Bishkek on a rare visit (he has limited his foreign travel since the International Criminal Court in March issued an arrest warrant for him related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine) to attend a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Kyrgyz parliament may take up the draft again next week for the second of three required readings before passage.
U.S. Engagement and Influence
While visiting Kazakhstan earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to supporting the “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence” of the five Central Asian countries to counter Russian interference in the region, with phrasing that alluded to the potential threat that any former Soviet republic faces after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Biden administration has sought to engage more effectively with the region with its C5+1 framework, although this has yielded limited results thus far. In Kyrgyzstan alone, Russia still maintains a military base and significant economic ties.
But neither Kyrgyzstan’s government nor the country’s citizens have a desire to be used as a pawn in a “great game” between Washington and Moscow. As the war in Ukraine continues and Russia seeks to maintain its regional “strongman” role, civil society and independent media have an essential role to play in countering Putin’s narrative in a way that reflects the national experience of Kyrgyzstan since the end of the Cold War and that resonates with local communities. The cold warrior lens of yesteryear won’t work in a nascent democracy where local voices have had the opportunity to grow and flourish over decades.
That goes for the Biden administration, too. Rather than viewing Kyrgyzstan as part of a new Cold War game and/or focusing narrowly on economic engagement as if that would address underlying issues of democratic engagement, freedom, and human rights, the United States should help ensure that space for civil society and media remains open and capable of supporting democratic laws and norms. This is especially true as Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated an ability to build and sustain such norms in the past, if not in recent years.
To that end, the Biden administration and members of the U.S. Congress should emphasize in their engagement with the government in Bishkek that any future partnerships are reliant on adherence to democratic standards, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will make any economic or other engagement far more productive for both sides. This should include future bilateral agreements on trade or security, or regional economic cooperation.
The U.S. government also should leverage its influence with international financial institutions. As a poor country with limited outside capital available for now, Kyrgyzstan needs the financial support of both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to develop infrastructure and even support the general budget. International financial institutions also are among the few international bodies that get Japarov’s attention with any regularity.
Civil society is among the few vestiges of what once was a thriving, though rambunctious, democratic country in a region otherwise ruled by autocrats. Biden and his administration, having pledged to prioritize the reversal of democratic backsliding globally, has opportunities to encourage Kyrgyzstan to reverse its own plunge. Halting the new draft law that would snuff out one of the country’s remaining democratic institutions is a crucial first step.