The Case of Kyrgyzstan: Restrictive Draft Law “On Foreign Agents”

January 25, 2024

UPDATE – On March 14, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed the draft law on foreign agents. The draft law is now awaiting presidential approval. If signed, the draft law on “foreign agents” will effectively close most of the country’s civic space. This draft law would require civil society organizations (CSOs) receiving foreign funding and engaging in broadly defined “political matters” to register as foreign agents while providing state authorities with the right to interfere in their internal affairs. 

By Erkina Ubysheva

What kind of a country does a Kyrgyz citizen want to live in? A country where there is no corruption and discrimination, where everyone can find dignified employment, and have access to quality healthcare and education.

Ever since 2021, the pressure on civic space and its actors has been gradually increasing. There has been ongoing corruption, propaganda indicating “traditional values” as the only way, discrimination, and prosecution of those seeking to hold authorities accountable. Narratives against civil society and democratic values are being pushed through the media.

When confronted with these challenges, state officials often have two choices: to work towards solving the issues, or to ignore and hide from the issues. If they choose to hide, there needs to be a distraction to keep its citizen’s attention away from the issues.

As a distraction, the Kyrgyz government designated civil society organizations as an “internal enemy”. In November 2022, the government proposed a draft law, so-called the “foreign agents” law. The draft law, approved in the second committee hearing of the Parliament in January 2024, proposes that organizations that receive funding from a foreign source – be it an international organization, another country’s embassy, or a non-citizen – and are involved in “political matters,” are labeled a foreign representative operating in the Kyrgyz Republic.

The draft law considers “involvement in political matters” as anything that can shape the public’s opinion and influence state officials’ opinions/actions. Under this definition, a survey, an informational campaign, or a post on social media calling for respect for human rights can be classified as “involvement in political matters” due to the unclear wording of the draft law. Once an organization is classified as a “foreign agent,” it becomes subject to extensive control, censorship, and, most worryingly, a potential subject for criminal liability. As the draft law dictates, any event – be it public or an internal staff meeting – can be visited by a state official to inspect whether it corresponds with the mission of the organization, and, if it doesn’t, sanctions follow. An organization will be liable to submit exhaustive and extensive additional reporting, which civil society organizations in Kyrgyzstan have already been subject to since 2021.

The draft law moreover signals that those who work for democracy, human rights, and dignity pose a threat to the national security and peace in Kyrgyzstan, which state propaganda additionally repeats. The draft law imposes criminal liability for anyone who creates, leads, actively involves, and promotes activities that “promotes citizens to refuse their civic duties and promotes unlawful acts” with imprisonment of up to 5 years. Yet, there is no clarity in what civic duties this provision refers to. Is it a crime for a person or an organization to publish a social media post stating that everyone has a right to assemble peacefully, which has been denied through a blanket ban on assembly?

Adopting the draft law on “foreign agents” will effectively close most of the country’ civic space. The draft law excludes apolitical organizations– service organizations that help the wildlife, ecology, people living with disabilities, culture, and children, but do not advocate on the state level –thus deeming them as “safe and acceptable”, the authorities’ target has been put firmly onto the backs of organizations that promote human rights, advocate on behalf of political prisoners, promote non-discriminative legal initiatives, protect vulnerable and marginalized groups, and report torture and law enforcement misconduct.

What country does a Kyrgyz citizen want to live in? One that tackles pressing issues impacting citizens’ wellbeing, or one that creates enemies within its borders? The country eagerly awaits as the draft law is set to pass soon.

Erkina Ubysheva is the Director of the Smart Zharan Association, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. For over 20 years she has been working in the non-profit sector on advocacy, coalition building, and institutional development.