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Kyrgyzstan Adopts Law Targeting Foreign-Funded NGOs

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Kyrgyzstan Adopts Law Targeting Foreign-Funded NGOs

The restrictive law was first proposed 10 years ago. How could it affect Kyrgyz society now that it’s been passed?

Kyrgyzstan Adopts Law Targeting Foreign-Funded NGOs
Credit: Facebook / Kyrgyz Presidential Administration

On April 2, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov signed a bill on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into law. NGOs that receive funding from abroad will be registered as “foreign representatives,” and they will be subject to costly reporting and auditing requirements.

In the many months it took for this piece of legislation to pass through three readings in parliament, Western governments, international watchdog organizations, and Kyrgyz civil society criticized the law. An open letter signed by 110 representatives from NGOs across Kyrgyzstan implored Japarov not to sign the bill into law, arguing that the law will “lead to reputational losses for Kyrgyzstan as a democratic country.” 

Given global patterns in democratic backsliding, this particular law may not make Kyrgyzstan stick out so much. After all, Kyrgyzstan’s law on foreign funding for NGOs is just one example of the legalistic backlash to the liberal world order. 

“Foreign agent” bills took off in eastern Africa in 2004, with draft legislation in Zimbabwe that served as a model for lawmakers in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda. Russia’s “foreign agent” law marked a tipping point in 2012, inspiring an avalanche of legislation across the world, from Mexico to China, Hungary to Israel. In total, more than 60 countries worldwide have passed laws that target foreign funding for NGOs. 

It’s not just countries that are designated as autocracies or hybrid regimes, either. In March 2023, the European Union began drafting a law that would crack down on foreign funding for NGOs and academic institutions. And lawmakers across the world – including those in Kyrgyzstan – point to the original foreign agent law that was passed in the United States in 1938 as evidence of American hypocrisy, despite the fact that the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) makes no mention of NGOs at all as the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law pointed out in an analysis of the draft Kyrgyz law.

Kyrgyzstan’s lawmakers tried to get on the bandwagon a decade ago when this “avalanche” first took off. Nadira Narmatova introduced the first foreign agents bill in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament back in 2014. The bill floated around parliament for two years before lawmakers voted it down in 2016

When Japarov ascended to the presidency in October 2020, he quickly championed constitutional reforms and the reorganization of parliament. Two years into Japarov’s presidency, Narmatova brought the foreign agent bill back before parliament, though she and the bill’s other authors shifted the language to “foreign representatives” to soften the stigma.

In the 10 years since Kyrgyzstan’s parliament first voted on foreign agent legislation, reporting has focused on this bill as evidence of Russian influence. 

There is no doubt that Russia’s foreign agent law inspired a wave of legislation in countries that were once Soviet republics. Given evidence that Kyrgyz lawmakers essentially copy-pasted their Russian counterparts’ bill, this is admittedly a fair frame for making sense of the push to regulate NGO financing. 

But the fact that it’s taken 10 years for Kyrgyzstan to actually adopt this law speaks to the notable significance of other international influences. That influence isn’t necessarily the stuff of bleeding-heart liberalism; it’s not that Kyrgyz lawmakers were especially sympathetic to liberal values touted in the West. They were, however, keenly aware of the potential spillover effects this type of legislation could have on governance and social services in Kyrgyzstan.

Social science research shows that two things tend to happen when countries pass this type of legislation: first, civil society shrinks. In the two years after Russia adopted its foreign agent law, one in three NGOs closed down. More than 11,000 NGOs in India lost their licenses to operate following legislation on foreign financing. 

Less than two weeks since Japarov signed the foreign representatives bill into law, this is already starting to happen. The Diplomat reported that longtime human rights defender Dinara Oshurahunova decided to shut down her organization, Civic Initiatives, following the third reading of the foreign representatives bill. 

The second significant effect of laws on NGO financing is that foreign aid shrinks. Research shows that countries that adopt restrictive laws experience on average a 32 percent drop in total bilateral aid.

Shrinking both civil society and foreign aid stands to have an outsized effect in Kyrgyzstan, where NGOs have played a critical role in attracting and distributing foreign aid. Some 29,000 NGOs are registered in Kyrgyzstan (though it’s unclear how many of them are actually active). Research over the last two decades has demonstrated that the government has outsourced public service provision to NGOs

It’s not just NGOs that work with international donors; Kyrgyzstan’s government has consistently relied on foreign aid

Nash Vek (Russian for “Our Century”), a non-profit organization that monitors international aid in Kyrgyzstan, found that between 1992 and 2002, Kyrgyzstan received some $12.3 billion in foreign aid. Twenty percent of that came in the form of grants. Those grants are distributed through several thousand state bodies that are responsible for Kyrgyzstan’s health infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, and education. Kaktus reported that the new foreign representatives law will apply to public schools, universities, children’s organizations, sports institutions, and cultural sites that are technically listed as non-profit organizations. 

Whether authorities actually require schools – which receive foreign grants to support projects like building toilets, offering pedagogical training to teachers, purchasing classroom technology and textbooks, and translating children’s literature into Kyrgyz – to undergo audits and submit financial documentation is unclear. After all, implementation and enforcement are choices that government officials make. In contexts where rule of law is weak, legislation like the foreign representatives bill stands to be applied inconsistently.

Japarov rebuked criticism of the foreign representatives from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asking the United States not to interfere in Kyrgyzstan’s internal politics. This rhetoric reflects a tension between state sovereignty and the uneven distribution of power in the global system that has driven the proliferation of laws restricting foreign funding for civil society.

After a decade of debate about foreign agents, Kyrgyzstan has staked its claim in the state sovereignty camp. But is the country prepared to take full responsibility for social services and infrastructure if the United States and European Union pull back aid?