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2 July 2023

Kyrgyzstan's Democracy Threatened: Implications of the Russian Foreign Agent Law

A new law is threatening Kyrgyzstan’s age old traditions of freedom of expression. Aleksandre Davitashvili looks at the history of democratic thought amongst the Kyrgyz and examines the nature of the threat that the country faces.

Kyrgyzstan's Democracy Threatened: Implications of the Russian Foreign Agent Law

Image: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock

Unique Democratic Traditions of Kyrgyzstan

Is democracy a Western phenomenon? This is a position projected by Russia in recent years, building largely on ideas promoted from Aleksandr Dugin’s Global Revolutionary Manifesto. Dugin writes about the importance of alternative conservative movements especially in what he considers “ traditional and homogenous societies” including those in Central Asia. Dugin’s idea is that the ‘collective west’ tries to change the genetic code of such societies and limit their freedoms through ideologized liberal democracy which ends up disrupting the social cohesion of traditional societies. The same ideas are repeated by contemporary far-right movements and political parties in various countries, especially in the post-Soviet republics as they try to generate support. But in fact democracy has universal roots. A fine historical example is in Kyrgyzstan whose distinct form of ancient democracy is based on a set of rules and customs united summed up by the term "adat." This traditional system of governance has been practiced by the Kyrgyz people for centuries. 

It’s a decision-making process based on a participatory and consensus-driven approach. The community would convene in assemblies called "kurultai" (assembly) to discuss important matters, resolve disputes, and make collective decisions. These assemblies were open to all community members, allowing every individual to express their opinions. This can be likened to the Kyrgyz variation of the ancient Athenian Agora.

Kyrgyz adat principles were guided by a set of customary laws that governed various aspects of life, including property rights, marriage, inheritance, and conflicts between individuals or tribes.

Freedom of speech and expression was a fundamental pillar of this system. Poet/singers known as "akyns," played a significant role in gathering and disseminating information as well as expressing social commentary through their poetic and musical talents.

Akyns held revered positions in Kyrgyz society akin to today’s journalists, often traveling from village to village, participating in public gatherings, and closely engaging with local communities to gather information about current events, social issues, and the concerns of the people. Based on this information, they would compose improvised or pre-composed songs, often utilizing satire and sarcasm to convey their messages. This played a crucial role in challenging authority, questioning norms, and promoting social awareness.

This system remained in place within nomad groups throughout the turmoil of the Mongolian and Golden Horde eras. However, as the Russian Empire expanded into Central Asia in the 1860s and 70s a new system of Tsarist rules were imposed following Russian migration into the region. In 1917, the Russians announced mobilization in Kyrgyzstan for World War I, causing turmoil and rebellion as people saw no reason to fight in the army of what was still perceived as being a foreign power. The Russians suppressed the rebels using brute force, resulting in the death of many protesters and the much more of the population fleeing to China. Numerous individuals perished during the arduous mountainous journey, and some still reside in China.

Revolutions in Russia arguably saved the Kyrgyz people from extinction, but another dark episode began with the repressions of the 1930s. During this period, the majority of scientists, poets, writers, and researchers who sought to preserve Kyrgyz values and the nation's spirit were killed. The locations of their graves were unknown until the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Kyrgyzstan emerged for the first time ever as a nation state. 

Before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz Republic elected as its chief a young scientist called Askar Akayev, former head of the Kyrgyzstan Academy of Sciences. On independence, his idea was to transform the country into what he called 'Everyone's Home' to accommodate its diverse ethnic minorities. He established democratic institutions, respecting the rule of law, promoting human rights, and pursuing a multi-dimensional foreign policy. During his two terms as president, the media operated freely, allowing even the harshest government critics, who disregarded international journalistic standards, to do their job without obstacles. Kyrgyzstan ratified important international human rights laws and earned the nickname 'Island of Democracy'. However, despite these democratic efforts, Akayev struggled to address economic and social problems, including nepotism and corruption. Ironically, the democracy that was created with his direct involvement ended his attempt to extend his presidency unconstitutionally in 2005. The biggest failure of Akayev alongside corruption was involvement of his family in the governance. Despite the country's lack of natural resources, proactive economic initiatives to foster growth and establish a strong middle class remained lacking. 

Yet the tradition of 'akyns' remained in the form of free and independent investigative journalism. And they had remained in place until very recently. But things started to change seriously in 2021 and parliament is now considering criminalizing much media and civic activity.

Control the Truth: A New Package of Amendments Against Independent Media and Civic Activists

In 2021, a first law against ‘fake information’ was passed, resulting in the closure of one media outlet in Kyrgyzstan, ironically one that is widely considered amongst the most trustworthy: Radio Liberty/Radio Freedom. According to this law, news agencies must remove articles from their websites within 24 hours if requested by the Ministry of Culture. Failure to comply will result in a two-month suspension of their activities. The representative of Platform Media Action of Kyrgyzstan, Amanbekov Amanbekov, stated that a two-month suspension practically means the liquidation of news agencies, as they lose income and struggle to pay salaries and bills necessary for the platform's operation. As a result of this law, Kyrgyzstan dropped 50 positions in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking, from 72 to 122. Previously listed as 'Partly Free' by Freedom House, Kyrgyzstan is now classified as 'Not Free' since 2021.

Furthermore, discussions are underway in Parliament to introduce a package of laws similar to Russia's Foreign Agents Law. According to Amanbekov, this law is 95% a 'copy-paste' version of the Russian law and aims to criminalize the activities of media and civil society through a public registry. Organizations participating in political demonstrations and opinion-making would have their activities terminated for six months, essentially resulting in their liquidation. However, the law lacks clarity in its definitions. Amanbekov raises questions such as whether a Facebook post or a conversation with friends constitutes opinion-making. The concern is that the law will be selectively used against individuals with oppositional views. Given the weak opposition in Kyrgyzstan, independent media and civil society serve as the government's primary critics. The government argues that transparency is the motive behind the law, as they claim the 'collective' West and the United States are attempting to spread LGBT propaganda in Kyrgyzstan. They also cite the existence of a similar law in the United States called FARA, adopted in 1938 to prevent the spread of German Nazi propaganda. 

The proposed amendments to the Criminal Code in the initiated package include a 10-year imprisonment for citizens participating in political demonstrations. Amanbekov raises a rhetorical question: "What constitutes a political demonstration? If I protest transportation or an irrigation problem, is it considered a political protest or not? The terms are undefined, granting all the power to the ruling elite." Incredibly the punishment for demonstrations would be harsher than for rape (8 years in jail). 

Amanbekov argues that the law is unconstitutional, and identifies two interest groups pushing for this law: low-level bureaucrats who don’t want their involvement in corruption and nepotism revealed and higher-ranking politicians who have financial and political interests in Russia. For instance, he claims that Russia rents heir Consulate building in Osh from one of the initiators of the law.

The Russian Connection?

While there is no proof that Russia has directly demanded the adoption of this type of legislation, such laws are generally nicknamed ‘Russian’ in post-Soviet countries. The underlying principle is to limit western finance of local NGOs and Russia was the first country to use this approach with two purposes: silence civil society and media and second limit Western influence on civil society and the media by restricting finance. 

The perceived wisdom is that Russia wants to decrease the influence of Western countries especially in the region they consider their sphere of influence. And it is therefore not surprising that it is the countries with the strongest democratic structures (Kyrgyzstan, Georgia) where Russia is most keen to see a move to more authoritarian legal frameworks. From Moscow’s perspective such laws aren’t needed in authoritarian regimes like Turkmenistan where governments don’t need legitimation from democratic elections and where media and civil activism are already under complete government control – a situation that might be characterized by Dugin as stable and helpfully predictable. 

In the balance

Following a last-minute delay announced without explanation on 27 June, the law will not now be considered after the parliament’s summer recess. Amanbekov hopes there’s still time to avert the worst, claiming that that 8 of the original initiators have already withdrawn their support. However, he still fears that the law might be amended in such a way that would put an “end to over 2000 years of freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan”.  If the amendments to the code pass through three hearings, civil activists will have to flee the country or remain silent and change their professions. 

The opinions expressed in this publication are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations and institutions listed in the credentials.