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Repressive laws represent major setback for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic future

Two repressive laws on non-governmental organizations and the media represent a major setback for the democratic future of Kyrgyzstan. CEE Bankwatch Network, an international non-profit network that monitors the activities of international financial organizations, said in a statement.

As noted, Kyrgyzstan is one of the few countries in Central Asia with an active and vibrant civil society, represented by strong human right defenders and active environmental and social issue groups. Last year, however, the Kyrgyz government proposed two repressive laws on non-governmental organizations and the media, which represent a major setback for the country’s democratic future.

If approved by the country’s parliament in its upcoming third and final hearing, both draft laws will impose firmer control on the registration and continuing presence of non-governmental organizations and media outlets. This will have implications for the ability of many Kyrgyz organizations to access financial support from international donors, otherwise unavailable locally. The proposed laws, which infringe on the rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly, also impose heavy penalties and sanctions, including prison sentences of up to five years.

Kyrgyz journalists have also come under increasing pressure, reporting persistent persecution and reprisals, with several independent media outlets facing criminal proceedings. In a ruling last year, the Kyrgyz court ordered Radio Azattyk to cease operations. In January 2024, further legal actions were brought against local media outlets along with the arrests of several prominent journalists previously involved in anti-corruption investigations. And in February, the same court issued a ruling to liquidate Kloop Media.

As the organization stresses, in its pursuit of further economic development, Kyrgyzstan has heavily relied on international investment for many years, receiving millions of euros in financial assistance from major European and Asian development institutions. According to recent reports, last year’s borrowings from international financial institutions rose by $258.5 million.

Civil society is crucial for reducing the risks of implementing investment projects. Public engagement ensures transparency and builds trust among communities. The participation of civil society in monitoring these investments helps identify potential issues early on and find alternative solutions.

At the end of 2023, Bankwatch sent a formal letter to three major development banks active in the country — the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In a letter to the banks’ management, we raised concerns about the situation unravelling in Kyrgyzstan. The organization strongly advised the banks to reinforce their joint efforts in signalling to the Kyrgyz government that the proposed laws jeopardize the country’s democratic direction and future economic development. In particular, it urged local authorities to take the following steps:

  • Encourage all development partners and donors to coordinate efforts to signal that the current legislative crackdown on non-governmental organizations runs counter to the spirit and principles of development assistance to the Kyrgyz Republic;
  • Revitalize the existing Development Partners’ Coordination Council by jointly developing and adopting specific proposals and recommendations for the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, including clear conditions for their implementation;
  • Facilitate greater systematic engagement between international donors, partners and local civil society, such as organizing multi-stakeholder platforms involving government, donors, civil society, business and other groups with the aim of encouraging open discussions and inviting feedback on government policies and decisions.
  • Develop and communicate specific positions on the enactment of repressive legislation in bilateral discussions with government, sharing these positions with national civil society and publicizing where possible.

As Bankwatch notes, these financial institutions should confirm their positions on the potential risks that the present situation poses for international investments in the country. They should convey to the Kyrgyz government the necessity for coordinating investment project objectives with the needs of citizens and insist that meaningful public participation with a strong civil society is crucial for successful project implementation.

The World Bank in particular should monitor risks associated with the new proposed laws and introduce effective measures and procedures to assess and mitigate such risks and impacts to ensure project compliance with its environmental and social standards.

Since 1992, the EBRD has invested around €900 million in Kyrgyzstan through projects that support the private sector, the transition to a green economy, and sustainable infrastructure.

What’s important to remember is that the EBRD’s political mandate stipulates that its countries of operations should maintain their democratic course. In her response to Bankwatch’s letter, the EBRD’s Regional Director Ayten Rustamova assured of the EBRD’s intent ‘to address the issues relating to recent political developments in Kyrgyzstan in its new Country Strategy’, which is currently being developed.

«Bankwatch will continue to keep a trained eye on these developments. Hopefully, both environmental and social risks will be reflected with equal importance, reinforcing the bank’s commitment to achieving its objectives and helping Kyrgyzstan return to its democratic path,» Polina Veretelnikova, Bankwatch Central Asia Coordinator, said in the statement.