26. June 2023 | EDP Wire | Rebecca Wagner

The Republic of Kyrgyzstan in a Process of Autocratization: Steinmeier’s Visit to Central Asia in the Context of National Processes and the German National Security Strategy

Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier is on a official trip through Central Asia, where he is not only visiting Kazakhstan but also the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. Against the backdrop of far-reaching restrictions against civil society and human rights activists, this trip provides an opportunity to state his support for a partnership between Germany and the Kyrgyz Republic in the sense of the newly adopted National Security Strategy, while upholding human rights.

This EDP Wire is a translated repost from PRIF Blog.

On the occasion of President Steinmeier’s official visit to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan from June 21 to 23, it is worth taking a look at the current political processes in Kyrgyzstan and placing them in the context of global developments as well as their significance for the German government’s recently adopted National Security Strategy. An important aspect of Steinmeier’s visit to the Kyrgyz Republic is the strengthening of the partnership with the country and the region. President Steinmeier will also have meetings with representatives of civil society. Steinmeier’s visit to Kyrgyzstan comes at a politically volatile time. Steinmeier was previously in the region in 2016, when he visited Kyrgyzstan the last time. Since then, there have been many changes in the country. In particular, the country has been in a renewed process of autocratization since the last political upheaval in October 2020, which many local observers tend to describe as a coup. Accordingly, Freedom House has downgraded Kyrgyzstan from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in 2021. The reason for this is the turbulent political transition process following the October 2020 elections. This has resulted in the reintroduction of a presidential system with extensive powers for the president, and has been accompanied by repression of President Sadyr Japarov’s political opponents. The amendment to the law proposed for discussion in November to restrict civil society and the widespread arrests of human rights activists are currently the sad highlights.

Kyrgyz civil society under extreme pressure

In November 2022, the Kyrgyz government once again published a draft law that provides for far-reaching restrictions on civil rights in Kyrgyzstan (Draft Law on Noncommercial Nongovernmental Organizations). This draft law is contrary to Kyrgyz human rights obligations and is also not in line with the Kyrgyz Constitution adopted in 2021. Subsequently, amendments to the law were introduced to parliament for discussion by a member of parliament, Nadira Narmatova (Draft Law on “Foreign Representatives”), which impose far-reaching operational restrictions on civil society and severely limit access to international funding opportunities. In May 2023, further amendments to the law restricting civil society were introduced in parliament. Many of these were part of the restrictive NGO law proposal that was successfully defeated in 2016. These drafts are, according to ICNL, a copy of the 2012 Russian ‘Foreign Agents’ Law.

Kyrgyz CSOs, as well as well-known experts, are highly critical of these initiatives. Legal Clinic Adilet, one of the most prominent human rights organizations in Kyrgyzstan, and the International Center For-Not-Profit Law (ICNL) have voiced their concerns over the law. The law would massively restrict the freedoms of CSOs, limit their access to foreign funding, and intensify the stigmatization of CSOs through the label of “foreign representative”. International human rights organizations have also been vocal in their criticism of the draft law. Heather McGill of Amnesty International commented:

„These amendments pose a very significant threat to civil society in Kyrgyzstan which until now has been one of the most active in the region. They run counter to Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations to protect and facilitate the right to freedom of association and have been condemned by Kyrgyzstani civil society and international experts.“

These amendments would also affect International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), such as the German Political Foundations. The draft law stipulates that foreign representations must re-register. However, the new draft law leaves open what this re-registration should look like and how long it should take. ODIHR and the Venice Commission, which analyzed the amendments to the law in an “Urgent Interim Opinion on the Draft Law,” also see far-reaching restrictions on civil society and incompatibility with international human rights standards.

Shortly before the publication of the draft law, there was a renewed wave of arrests of human rights activists. More than 20 people were placed under arrest, including Rita Karasartova, a well-known Kyrgyz human rights defender. Intimidation attempts and restrictions against any critical voices have been going on since. On April 28 2023 the license of Azattyk, a local offshoot of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and and one of the independent media in Kyrgyzstan, was revoked. In addition in early May the Human Rights Ombudswoman Adyr Abdrachmatova who had asked the Venice Commission and the Office for Democracy and Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for an assessment of the legislative initiative, was removed from office by members of parliament for alleged activism on behalf of self-proclaimed political prisoners.

Contextualization of policy developments and significance in the context of the National Security Strategy

This draft law is part of an authoritarian development that has increased in speed and intensity since Japarov came to power in October 2021. In a PRIF blog post in 2021 I alredy pointed out that the Republic of Kyrgyzstan is going through a process that is also discussed worldwide as Shrinking Civic Space or third wave of autocratization. The proposal to alter the legal framework for domestic and foreign NGOs is part of a series of legislative changes since the adoption of the new Constitution in 2021. An amendment to the NGO Law was already adopted in June 2021. This amendment to the law had already resulted in the introduction of wide-ranging financial reporting by NGOs. The Kyrgyz government has attempted to restrict civil society activities in Kyrgyzstan on several occasions in the past. However, in 2009, 2013 and 2016, these legislative initiatives were successfully fended off. Due to the changed political framework, the restrictive amendments to the law could actually go through this time.

President Steinmeier’s visit to Kyrgyzstan is taking place at a critical time. Kyrgyz President Japarov has not shown himself to be particularly considerate of the interests of Western states and civil society. Only a week ago, the German government adopted the National Security Strategy of the Federal Republic of Germany, which speaks of a defense of a “free and rule-based international order that protects our values and interests” and wants to defend and enforce these in cooperation with new partnerships and nations. It also seeks to advocate for “democracy, the rule of law, human development, and participation of all sections of the population.” The Kyrgyz political developments outlined above and the massive restrictions and intimidation of civil society and human rights activists are neither in line with democracy and the rule of law nor with the international human rights regime.

Steinmeier’s trip to Central Asia would be an important opportunity to speak out in support of an active civil society in Kyrgyzstan and to take a firm stand against the planned legislative changes. The German president should not be blinded by the Kyrgyz government’s rhetoric about respect for human rights and the international normative order. Rather, he should push for concrete measures to be initiated as part of a geopolitical agenda for intensifying the partnership between Germany and the Republic of Kyrgyzstan while respecting human rights policies and holding up an active civil society. However, it is precisely at this point that the National Security Strategy reveals its weakness. The preservation of (geo)political security interests has a higher priority than aspects of democracy and human rights. Even though at the moment Kyrgyz civil society could use any diplomatic support and public pressure as support (mechanisms that have led to the rejection of restrictive laws in the past), expectations for Steinmeier’s visit should probably be kept low.

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