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Responding to retreating rights in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan

Article by Adam Hug

September 30, 2021

Responding to retreating rights in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan

Over the course of 2021 the Foreign Policy Centre’s Retreating Rights project has mapped the scale of the human rights challenges in three of the five Central Asian states through publications on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. The Retreating Rights project has mapped the rapidly declining picture for political pluralism and civic space in Kyrgyzstan since the October 2020 overthrow of President Jeenbekov and the vertiginous rise of President Japarov, while being frank about the situation that preceded and precipitated it – a political culture blighted by corruption, hatred and impunity. It documented how President Rahmon has steadily consolidated political and economic power firmly in the hands of his family and their associates in Tajikistan, following a ruthless strategy that has either suppressed, acquiesced or incorporated opposition voices. The project has also mapped the incomplete transfer of power from First President Nazarbayev to President Tokayev, who has promised change and introduction of a ‘listening state’ but so far failed to make a substantive difference to the human rights situation. Though opportunities for dialogue have opened in some areas, Kazakhstan’s powerful ruling elite remains broadly the same.


In all three countries the COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant failings in governance and state capacity, as well as the importance of civic movements in helping respond to the crisis. COVID has provided further opportunities for governments to expand the powers and surveillance reach of their security apparatuses. The crisis has come on top of a period of existing economic uncertainty, with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan continuing to struggle as the poorest countries in the post-Soviet space and when the shine has come off the Kazakh economic miracle, with the cost of living being squeezed and the future for its energy wealth increasingly uncertain.


The project documented how across the three countries the resources of the state are used to pursue political opponents to entrench the position (and wealth) of the elites currently in power. In Kyrgyzstan, the arrests of opposition politicians has become a repeated feature of post-election and revolution cycles but there are clear signs that this time the net may be being spread more widely. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the Governments have been ruthless in using anti-extremism powers to completely clear the political landscape of opponents, including cracking down on low-level activists with punitive force. The use of Freedom Restrictions (parole type restrictions against political and civic activism in lieu of prison) in Kazakhstan and other insidious pressures such as arrests and intimidation of family members are among the tools used to make the cost of challenging the ruling elites extremely high. Democracy and political pluralism have never been allowed to flourish in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan with the punitive approach above combined with onerous registration requirements which would be hard to meet even without the risk of arbitrary arrest and other punitive measures. While the research clearly shows that democracy in Kyrgyzstan has always been more fragile than some Western observers might wish it to have been, and following the country’s third revolution in 15 years, the warning signs are flashing brighter than ever.


Across the three countries political elites have positioned themselves to take full advantage of economic opportunities, capturing resources and squeezing out competitors to creating local monopolies in the private sector, dominating state owned enterprises and in some cases benefiting from customs monopolies and smuggling rings. The publications have documented the extent to which such money seeps into Western jurisdictions, not least in the United Kingdom and its overseas territory tax havens.


The picture on civic space has made for grim reading across the three publications. In Tajikistan a few resilient civil society organisations are able to continue to operate and make a meaningful difference on issues that do not directly challenge the ruling power structure. However, they are walking on egg-shells over what they can say and do in an environment where one misstep could lead to imprisonment and brutal repression. The international community can find itself toning down criticisms of the regime in order to try to maintain this remaining toe-hold of civic space but it has an ever growing resemblance to a hostage situation. In Kazakhstan pressure waxes and wanes on the core of independent civil society still able to operate depending on the current political climate, with any link to the opposition ruthlessly pursued and cracked down on, particularly if there is any connection to fugitive oligarch and implacable Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov. For many years independent civil society in Kyrgyzstan has faced delegitimisation by those in society seeking to undermine them for their links to the West and for their involvement in pushing for liberal social values. The tools used to apply pressure in all three countries include harassment of individual activists (from pressure by the security services through to trolling campaigns), onerous registration and financial reporting requirements and other forms of bureaucratic pressure. The publications examine in detail how the international community could work with local civil society partners to push back against harassment, delegitimising narratives and strengthen their support on the ground. Many of the problems facing NGOs are also faced by independent trade unions who in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been under persistent pressure.


One of the major challenges facing international support for human rights in the region and Western engagement more broadly is the way in which issues around women’s rights and LGBTQ rights are facing increasing push back from conservative social groups and politicians. This has seen everything from action on domestic violence and bride kidnapping through to protections for harassed and ostracised LGBTQ groups framed as a Western attack on traditional, local values. This culture war, with local conservative activists bolstered by Russian and other international illiberal and anti-Western narratives, has been relatively successful in helping the delegitimisation of Western backed civil society in Kyrgyzstan and the debate is now heating up in Kazakhstan, with issues of LGBTQ rights already off limits for campaigners in Tajikistan due to the level of repression. The publications also highlighted the impact of ongoing ethnic tensions, particularly for the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, but also how Kazakhstan, which has comparatively successfully navigated issues of ethnic identity since independence, is facing emerging tensions (notably around the upsurge of violence against the Dungan community in 2020) as sense of Kazakh identity has become stronger. The practice of religion is actively managed by the state across the region with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan seeing tight control of religious observance and actives measures against proselytisation, with some greater freedoms and open religiosity found in Kyrgyzstan though some restrictions on hijab wearing are to be found in all three states.


The project showed the growing economic and political power of China in all three countries, a presence that has not been without its tensions, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as concerns over resources, jobs, the treatment of fellow Muslims (including ethnic Kazakhs) in Xingjian and the extent of the power imbalance have fuelled tensions. Russia remains a key regional player acting as the lead security partner, recipient of labour migrants from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (with remittances a major source of income for both countries), and with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. These connections help it maintain security service cooperation and cultural ties, which include continuing local engagement with Russian media and social media that can strengthen local conservative and anti-Western attitudes.


The recent events in Afghanistan have clearly demonstrated the limits of Western power in the wider region but also triggered an increasing realisation of the need to work with the Central Asian states to manage the fallout. There is a real risk that the humanitarian crisis and security concerns that flow from the Taliban’s return may simultaneously boost UK, EU and US political engagement with Central Asian states but simultaneously deprioritise official advocacy for domestic reform and human rights still further. With Overseas Development Aid budgets to the region being trimmed in a number of donor countries the scope for influence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may be further curtailed.


The outlook for progress on human rights, governance and democracy in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan may seem pretty bleak but this is not the time to give up hope. The publications map the different tools available to support reform, acting both inside and outside the countries in question and with different players taking cooperative and confrontation approaches to the ruling elites. The reports show that dialogue with the Governments of the region, particularly when bolstering local civil society activism, can help deliver modest gains on issues that do not directly impact local power dynamics but greater pressure will be required to achieve progress on more key human rights issues, particularly around the targeting of civil society and opposition activists.


All three publications show how important corruption is to maintaining the repressive status quo so it should be prioritised by international partners and acted upon. This should mean rethinking and potentially reducing the provision direct budget support to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, strengthening due diligence over internationally backed contracts, increasing conditionality on international lending and exploring ways to offer debt relief directly linked to political and human rights reform. The publications give ideas for how aid and international support can be re-evaluated and strengthened at this time of constrained budgets in donor nations.


Across all three countries diplomatic pressure can be leveraged to make a difference in specific cases of abuse with local diplomats encouraged to speak out quickly and loudly. The impact of the European Parliament Resolution on human Rights in Kazakhstan has been clear, pushing the Government of Kazakhstan into a burst of legislative and diplomatic activity around these issues (albeit the jury remains clearly out on the extent to which it will lead to change in practice).[1] Such public measures to call out the Governments for their human rights record should be replicated, including by adding Tajikistan to the UK Government’s list of human rights priority countries. The three publications make the case for the use of personal ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions and anti-corruption tools more actively to help add to the pressure for reform. For example, the Kyrgyzstan publication suggested opportunities to take action against the officials involved in the torture and imprisonment of Azimjan Askarov and for other countries to follow the example of the United States in sanctioning Raimbek Matraimov on grounds of corruption.


Western asylum systems need to become better attuned to the human rights challenges present in all three of these countries, particularly around the need to provide refuge to the family members of activists that are targeted, most notably by Tajikistan, as punishment for their relatives’ work. Global tech giants need to improve their content moderation and management to prevent organised trolling and abuse by political actors and the states themselves, with a clear lack of capacity in local languages (Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh) identified as a key problem.


There is a lot of work to be done in order to make meaningful progress to reverse the retreat of rights across Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. However, as the publications clearly showed in their essay contributions, there are some hugely impressive voices both in those countries and amongst their diasporas in both civil society and academia who should be supported to help deliver the change their countries need.


Key recommendations for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Each publication provided a detailed list of locally focused recommendations but there are a number of recommendations that apply to all three countries. They should:

  • Address widespread corruption at the heart of their states and take steps to reduce conflict of interest for state officials;
  • End the use of anti-extremism legislation powers to target peaceful protestors, activists and opposition groups both at home and abroad and the use of torture in their penal and criminal justice systems;
  • Stop targeting NGOs with punitive tax inspections and burdensome reporting requirements;
  • Make it easier for independent and opposition parties to register and protect political activists from state harassment;
  • Stop the continued harassment of independent trade unions and striking workers;
  • Protect the ability of independent media, journalists and bloggers to operate. Measures to achieve this across the three countries should include: ending police and security service harassment, stopping the blocking of independent news websites, and further reforming libel laws and provisions on insulting the ‘honour and dignity’ of public officials;
  • Improve data protection and privacy regulation and enforcement; and
  • Tackle domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse of the LGBTQ community.


Recommendations for international institutions, Western partners and donors:

  • Ensure a focus on issues of corruption, hatred and impunity;
  • Undertake a systemic review of international donor and IFI funded projects, including budget support, the use of consultancies and working with NGOs. It should look at both objectives and implementation, based on evidence and widespread local engagement;
  • Find ways to empower fresh thinking and new voices, while giving partners the space and resources to adapt to local priorities;
  • Increase human rights and governance conditionality in current and future EU and UK partnership agreements, debt relief, aid and new investment;
  • Expand local language moderation by social media companies and strengthen reporting and redress mechanisms;
  • Raise systemic problems and individual cases of abuse both in private and in public diplomacy, including parliamentary resolutions on human rights in the region and adding countries to international human rights watch lists;
  • Deploy ‘Magnitsky’ personal Sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses
  • Use international mechanisms for tacking corruption and kleptocracy, including improved transparency requirements in Western jurisdictions, reform of ‘golden visas’, corruption focused ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions and other anti-corruption tools such as Unexplained Wealth Orders where appropriate; and
  • Improve access to asylum and temporary refuge for activists at risk, including measures to assist family reunification where their relatives have been targeted for abuse.


The publications:

Retreating Rights: Examining the pressure on human rights in Kazakhstan: Launched on 22nd July 2021 and edited by Adam Hug (Foreign Policy Centre) the publication contains essay contributions from: Colleen Wood (Columbia University); Aina Shormanbaeva and Amangeldy Shormanbayev (International Legal Foundation- ILI); Tatiana Chernobil (formerly Amnesty International); Mihra Rittmann (Human Rights Watch); Galiya Azhenova (Adilsoz Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech); Anna Gussarova (Director, CAISS – Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies); Dr Khalida Azhigulova (Associate Professor, Eurasian Technological University); and Aigerim Kamidola (Independent consultant in international human rights law). A video of the launch event can be viewed here and the audio recording can be accessed here.


Retreating Rights: Examining the pressure on human rights in Tajikistan: Launched on May 17th and edited by Foreign Policy Centre Director Adam Hug. It contains essay contributions from: Dr Sebastien Peyrouse (George Washington University); Dr Parviz Mullojanov (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences Paris); Shoira Olimova (International Accountability Project); Xeniya Mironova (Independent scholar); Anne Sunder-Plassmann and Rachel Gasowski (International Partnership for Human Rights); Dr Oleg Antonov (Malmö University), Dr Edward Lemon (Texas A&M University) and Dr Parviz Mullojonov (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences Paris); Favziya Nazarova and Nigina Bakhrieva (Public Foundation Notabene); Dilbar Turakhanova (Independent consultant); and Larisa Alexandrova (Independent expert). A video of the launch event can be viewed here and the audio recording can be accessed here.


Retreating Rights: Examining the pressure on human rights in Kyrgyzstan: Launched on March 1st 2021 and edited by Adam Hug (Foreign Policy Centre) the publication contains essay contributions from: Dr. Asel Doolotkeldieva (OSCE Academy); Dr. Aijan Sharshenova (OSCE Academy); Gulzat Baialieva and Dr. Joldon Kutmanaliev (University of Tubingen); Professor Eric McGlinchey (George Mason University); Sardorbek Abdukhalilov (Spravedlivost); Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient); Ryskeldi Satke (Third Pole); Shirin Aitmatova (UMUT 2020); Ernest Zhanaev (Human Rights writer and consultant); Dr. Elira Turdubaeva (University of Central Asia); Begaim Usenova (Media Policy Institute) and ARTICLE 19; and Jasmine Cameron (Human Rights lawyer). A video of the launch event can be viewed here and the audio recording can be accessed here.


Photo by David Mulder, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.


[1] European Parliament, RC-B9-0144/2021,

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