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Retreating Rights – Kyrgyzstan: Conclusions and recommendations

Article by Adam Hug

March 1, 2021

Retreating Rights – Kyrgyzstan: Conclusions and recommendations

Resolving the situation

This Retreating Rights publication has tried to set out the scale of the challenges facing Kyrgyzstan today. The people of Kyrgyzstan have seen the same movie several times now: rapid, chaotic political change leading to new leaders with big promises but who fall prey to the same vices as those they replaced, leading in turn to further dramatic change. The central question now remains whether President Japarov will follow the same script as his predecessors. However while certain issues have been amplified since the October 2020 upheaval, most of Kyrgyzstan’s challenges have been years in the making and at their heart lie three mutually reinforcing problems: corruption, hatred and impunity.


There are a lot of questions then for those who want to help Kyrgyzstan tackle these ‘three evils’.[1] Western Governments working with Kyrgyzstan have not ignored the country’s structural problems but they have perhaps been guilty of sometimes downplaying them. There has been a tendency to compare the country with the shocking human rights performance of its Central Asian neighbours rather than addressing Kyrgyzstan purely on its own merits, something that may have dulled some of the urgency of the response. Rather than panic though, it is time for a clear eyed assessment of the present situation, including examining the progress (or lack thereof) of previous approaches, in order to turn ‘deep concern’ into action.


As ever it is easier to diagnose a problem than to suggest a suitable remedy. However many of the authors in this contribution have tried to chart a possible way forward for international engagement in Kyrgyzstan. This conclusion seeks to marshal some of those ideas and add some additional ones. The challenges are both conceptual and practical, around what goals Western donors are seeking to achieve and what mechanisms they are trying to use to attain them.


Given the failings of the Kyrgyz state during the pandemic and the endemic levels of corruption that riddle the delivery of public services and all parts of public life that helped lead to the subsequent collapse and reformation of state authority in October, there is an urgent need to review projects that have been focused on capacity building in government ministries, state agencies and with the Supreme Council (Parliament). A significant proportion of international donor support, notably from the EU, has been channeled directly to the Government in the form of budget support.[2] There are important capacity building and local ownership arguments in favour of budget support in the context of a relationship of trust between donors and government. However there are reasons to reconsider existing approaches given the enduring levels of graft within these institutions (even if donor funded work is subject to heavy scrutiny such projects can displace other funding that can be used for less helpful purposes), their lack of accountability to citizens of Kyrgyzstan and the variable outcomes of different schemes.[3] As Ernest Zhanaev notes there is a tendency for an overly technocratic approach to assessing the outcomes of joint projects, an expert involved in some of these processes described it as ‘box ticking’.[4] An open and frank review would have been welcome even if the October 2020 events had not taken place. As President Japarov is looking at ways to consolidate the power of the central state and the international community should only find new ways to do this in return for real change in how things work.


Beyond working directly with the Government of Kyrgyzstan there is a tendency for governmental and institutional donors to package up their support into large funding bids, with bureaucratic reporting mechanisms in English. This approach is not always as conducive as it could be for the capacity building of local civil society (both activists and organisations) or the ability to move swiftly and creatively to address emerging issues.[5] This leads to many contracts being won by big international players, both consultancies and NGOs, with local organisations sometimes only able to benefit as junior partners.


When it comes to Kyrgyzstan’s civil society, as discussed in the introduction and many of the essays, it is increasingly clear that local NGOs are not only under legislative and political pressure but that the campaign of delimitation has sadly been successful in the eyes of a significant proportion of the public. Asel Doolotkeldieva concludes her essay by arguing that ‘it is important to understand that under the present conditions liberal NGOs and independent mass media are discredited in public eyes and enjoy a construed reputation of Western agents. Promoting these actors further will not help neither the liberal society nor the image of the international community. The focus on human rights, including the LGBT rights, has worsened considerably the Western image and consequently diminished the degree of influence of Western ideals and projects on local politics’.


So given that are legitimate concerns about the operation and outcomes of activities conducted at all levels there is a compelling case for an open, holistic and independent review of all donor spending by governments, multilateral institutions (including the development banks) and international foundations in Kyrgyzstan. This should be informed by a wide-ranging evidence gathering process involving a mix of independently run focus groups and public opinion polls to gauge broader public opinion (to help understand both what the public would like to see prioritised and what they understand about the current situation, including past donor efforts).[6] Not only should such a process ensure that it reaches beyond those who would normally engage in donor initiatives, but there is, as Sharshenova notes, a need to engage with those with different viewpoints (including institutional stakeholders and experts, those whose values may be different to existing liberal interlocutors, including moderate or constructive critics of donor actions).[7]


While any review process must be led by evidence on the ground the experts who have contributed to this collection have some important ideas to suggest. Both Sharshenova and Doolotkeldieva argue, in line with development best practice, strongly in favour of finding new ways to root democratic and governance practice in the local rather than international. Sharshenova argues that ‘democracy needs to come from within, and the EU will need to accommodate local forms and understandings of democracy’, while Doolotkeldieva writes that in order ‘to redress these negative images (of NGOs and liberal values) against the background of anti-Westernism prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, Western partners should work to promote other human rights images than of themselves’. The focus needs to be on shared principles rather than specific structures, so while using examples of Western institutions and practices can sometimes help illustrate ideas and inform operational understanding, the systems that evolve in Kyrgyzstan would benefit from being able to draw legitimacy from local values and history, as well as examples of good practice from other developing country contexts.


One of the major conceptual challenges is around what the international community should be prioritising. Given the level of cynicism amongst many in Kyrgyzstan towards liberally minded initiatives, some of the contributors here have argued in favour of a switch in priority towards projects focused on economic security and education rather than rights. There are a couple of dimensions to assess here. Firstly, many of the existing major donor projects in Kyrgyzstan have focused on building the economy and improving access to education, with limited to mixed results. However in this author’s opinion there could well be scope for a switch in focus to more directly tackling issues of economic inequality and providing grassroots support to family incomes of those most in need rather than an emphasis on entrepreneurship and business development at a higher level, if both poverty reduction and the need to tackle populist discontent are seen as a strategic priority for donors.


Secondly, it is worth noting the global context of development aid budgets dropping around the world, with major global cuts to the UK’s Foreign Aid budget and the withdrawal of Germany as a bilateral donor from Kyrgyzstan, on the grounds of reprioritisation and claims that poverty reduction efforts had already been a success.[8] So funding for a major new drive on more inclusive economic development may face significant resource hurdles, particularly once emergency COVID support schemes have been wound down.


Thirdly, it is important to examine a narrative that donors or ‘the West’ should have focused on economic development before civic freedoms and democracy (with a view that the latter would follow the former) in a global context. For example, since the 1990s enormous amounts of Western development aid has been spent in countries like Uganda and Rwanda with a successful focus on delivering local education initiatives, improving primary health care, access to water and micro-level economic development, yet both (and many others recipients) are still authoritarian regimes, with Uganda experiencing recent electoral repression as well as having a worse Transparency International Ranking for Corruption than Kyrgyzstan.[9] This is not to argue against the enormous value such development initiatives have in terms of improving people’s life chances but the evidence is certainly limited that this automatically provides a future spring board for political development and reform. So while in Kyrgyzstan the lack of progress on economic development, poverty reduction and equality have helped nationalist and reactionary groups cynically to compare and contrast funding for NGOs, that poverty is used as a distraction from the corruption and mismanagement that really lies behind that failure. This author would caution against taking an ‘either/or’ approach to ‘development’ or civil and political rights. This is not least because the two agendas can join effectively together to try to address issues of governance, transparency and accountability which lie at the heart of Kyrgyzstan’s problems.


This is not intended to be a counsel of despair, to throw away everything people have worked hard for and to give up. There are many past programmes that have made a positive difference to people’s lives and any new strategy from donors will need to find ways to engage with the state to help tackle certain development challenges; there will continue to be a role for international expertise and the ability to work at scale; and working with existing and emerging civil society groups will be a crucial part of the picture going forwards. In particular those civil society activists and human rights defenders who have weathered enormous pressures, made huge personal sacrifices to prevent abuse or to painstakingly achieve incremental change should not simply be cut loose to fend for themselves against the powerful forces they have angered over the years. But it is nevertheless time for reflection and while this collection does not pretend to have all the answers, it does attempt to suggest some of them.


So any major shifts in funding priorities should be informed by the findings of the type of review suggested above and be driven by local demand in order to build public credibility. Nevertheless, there are a number of important themes to be considered that flow from the analysis in this publication. Firstly, a rigorous focus on governance, transparency and accountability will be important to tackle the systemic problems of corruption, hate (often linked to nationalism, misogyny and homophobia) and impunity that this publication concentrated on. Secondly, a number of essay contributors here, and other experts interviewed as part of the research, strongly argue for a rethink of previous international engagement work with political parties and Parliament, given how recent events have further exposed the hollowness of such political vehicles. This is not to suggest a bar on engagement with the development of political ideas with civil society or to end inter-Parliamentary engagement as a form of diplomacy, but at least in the short-term capacity building efforts need to be rethought in recognition of the ephemeral nature of party allegiances and where the true sources of power lie in the current political system.


Work on domestic violence, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights remain hugely important areas for donors, not least given that there are few options for domestic funding for protecting these communities and the growing risks they face provide a clear need for efforts to monitoring threats and preventing possible violence. However it is abundantly clear that such work has been weaponised and deployed against the wider range of liberal minded initiatives and ‘the West’ in general. There are no easy answers about what might shift the tide of public opinion on these issues but donors can perhaps think more about how they can develop and promote narratives around their wider interventions that emphasise areas of shared interest with the wider Kyrgyz population. Building positive, unifying and engaging public narratives, rooted in local preferences, about the work that liberal civil society (including journalists, human rights defenders, NGO workers and lawyers) are doing are likely to be the most effective ways of gradually shifting public opinion. Fact-checking and myth-busting can be helpful to inform elite policy actors in their work but the wider research on their use shows that this approach can be of limited use in reaching out to many sceptics, particularly where the message carrier is not trusted and the sources of disinformation (often people they know) are more trusted. So a combative approach to challenging falsehood can often harden rather than soften resistance, accentuating polarisation and often act to amplifying negative messages to a wider audience as Gulzat Baialieva and Joldon Kutmanaliev note. There may however be less confrontational approaches that can find some areas of commonality, while respecting difference, that open up new conversations. There is scope to learn from the burgeoning global literature on psychology and messaging and then look to implement best practice in Kyrgyzstan.


Donors will be considering what role that could and should play in supporting new volunteer and social movements.[10] As Doolotkeldieva notes there is more that can be done to understand and map the dynamics and dimensions of these more fluid forms of civic mobilisation to identify where the real sources of authority and change are located. It will be important that conversations between these movements and the international community are shaped by the wishes of the activists, who may well have understandable wariness about engaging with the international donors (even when their assistance could be helpful) given the ways in which more traditional civil society has been demonised for its links to the ‘West’.


When looking at traditional donor support to civil society, as set out above there needs to be a process of reflection, recalibration and reform but there would seem to be two recommendations that might help move things forward, though they are somewhat in contradiction with each other. Local civil society groups would benefit from greater flexibility and speed of response from donors to help them adapt to the fast changing local environment and to enable them to be more closely driven by priorities arising from local need, rather than plugging in to strategies devised in donor home capitals. Such a flexible approach (including core funding) would likely rely, in this time of ever greater desire for scrutiny and accountability to donor taxpayers, on working with trusted partners with whom donors have an established working relationship and a confidence in their operational capacity. However this does not necessarily fit very well with the second clear recommendation which is to find ways to support fresh voices and new thinking, given the critique posed by Shirin Aitmatova and others that certain donor approaches and partnerships have gone stale over several decades. There would seem to be a misalignment between the local Kyrgyz demand for creativity, innovation and risk-taking and the Western donor taxpayer demand for accountability. There is a need to make the case that innovation and outcomes can be more important in showing value for money than what can be caricatured as box ticking exercises. Some Western aid sceptics may be willing to consider more creative approaches if packaged in the right way, particularly given that some of their often misplaced concerns can echo local complaints about ‘the usual suspects’ and ‘grant eating’. Decisions on any strategic changes should be based on evidence and the eventual approach would be likely to comprise a mix of greater flexibility for some trusted partners and involving a new generation of organisations, but it is important that this not be business as usual masquerading as something new if the credibility gap of donor aid is to be addressed.


As discussed above, any strategic rethink is coming at a hugely challenging time for the international donors, as demands rise in the wake of COVID and as budgets are often being cut. This context gives less room for maneuver than would be ideal and makes it more difficult to provide the stability and predictability of funding that can be so important. However, it is important that the international community takes a holistic view about the range of tools available to it.


Given that the EU has negotiated but not yet ratified its 2019 Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kyrgyzstan and the UK is currently negotiating its new partnership arrangements there is surely scope to link progress on completing these deals (and in the case of the UK-Kyrgyzstan deal uprating it to match the EU’s current plans) in return for some concrete and measurable actions to reassure partners that there will be no further backsliding on human rights. Partners could continue to explore new ways to use trade and investment incentives, with human rights conditionality and anti-corruption safeguards that can be leveraged and tailored to incentivise reform and improved development outcomes. Conditionality against clear benchmarks will be important but needs to be coupled with increased incentives to have resonance in an environment where the ‘West’ is clearly behind Russia and China in terms of Kyrgyzstan’s strategic priorities. This could potentially include ways to examine debt forbearance (such as interest relief) and debt reductions and relief on the portion of Kyrgyzstan’s debt held by multilateral banks (around 44 per cent of total external debt, which at $1.7bn is a relatively small figure by global standards) and other Western partners.[11] Such efforts could help to free up funding for services in the governance revenue budget and give the country the policy space to consider new capital investment projects (a comprehensive approach to existing debt relief could also be linked to find ways to improve transparency and accountability over new lending by China and other partners).


There is also a clear role the international community can play outside of Kyrgyzstan to address some of the systemic failings within it. This means being willing to use the personal sanctions (including asset freezes, banking system and visa bans) provided by the US, UK and EU Magnitsky powers, and anti-corruption mechanisms such as the UK’s Unexplained Wealth Orders.[12] The US have already deployed their Magnitsky sanctions in relation to Raimbek Matraimov on grounds of corruption.[13] Although the UK and EU schemes currently do not include corruption as a reason for applying such sanctions but other anti-corruption tools perhaps may be more appropriate in jurisdictions where assets identified in Kyrgyzstan’s corruption scandals are to be found.[14] Officials involved in the torture and imprisonment of Azimjan Askarov, should however be eligible for all three mechanisms, sending a strong signal against impunity, though potentially with a less direct impact on the lives of the alleged perpetrators. It should go without saying that the ways in which the Kyrgyz elites have used international real estate markets, company formation and other tools, provide more evidence of the need for wider anti-corruption reforms across the West, as addressed in other FPC publications and the wider literature.[15]


International social media companies can certainly play their part to help address the situation on the ground. They can look at ways to expand access to Kyrgyz language moderation and support to tackle online hate speech, particularly at times of political tension such as elections or constitutional referendums or around known flashpoints such as International Women’s Day. As Begaim Usenova and ARTICLE 19 argue the internal redress mechanisms of social media platforms still need further improvement and better sign posting, with a particular focus on tackling gender-based abuse. Further steps should be taken to expedite review mechanisms for those who are repeat victims, building on progress so far. Social media companies and donors can find ways to collaborate to help journalists and activists in Kyrgyzstan develop new methods of generating advertising revenue, crowdfunding and other monetisation techniques. Traditional donor funding can and should still assist with training on investigative reporting and on support for Kyrgyz language and local journalists, including how best to use social media and online dissemination channels. Given the rise in online abuse (to complement and amplify in-person threats) social media companies and donors (including donors linked to social media companies) need to do more to provide psychosocial support for victims of abuse and to facilitate the holistic documentation of such targeted abuse campaigns against journalists, human rights defenders, NGO workers and lawyers, with a particular focus on those in rural areas without established support networks.


There is much to say about what Western partners can do in relation to the situation, more than can be contained above or in this publication. However it is important not to ignore the political agency of the new Government of Kyrgyzstan. President Japarov’s background and his rise to power have raised a number of legitimate concerns about what may come next and so there is perfectly understandable scepticism about future prospects, not least given the trajectory of his many predecessors upon taking office. However, it is important to find appropriate ways to constructively engage with Japarov’s stated objectives and find the right mix of incentives and pressure to try and hold him to his pledges. International partners will need to make clear that further attempts to shrink the already reduced civic space or to target vulnerable groups and journalists who annoy him will lead to concerted and wide-ranging push back. Despite the many reservations noted in this publication about the approach being taken by Japarov to tackling corruption, his desire to be seen to be doing something by his supporters is clear. This could provide new opportunities to mutually identify illegitimately acquired assets stashed around the world, provided that such efforts are not solely targeted at his political opponents.


President Japarov has a long held beliefs about the importance of state consolidation and the centralisation of power in response to the chaos of previous years. It is clear that this political prospectus has some public appeal but it is at odds with a previous desire by donors and local civil society to see the distribution of power away from the ‘strong man as President’ (a key factor in the 2005 and 2010 revolutions) and towards to Supreme Council and local communities, with the intention of creating greater pluralism. In following these perfectly laudable objectives, the approach of the last ten years may have to some extent redistributed power, but it often did so in opaque and unaccountable ways, with a corrupted Parliament and players behind the scenes shaping decision-making (a key factor in the events of October 2020).


This author would argue that there is no single correct international model to follow and that there is not always a clear link between the form and function of government, between structures and accountability. This can perhaps be illustrated by two well-known, but far from perfect, democratic models. Though the US President is often still described as the most powerful person in the world, the country’s Presidential System is designed with such substantial congressional and judicial ‘checks and balances’ that the President often has a real challenge in passing much of his agenda. Furthermore, given the substantial power held at state level there are large areas of policy and practice where the federal government is only tangentially involved. Whereas the UK’s Westminster Parliament, claimed to be ‘the mother of Parliaments’, in fact consolidates more power in the hands of the executive and central government than almost any other in the democratic world.[16]


Despite the very low turnout, President Japarov’s victory and the approval of the change to a Presidential system by a wide margin will see him push ahead with his project of state consolidation and power centralisation, which he argues will enable Kyrgyzstan to deliver a more competent government and better outcomes for its public. This consolidation process clearly carries significant risks that it could quickly lead the country further down the road to full authoritarianism. However, given where things stand following the approval by referendum of the move to transfer powers from the Parliament to the President, there is a need to try and find new ways to help provide genuine transparency and accountability. Considering the referendum result and Japarov’s clearly stated objectives, it may be that arguments around retaining some ‘checks’, in the form of requirements to sometimes pause the breakneck speed with which he is making change and consult with the public (giving the opportunity for a populist like Japarov to learn what citizens think in real time and therefore potentially head off issues that may cause him problems) may have a greater chance of gaining some (if probably limited) traction than demands to retain ‘balances’ that give power (and opportunities for horse trading and corruption) to other political players that are or can be captured by powerful interests.[17]


One of the emerging issues will be what to do about the Kurultai. Given the history of the proposal and its backers and the abuse of similar schemes in Central Asia as a tool for presidential power to undermine or bypass parliamentary scrutiny it is absolutely clear why many activists have focused on trying to stop its inclusion in the new constitution. However the proposal, albeit in a watered down version, has made it into the revised February 2021 draft and, given the importance of some its backers to President Japarov’s electoral coalition, it seems likely that something called a Kurultai will be created whenever the constitution is finally voted on and, in all likelihood, adopted. So while efforts to remove this provision may well continue, it is important for civil society and the international community to consider what lessons they would like to seek to be applied from local community practices in Kyrgyzstan and from models of consultative bodies in developing countries around the world that could be more helpful than the current ideas being floated. If Western models can be of assistance to the discussion, then examples might include the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the mostly slow paced and bureaucratic EU consultative body of ‘social partners’ that acts as a generally harmless and sometimes helpful adjunct to the Union’s democratic structures, through to the ‘Citizens Assembly’ models used particularly effectively in Ireland but also in places like Canada and Demark.[18] There are certainly a wide range of different ideas out there for inclusive collective discussion and decision-making rather than leaving the body to be a self-appointed talking shop for older men or a rubber stamp for the whims of those in power, which it risks becoming without proactive engagement by those with better ideas.


Beyond the debate around the Kurultai, there will be a need to focus efforts on the other contentious issues that remain in the February draft constitution. Four particular areas stand out to this author. In the current draft, Article 8.4 would create a requirement that ‘political parties, trade unions and other public associations ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities’ that may give constitutional weight to efforts to increase NGO regulation and bureaucratic pressure. The continued, though watered down, presence of a ‘moral and ethical’ values test in Article 10 4, which states that ‘in order to protect the younger generation, events that contradict moral and ethical values, the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic may be limited by law’ is a continuing concern. Efforts must be made to ensure that this is only applied to issues such as protecting young people from age inappropriate content, such as pornography, rather than providing a backdoor mechanism to supress discussion about women’s or LGBTQ rights issues that offend ‘traditional’ sensibilities. The experience of how the Russian Federal Law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, has been used to repress their LTBTQ community is certainly a worrying precedent in that regard.[19]


As Sardorbek Abdukhalilov notes the proposed new constitution no longer has the requirement, set out in Article 38 of the existing constitution, that ‘everyone shall have the right to freely determine and state his/her ethnicity. No one may be forced to determine and state his/her ethnicity’.[20] While recently this requirement has been watered down to allow for the state to place an optional ethnicity section on passports and other forms of ID, there are fears that without such constitutional protection it may become mandatory to state their ethnicity on their ID, despite the provision of the newly proposed Article 1.5 that ‘The people of Kyrgyzstan are citizens of all ethnic groups of the Kyrgyz Republic’.[21] Abdukhalilov separately notes the importance of enforcing existing quotas for minority groups on electoral lists and recommends that similar measures should be brought in to improve diversity in government service and public bodies.


The draft Constitution, in Article 105, would also seem to further consolidate the power of the Prosecutor General’s office. It states that ‘supervision over the accurate and uniform execution of laws and other regulatory legal acts is carried out by the prosecutor’s office of the Kyrgyz Republic’.[22] Adilet have argued that this wording will ‘provide the prosecutors with the right to conduct inspections of citizens, commercial organisations, other economic entities, non-governmental, non-commercial organisations, institutions, enterprises, etc.’ and the power to control or replace other supervisory mechanisms.[23] This consolidation risks creating a tool that could be used even more efficiently to pressurise critics of the Government if effective safeguards are not put in place.


Jasmine Cameron suggests that the new Government of Kyrgyzstan should set out a fresh ‘road map on how to better protect the rights of the vulnerable and marginalised’. Such a plan could include the ‘National Action Plan for the safety of journalists’ with clear procedures and enforcement capacity that Begaim Usenova and ARTICLE 19 recommend. Such a new plan, replacing the Jeenbekov-era 2019-21 National Human Rights Action plan, could enable President Japarov to take personal ownership of such an agenda, and use it as a basis for efforts to reassure his sceptics and critics that he will not abuse the Presidential ‘bully pulpit’ to target them or encourage his supporters to do so. For any human rights road map or action plan to be more than another meaningless piece of paper to distract the international community, it should be authored and owned by the new Government but clearly linked to rights based conditionality around the signing of new partnership agreements, debt relief, new aid to the Government and further investment in infrastructure or economic development.


A number of authors in this collection try to help illuminate who President Japarov is and how he came to power. He has, or at least has been able to craft, a powerful personal story that resonates with a significant section of the public. As Aksana Ismailbekova puts it ‘to understand why people support Japarov, despite his violations of the rule of law, it is important to look at the security strategies of Uzbek businessmen. They have put their trust in someone who is a ‘controversial’ figure, but who also is perceived as having personally experienced the injustice of the law, and is able to show his strength against other strong ‘mafia’ networks. The boundaries of state, business, and criminal have been blurred in the context of Kyrgyzstan.’ So if the popular contention that most politicians in Kyrgyzstan are thieves is true (or at least partially true), it is understandably tempting for people to support the one who portrays himself as Robin Hood rather than someone who insists they are beyond reproach, despite evidence to the contrary.


President Japarov has also tapped into the same well of public concern about instability and a desire for strength or political courage (dukh) that so many populist figures use around the world. This dynamic is particularly relevant in the context of the recent chaos, corruption and lack of capacity in the Kyrgyz state. So it is absolutely understandable for observers, both inside and outside Kyrgyzstan to be concerned but in the absence of a significant deterioration in freedoms (or for those inside the country until new alternatives begin to emerge), there needs to be an attempt to find areas of Japarov’s agenda where common ground can be found, such as holding him to his rhetoric on tackling corruption, while organising and mobilising against emerging issues of concern.[24]


This publication shows that while on the surface the political landscape has changed dramatically since October 2020, in other important respects much has not changed and many of the same trends and forces are at work shaping the situation as they ever have been. The outlook may seem bleak but many of the dark clouds over Kyrgyzstan’s political system have been there for a long time. Kyrgyzstan’s people are resilient but its freedoms are fragile and action must be taken to prevent further backsliding. The Japarov Presidency should be a spur to review, revise and reinvigorate the international community’s engagement with Kyrgyzstan, focused on efforts to tackle corruption, hatred and impunity.


So this publication makes a number of potential recommendations for the international community and the Government of Kyrgyzstan.


Recommendations for the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, international institutions, Western partners and donors:

  • Ensure a rigorous focus on issues of corruption, hatred and impunity;
  • Undertake a systemic review of international donor funded projects in Kyrgyzstan including budget support, the use of consultancies and working with NGOs. It should look at both objectives and implementation, based on evidence and widespread engagement;
  • Find ways to empower fresh thinking and new voices, while giving partners the space and resources to adapt to local priorities;
  • Encourage the Japarov Government to develop a new and comprehensive National Human Rights Action Plan;
  • Increase human rights and governance conditionality in order to unlock stalled EU and UK partnership agreements, debt relief, further government related aid and new investment;
  • Deploy Magnitsky Sanctions and anti-corruption mechanisms more widely;
  • Expand Kyrgyz language moderation by social media companies and strengthen reporting and redress mechanisms;
  • Push for further amendments to the draft constitution to protect NGOs, trade unions, free speech and minority rights, and avoid increasing the Prosecutor General’s office’s power; and
  • Explore new mechanisms for civic consultation learning from local practices in Kyrgyzstan, consultative bodies in other developing countries and the use of Citizens Assemblies.


Image by Dan Lundberg under (CC).


[1] Channelling the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. rather than Communist Party of China.

[2] Ana-Maria Anghelescu, Should Europe Worry About Kyrgyzstan?, The Diplomat, January 2021,; EEAS, Kyrgyz Republic and the EU, October 2020,; European Commission, Kyrgyzstan,,education%2C%20rural%20development%20and%20investments

[3] Eurasianet use the Askarov case to highlight the lack of progress made by donor backed rule of law programmes: Eurasianet, Kyrgyzstan: Will fury around Askarov death end up signifying nothing?, July 2020,

[4] In conversation with the author.

[5] This essay notes the English language reporting requirements: Ana-Maria Anghelescu, Should Europe Worry About Kyrgyzstan?, The Diplomat, January 2021,; As noted in the introduction the top partners for USAID funding are all either US development consultancies, large NGOs or other US agencies: USAID, U.S. Foreign Aid by Country: Kyrgyzstan, 2018,

[6] Factoring in such exercises across the world, much of what can be gleaned will likely show how loosely rooted some (even strongly held) perceptions are in the details of current or past donor activity.

[7] As well as engaging with past and present users of donor funded services, there should be outreach to the wider public particularly in rural areas.

[8] Tatyana Kudryavtseva, Germany announces reduction in cooperation with Kyrgyzstan,, May 2020,

[9] Transparency International, Transparency International Uganda,

[10] COVID response to the druzhinniki who protected businesses from potential rioting to the Bashtan Bashta (start with your head) protest movement, which in recent months has organised creative campaigns against elements of the proposed constitution, to youth engagement in voluntary movements, to religious charity activities, to female solidarity groups, to business structures, and to migrant safety nets

[11] Dirk van der Kley, COVID and the new debt dynamics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Eurasianet, October 2020,

[12] Though Kyrgyzstan may not have the level of wealth that fuels large scale oligarchic expansion overseas seen in the cases of Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan but it does have some and particularly given the potential links to organised crime these potential pressure points should be on the radar of the international community.

[13] U.S. Department of the Treasury, Global Magnitsky Designations, September 2020,

[14] Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Guidance: Global Human Rights Sanctions: Information Note for NGOs and Civil Society,, July 2020,; Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Policy Paper: Global Human Rights Sanctions: consideration of designations,, July 2020,; Council of the EU, EU adopts a global human rights sanctions regime, December 2020,

[15] For example: FPC, Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Project the UK’s values abroad, December 2020,; Susan Coughtrie, Unsafe for Scrutiny: Examining the pressures faced by journalists uncovering financial crime and corruption around the world, FPC, November 2020,; FPC, Unsafe for Scrutiny: How the misuse of the UK’s financial and legal systems to facilitate corruption undermines the freedom and safety of investigative journalists around the world, December 2020,

[16] Provided they are able to command a Parliamentary majority and the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system has led to majority governments for almost all of the democratic era. Even in recent times where that has not been the case, such as the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and the 2017-19 Parliament, the Prime Minister and Cabinet still have enormous power and latitude to run the Government as they see fit on an operational basis without reference to Parliament.

[17] In the US system, where the term originates, the checks are provided by the balancing institutions.

[18] The Citizen’s Assembly,

[19] Human Rights Watch, No Support: Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law Imperils LGBT Youth, December 2018,

[20] Constitute, Kyrgyzstan’s Constitution of 2010,,

[21] Jogorku Kenesh of the Kyrgyz Republic, From November 17, 2020, the draft Law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On the appointment of a referendum (nationwide vote) on the draft Law of the Kyrgyz Republic” On the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic”, November 2020, (As revised in February 2021)

[22] Ibid.

[23] Adilet, Analysis of the draft Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, February 2021,

[24] Rather than it being used for selective prosecutions and backroom deals as it has in the past

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