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Russia’s influence in shrinking civic space in Central Asia

Article by Joanna Hoare and Maisy Weicherding

May 24, 2016

Russia’s influence in shrinking civic space in Central Asia

Since gaining their independence in 1991, the five countries of Central Asia have never been easy places to be a human rights defender (HRD). From the very beginning, when international donor organisations began operating in the region in the early 1990s, human rights organisations, as well as other NGOs involved in projects that are far less politically contentious – from environmental monitoring to renovating children’s homes – have been accused of representing ‘outsider interests’, and seen as threats to the authority of the state and its institutions. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, harassment, restrictions on funding and acceptable activities, and state co-option have effectively closed down civic space, with no independent national or international NGOs (whether engaged in human rights work or anything else) able to operate openly (since the early 2000s in the case of Turkmenistan[1] and the mid 2000s in the case of Uzbekistan).[2]


In the other three countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – NGOs have until recently faced less overt pressure, although methods of bureaucratic control have been used by authorities to constrain their activities, with complicated re-registration or taxation procedures being common examples. But since 2014, HRDs and other civil society actors are now reporting an increase in the pressure they are facing, most marked in Tajikistan (and accompanying what appears to be an attempt by President Emmomali Rahmon to consolidate control and eliminate all potential opposition to his rule), but evident in all three countries.[3]


Different methods are being employed in each country, but the aim appears to be the same: the delegitimisation of the idea that an independent civil society is a necessary component to a stable, prosperous, functioning society. The rhetoric of civil society and human rights is being rejected as ‘Western propaganda’, and civil society activists are being smeared as ‘foreign agents’ attempting to impose ‘alien’ values on ‘traditional’ Central Asian societies, whether or not the groups that they are involved with receive money from abroad. While this is an attack on civil society in its broadest sense (encompassing the silencing of independent media and of alternative political voices, as well as ever increasing restrictions on the rights to protest and dissent in other forms), its most obvious manifestation has been attacks on, and the delegitimising of, NGOs.


Kyrgyzstan, long regarded as the most open and democratic country in the region, has recently seen smear campaigns against individual HRDs on social media, aimed particularly at those who’ve spoken out against Kyrgyzstan joining the new Eurasian Economic Union, or in favour of LGBTI rights, as well as the high profile raid on ‘national security’ grounds of the Osh-based offices of one of the country’s most long-established and well-respected human rights organisations, Bir Duino.[4] Punitive inspections and prosecutions for alleged administrative and/or tax violations are being used in Tajikistan in an apparent attempt to harass individual HRDs and close down the organisations that they work with; these have also been justified on ‘national security’ grounds.[5] The fines imposed have been high enough as to jeopardise the financial survival of the organisations concerned. In Kazakhstan, vaguely worded clauses on ‘social discord’ in the country’s new Criminal Code (which came into force in January 2015) have been used to prosecute (or threaten with prosecution) civil society activists for posts on social media sites, including posts disseminating information about human rights abuses.[6]


In addition to these varied tactics, all three countries have also seen attempts (in some cases, successful) to introduce legislation designed to further delegitimise NGOs or to increase state control over them. In Tajikistan, amendments to the Law on Public Associations mean that NGOs registered as public associations now have to notify the Ministry of Justice about any foreign funding that they receive, and proposals have also been put forward that would effectively require re-registration for all NGOs. In Kazakhstan ‘leaders’ of associations convicted under the ‘social discord’ clauses in the Criminal Code face stiffer penalties,[7] and a new law that came into force in December 2015 will lead to the creation of a central, state-run ‘operator’ to administer and distribute state and non-state grants to NGOs, including funding from outside of Kazakhstan. Finally, a draft law to force NGOs receiving foreign aid and engaging in any form of vaguely defined ‘political activities’ to adopt and publicly use the label of ‘foreign agents’ was adopted at its first reading by the Kyrgyzstani parliament. The bill seemed designed to serve no other purpose than to stigmatise organisations that rely on foreign funding for support.[8]


The influence of Russia on these attempts to close down civic space is most evident in the draft ‘foreign agents’ law in Kyrgyzstan, which mirrored closely similar legislation passed in Russia in 2012.[9] Legislation passed or under consideration in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan is not so obviously aligned, and in both cases more closely reflects authorities’ focus on national security concerns.


However, the influence of Russia is evident in other tactics being used to delegitimise and attack NGOs, such as the use of punitive prosecutions on tax or administrative grounds against NGOs and individual HRDs, even though the specific legislation used in each of these three countries by the authorities for such prosecutions is unique to that country. In Russia, March 2013 and May 2014 saw raids on NGO offices,[10] followed by steep fines for failure to comply with the ‘Foreign Agents’ law. While this may be a tactic that was not pioneered in Russia (countries such as Azerbaijan and Belarus have long made use of it), Russia’s considerable political, economic, and cultural influence over the Central Asia region has meant that Russia has ‘led by example’ and played a role in emboldening authorities in these countries to adopt the tactic themselves.


Much of the rhetoric attacking human rights and human rights defenders in the state-controlled media in Central Asia[11] has echoed language around the ‘clash of civilisations’ between immoral, decadent and corrupted ‘Western values’ and wholesome (Russian) ‘traditional values’ that has come to dominate official and media discourse in Russia.[12] Labelling NGOs in receipt of funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents’ (whether or not this is done using legislation) serves to cement their association with (corrupted) ‘Western values’, discrediting them and setting them up for further attack.


Following on from this, as has again also been the case in Russia, the institutions pushing the association between human rights, NGOs and ‘Western values’ have focused almost exclusively on a short list of sensationalised thematic areas related to the wider human rights agenda. Top of this list are LGBTI rights, but it also includes women’s rights, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and work on strengthening democratic institutions (such as election monitoring), all of which are presented as alien and a threat to the stability and wellbeing of wider society. Work on these thematic areas is undertaken by a very small number of NGOs in Russia as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where the vast majority of NGOs are concerned with social welfare. Yet these thematic areas have come to represent ‘what NGOs do’, and the way they are portrayed – with such hostility – has come to shape how wider society views NGOs and their agendas. Once again, this makes it much easier for NGOs to be attacked and their legitimacy undermined. That said, while the influence of Russia and Russian discourse around NGOs on the worsening climate for civil society in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is clear, it is important not to ignore other important factors influencing this trend in Central Asia.


The most significant of these is the growing strength of national security agendas. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, raids and punitive inspections of NGOs’ premises have been justified on the grounds of possible links to militant groups; in Tajikistan, this has left human rights NGOs extremely vulnerable to ‘guilt by association’ and unwilling to speak out against human rights abuses that are going on under the current crackdown. In Kazakhstan, prosecutions for posts on social media breaking the laws on national and social ‘discord’ have been linked to upholding the sovereignty and integrity of Kazakhstan, again justified on national security grounds.


The worsening economic climate across the region is another factor. As economic conditions worsen and unemployment rises, the demonising of independent civil society fulfils the dual purpose of silencing a source of potential criticism of the authorities’ handling of the economic situation, and providing a useful distraction from economic woes.


Finally, this trend is not limited to Central Asia (or indeed, the wider former Soviet space). All over the world, governments are challenging the autonomy and legitimacy of civil society groups, and restricting their activities using a combination of legislation and logistical barriers, as well as public attacks and threats.[13] Receipt of funding from abroad is a particular area of contention and in many countries national NGOs are finding that their ability to access foreign funding is becoming more and more compromised. This includes countries where civil society groups have historically been well organised and outspoken, such as India, Bangladesh, and Hungary.[14]


It is hard to say whether Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan will continue their trajectory towards the complete shut down of civic space witnessed in neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In Kyrgyzstan, in the event, by the time the draft ‘foreign agents’ law returned to the parliament for its second reading, the bill had been considerably revised, including the removal of any mention either of ‘foreign agents’ or of ‘political activities’.[15] Even with these changes, it was ultimately rejected by the parliament on its third and final reading.[16] Meanwhile, the downturn in the Russian economy (which is resulting in a withdrawal of Russian investment and a reduction in migrant remittances) may be prompting the government in Kyrgyzstan to rethink its relationship with Western donors. In Kazakhstan, an uneasy status quo has long existed between the authorities’ desire to stifle dissent on the one hand, but present Kazakhstan as a progressive, outward-looking state on the other, meaning that a full-scale crackdown seems unlikely.  In Tajikistan, however, the situation seems far, far bleaker, with NGOs fearing that it will not be long before they are prohibited from operating at all.

[1] See Bohr, Annette. 2016. Turkmenistan: Power, Politics and Petro-Authoritarianism. London: Chatham House, pp. 46-47.

[2] See CIVICUS. 2013. The situation is becoming dire for civil society in Uzbekistan | an interview with Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, CIVICUS, 10 May, and Human Rights Committee. 2015. Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Uzbekistan. CCPR/C/UZB/CO/4. Geneva: Human Rights Committee.

[3] For a comprehensive overview of the state of civil society and freedom of expression and association more generally in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, see: Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights / Nota Bene / Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights / International Partnership for Human Rights. 2015. SPOTLIGHT: FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS IN CENTRAL ASIA Recent developments in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Brussels: IPHR. For Kyrgyzstan, see: IPHR. 2015. Submission to EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue, 18 May 2015: The civil society situation in Kyrgyzstan. Brussels: IPHR. See also individual country entries in Amnesty International. 2016. Amnesty International Annual report 2015/16. The State of the World’s Human Rights. London: Amnesty International.

[4] Amnesty International, Public Statement. Five Years On: Justice Still Denied. EUR 58/1846/2015, 2015, London: Amnesty International; Chris Rickleton, Kyrgyzstan Arrests American Journalist, Raids NGO Office. Eurasianet, March 2015.

[5] Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights et al, Spotlight: Fundamental Rights in Central Asia Recent Developments in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

[6] Bruce Pannier, The Victims Of Kazakhstan’s Article 174. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, February 2016,

[7] Article 174, Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

[8] See individual country entries in: Amnesty International, Amnesty International Annual report 2015/16. The State of the World’s Human Rights. 2016, London: Amnesty International.

[9] International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. 2016. NGO Law Monitor: Russia.

[10] Farangis Najibullah, Russia Launches New Wave Of Raids On NGOs. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, May 2014; BBC. Fears for NGOs in Russia as tax raids multiply. BBC, March 2013,

[11] For a flavour, see this response to Amnesty International’s annual report: 2016. Amnesty International желает очередной смуты в Кыргызстане?, February 2016. See also: Разве позволяется Америке навязывать чуждые менталитету кыргызского народа устои и традиции?, January 2016,

[12] Masha Gessen, Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world. The Washington Post, March 2014,  For an extensive account of how the ‘traditional values’ discourse has become institutionalised in Russia, see: Chandler, Andrea, Democracy, Gender, and Social Policy in Russia: A Wayward Society, 2013, London and New York: Palgrave.

[13] Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher, Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire. Washington D.C, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2015,

[14] Carothers and Brechenmacher, Closing Space, p.9; Carothers, Thomas. 2015. The Closing Space Challenge: How Are Funders Responding? Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2015

[15], Парламент принял во втором чтении измененный законопроект об «инагентах»., April 2016, The revised law was passed on its second reading, but still needs to go before the parliament a third time and to be signed into law by the President. The revised draft law retains the requirement that NGOs provide information about their sources of funding, and publish yearly financial reports.

[16] Adilet Makenov, Депутаты отклонили законопроект об НКО., May 2016,

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