LGBT Rights

The Bear’s Embrace: Russia and Kyrgyzstan

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons

Kyrgyzstan doesn’t get a lot of space in the press, but for anyone interested in Russia’s place in the world, it deserves attention. Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) signals Russia’s politico-economic power in the region. Two pieces of proposed legislation point to a deeper, normative dimension of Russian influence. 

On 21st May, after many missed deadlines, Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU, reflecting a shift away from America and towards Russia. The EEU is widely seen as an attempt by Putin to craft an alternative to the EU and reassert Russian power in the former Soviet Union.  The length of negotiations, and alleged foot dragging by Kyrgyz lawmakers may indicate that Kyrgyzstan has been unwillingly pulled into Russia’s arms. There is a case to be made that, as former Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev told Eurasianet, "there is no alternative" for Kyrgyzstan. Russia is its biggest export market, and increasingly tight immigration controls have made life difficult for the 1.5 million Kyrgyz living in Russia. 

However, there is, arguably, a deeper dimension to Russia’s influence, which suggests that Kyrgyzstan is not such an unwilling partner. 

Two pieces of legislation directly modelled on Russian examples are currently progressing through the legislative system. A "foreign agents" law passed its first reading on 4th June, 83 to 23, and is expected to come into law after elections in October. Following the example of Russia’s 2012 bill, the law would require foreign funded NGOs which engage in "political activities" to register as foreign agents. It would make establishing an NGO with aims to "incite citizens to refuse to fulfil their civic duties or commit other unlawful acts" punishable by 3 years imprisonment.

Nurkamil Madaliev, a cosponsor of the bill, has justified it as protecting Kyrgyzstan from Islamic extremism funded by Gulf Arabs, and, echoing Russian rhetoric, Western-funded organisations’ attempts to educate Kyrgyz youths about gay rights. One of the laws leading supporters, Tursunbai Bakir uulu, argues that the law will protect Kyrgyzstan from foreign "sabotage".

The second piece of legislation is a harsher version of Russia’s 2013 "gay propaganda" law. On the 24th June, it passed its second reading, 90 to 2. Under the legislation, anyone who creates "a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations" could face up to a years imprisonment. Activists fear this could make publicly coming out a criminal act. The anti-gay agenda is widely linked to anti-western sentiments, as demonstrated by a protest outside the American Embassy in 2014 led by the nationalist youth-group Kalys, which conflated western support for LGBT rights with support for democracy activists in Ukraine.

There are two readings of the situation. It is possible that Russia is putting pressure on Kyrgyzstan to follow its path. There are rumours that Moscow has pressured lawmakers to support the laws, but solid evidence is scarce.

The second perspective is perhaps more worrying. Kyrgyzstan’s politicians do not need Russian pressure to be homophobic or suspicious of the West. Homophobia has long been linked to debates over nationality, which have come to the fore since communal violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in 2010. Homosexuality is framed as a Western perversion. From this perspective, LGBT rights necessarily involve the imposition of foreign norms, and so must be resisted to protect national identity. 

Fears of Western influence have been stoked by claims that America is using NGOs to foment a Ukraine-style uprising. In a country that has experienced two revolutions in the last ten years, avoiding a third is high on the agenda. Kremlin-backed interpretations of the Ukraine crisis play a part, but are not the whole story. The view that Western influence lay behind the Tulip Revolution is not exclusive to Moscow, and the Kyrgyz political establishment has become increasingly suspicious of the West since the 2010 violence which, it is claimed, Western governments unfairly blamed on ethnic Kyrgyz.

So, although modelled on Russian examples, the ‘foreign agents’ and ‘gay propaganda’ laws are, to an extent, the result of home-grown dynamics, which points to the second dimension of Russian influence. Russia exercises active political and economic pressure, but it also provides a precedent and an alternative international "camp", making it easier for Kyrgyzstan to follow an illiberal path of its own choosing. Through the EEU, Russia is presenting a politico-economic alternative to Western integration - but it is also offering an alternative normative framework and normalising an illiberal political trajectory.  This calls into question established international human rights norms and provides a powerful ally for states that would question them.