Following the Tulip Revolution on March 24, 2005, and amid continuous political instability in the country, Kyrgyz political leaders habitually accuse local non-government organizations for their dependence on foreign financing. Some politicians see local civil society groups cooperating with foreign donors as an encroachment on national sovereignty. Representatives of the ruling regime often label NGO leaders as grantoedy (grant-eaters), doubting their genuine intentions to promote greater transparency in the government and civic participation.
As local NGO leaders argue, however, such criticism is voiced by the government and pro-regime mass media outlets in order to find a scapegoat for the country’s persisting political and economic instability since the change of regimes. In fact, Emil Shukurov, the leader of an ecological NGO, said that NGOs in Kyrgyzstan have proven to be more stable than the political domain (interview with Jamestown, Kyrgyzstan, July 25).
Early Kyrgyz NGOs were formed just a few months after Kyrgyzstan gained independence, and most of them have grown larger and stronger since then, while the government sector has seen numerous reshuffles and crises. Moreover, compared with political parties, NGOs are far more permanent. NGOs therefore enjoy a more positive image than political leaders among the local public. Today several thousand NGOs are registered in Kyrgyzstan with hundreds being known to a wider public for their active work.
Shukurov further noted that local civil society groups have used credits and grants allocated by the international community much more efficiently than the government. NGOs make public issues that the state is often not capable of solving. For instance, a handful of NGOs have been actively working on gender issues, poverty reduction, border delimitation, the population’s access to water and sanitation, and environmental protection. Some of these issues have become part of official policy. In a way, Shukurov argues, Kyrgyz NGOs help the government abide by the numerous international conventions signed by Kyrgyzstan during the early years of its independence, among them those on human rights, emigration, and poverty (interview with Jamestown, Kyrgyzstan, July 25).
Furthermore, NGOs in Kyrgyzstan were better able to restore the lost connections among former Soviet states. Most of these links were built with similar organizations that relied on non-governmental sources of finance. A vivid example of such strong networking among NGOs across the post Soviet space is the Union of Veterans of the War in Afghanistan. These unions bond veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in each post-Soviet state and are highly decentralized. The unions also maintain close contact among one another and organize regular joint events. Today, few Kyrgyz NGOs are able to formulate their own agenda and seek donors that would match their interests. The local business community is becoming more active in financing NGOs.
Amid this success in the non-governmental sector, there are indeed NGOs that have turned into private businesses. In such cases NGOs are formed to receive foreign grants without implementing them further. Ironically, government institutions are partly to blame. Ministries frequently have access to foreign grants to redistribute them further among indigenous NGOs. In most instances, however, only those NGOs with connections in the government are able to receive such grants. As one Kyrgyz NGO leader told Jamestown, “Corruption in the government spreads into the NGO sector too. Ministries’ representatives allocate foreign grants to their relatives with fictional NGOs” (interview with Jamestown, Kyrgyzstan, July 26).
Another pitfall among Kyrgyz NGOs is the often-held perception that their own work is purely antagonistic toward the government. Few NGOs are able to collaborate with the government in a constructive way but instead only criticize its activity. One of the few examples of successful cooperation among Kyrgyz NGOs and the government was the publishing of the “Red Book” about endangered plants and animals in Kyrgyzstan.
To deflect the government’s criticism, Kyrgyz NGOs consolidate into joint forums to make their work known to a wider public. The post-March 2005 period has shown that NGO leaders are often far more professional that the regime incumbents. They are able to consolidate, hold public debates and generate innovative ideas. At times the Kyrgyz parliament is unable to respond to NGOs’ claims on an equally professional level.
Civil society leaders clearly recognize the role of NGOs in public life. As one leader of an ecological NGO told Jamestown, “We reduce the government’s hegemony in political and social life and often prevent destabilization caused by the state” (interview with Jamestown, Kyrgyzstan, July 26).