Eurasia saw the trends of the last several years intensify in 2016, making the work of NED grantees both more challenging and urgent. Closing political space, the aggressive spread of illiberal norms, rising social tensions, economic crisis, and strained relations with the international community continued to define events in the region.
All the countries of the region experienced serious economic problems stemming partly from the low price of oil and partly from the ripple effects of Russia’s economic troubles. Laborers returning from Russia contribute to political instability in Central Asia; Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have devalued their currencies; and even the Georgian and Armenian economies have been impacted by the low ruble and low employment in Russia.
Across the region, grantees are bracing for increased repression against civil society, the possibility of civil unrest, or armed conflict. While the extent and nature of authoritarian pushback varied by country, the fundamental struggle intensified in 2016 and threatened to undo decades of work supported by the Endowment and other donors. Nevertheless, civil society remains strong and committed, and the Endowment actively adapted to deteriorating conditions and new restrictions.
As Russia becomes increasingly belligerent internationally, it also grows ever more authoritarian at home. In 2016, the Kremlin continued to introduce even more repressive legislation in an attempt to close off the last vestiges of free media and an open Internet; to apply even greater pressure on NGOs, lawyers, and activists; and to sever independent organizations from international funding. Nevertheless, independent media outlets, human rights organizations, and civic education programs continue to do important work.
Azerbaijan also consolidated its authoritarian turn, moving to eliminate any criticism of the regime, close international NGOs, restrict basic freedoms, and jail government critics. The year ended with over 100 political prisoners in the country, including some of its best journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers. Although this unprecedented crackdown has substantially weakened the country’s civic sector, civil society continues to advocate for their rights and those of their fellow citizens.
Armenia experienced a volatile 2016, with major public protests in July against the governing elites occurring almost exactly a year after 2015’s “Electric Yerevan” protests against hikes in electricity prices. The four-day war with Azerbaijan in the spring exposed the extent to which government corruption threatens Armenia’s national security; the issue has galvanized civil society and political activists ahead of the 2017 parliamentary elections. The Endowment continued to prioritize support for programs that help disparate groups coalesce around common goals and strategies on behalf of democratic reform.
The Kyrgyz Republic is currently facing the most significant challenges to its continued democratic consolidation since 2010. The most worrying development is the recent passage of controversial amendments to the 2010 constitution. These amendments undermine the independence of the judiciary, remove the primacy of international law and the country’s international treaty obligations, and strengthen the role of the Prime Minister. They also weaken Parliament’s oversight role. The amendments are a blow against the democratic development of the country while the economic situation continues to worsen. Moreover, attacks against civil society and independent media have intensified over the past year. Individual human rights activists have been singled out for invective by the President and targeted by state surveillance, as well as threatened and harassed by non-state actors. The Endowment continues to support local civil society as it promotes good governance and basic human rights, defends civil society and human rights activists, and fosters regional cooperation against anti-democratic trends.
Kazakhstan has continued to restrict the operating environment for civil society by passing several new laws aimed at introducing greater control over its independence. The “Law on Payments” was quietly adopted without advance discussion in August 2016. This law introduced draconian new controls on civil society groups. Following widespread public protest against proposed changes to the land code in the spring, the government cracked down even further on civic activism and freedom of assembly. The government restricted public gatherings and pushed activists into politically motivated judicial trials. Despite these developments, there is nonetheless some limited space left for civil society groups.
Tajikistan continues to face its biggest crisis since the end of the civil war. The economic downturn throughout the region has been particularly acute here, where remittances from Russia are down, social discontent is on the rise, and the fear of returning migrants radicalized in Russia is growing. After banning the country’s main opposition party in September 2015, the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on all forms of dissent and opposition, including arrests of political activists, denial of legal representation, widespread torture, and even extrajudicial killings. A controversial constitutional referendum in May 2016 removed term limits for President Rakhmon and enshrined him as “leader of the nation.” In this increasingly repressive context, the Endowment continued to stand with civil society.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remain among the most authoritarian countries in the world. President Karimov’s death in September 2016 offered nothing but ephemeral hope for meaningful reforms. Shavkhat Mirziyoyev, who was Prime Minister under Karimov, won elections in December that were neither free nor fair. Despite the release of two long-term political prisoners and signs of improved relations with neighboring countries, Mirziyoyev does not appear to be interested in any meaningful reforms. NED’s discretionary program supported human rights, independent media, and NGO development.
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