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KYRGYZSTAN: Interview with chair of the Coalition of NGOs for Democracy and Civil Society

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

BISHKEK, 4 Oct 2005 (IRIN) - Edil Baisalov is the chair of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a group of local NGOs in Kyrgyzstan. He spoke to IRIN in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, about the importance of civil society and the preservation of peace and stability in this former Soviet republic, which recently saw the ousting of president Askar Akayev, who ruled for almost 15 years following the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.

QUESTION: When was the coalition created? And what are the main tasks and goals of your organisation?

ANSWER: Our coalition was established by leading NGOs in late 1998 to observe the referendum on constitutional amendments in October of 1999. By the time of the local elections then, it included more than 170 NGOs throughout Kyrgyzstan. This coalition was composed of civic groups covering all sorts of areas: social, youth, poverty reduction, ethnic minorities, women's NGOs, professional groups and so on.

In the beginning it was created as a temporary organisation to observe the parliamentary and presidential elections. Later our founders decided to keep the coalition as a permanent organisation with long-term missions to defend human rights, to create civil society, to strengthen democracy, as well as act as a resource centre for all types of NGOs. Today it is quite a large organisation. Aside from the founders, we have several thousand civic activists and many volunteers to monitor elections. In the last election we had 3,000 observers. In addition, we operate 10 regional offices. However, election monitoring is not our primary task. On a daily basis we provide comments, recommendations and papers on current issues. I can say that we act as a watchdog, from election reforms to local governance, from civic participation to civic education and many other spheres of life.

Q: What is civil society in Kyrgyzstan?

A: We must stress that civil society is understood in a different manner by the government, the media and the people. In our country thanks to the mass media some people misunderstood it, because at times the media showed NGOs and said that that was civil society.

Civil society is supposed to check the absolute rule of the government. This can be appreciated, but at the same time it is mostly misunderstood by the people given such a long history of living under a Soviet totalitarian regime. Appreciated because we know what it means to live in a country with a totalitarian regime. At the same time, 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we must recognise that the majority of our elite and most of the population have spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union, in a totalitarian country. They just simply lack any awareness of the importance of civic participation in public affairs.

We think that the most important goal of our organisation is to serve as an example of an autonomous and citizen-owned civic group, which is vocal both with the government, the public, the international community and the media, and to be active in its outreach. With all of our success we must admit that there are few groups like ours, while in my view we should have hundreds of such groups.

However, civil society in Kyrgyzstan is fragile, weak and donor-dependent. Most of the vocal and best-equipped groups rely on outside funding. It means writing a great deal of grant proposals, then if they get money they can do something.

Q: Why is it important to have civil society? How can it help to make the lives of ordinary people better?

A: Usually ordinary people do not have the time, money or other resources to concentrate on doing something and promoting public good. For example, we live in cities that are polluted; a person wakes up in the morning and wants to do something to change the situation but does not know that there are environmental groups where they can get involved, although often such groups do not even exist. We hope that some day hundreds of such groups will be created to serve the general public good or to make our lives better. Overall, we strive to serve the public interest, which is the core component of civil society.

Q: Can we say that today there is a developed civil society here?

A: I think, you know that former president Akayev said that Kyrgyzstan was a country of NGOs. Of course, it is common knowledge that the number of registered NGOs is high. In comparison to neighbouring countries, civil society in Kyrgyzstan is very visible and active.

We will never achieve democracy until political parties become major players in our lives. Because of the weakness of political parties, many NGOs attract people. Therefore some people claim that NGOs are too active. I would say that political parties should play a more active role. They should learn from NGOs, they should use NGOs in their work and there should be more communication between them.

Q: How close do you work with the current government? Does it understand you or do you still have problems?

A: Since 24 March [when opposition-led protesters overthrew Akayev's regime], we have had more access to government. We have quite intensive communication with the government and of course we must use it to promote our views through papers, advice and meetings.

One of the main threats to our coalition after 24 March, which was identified early on by our board of directors, is the threat of being associated with the current government because people saw the coalition as the driving agent during the revolution. This is a huge misconception. We are not part of this government; we were not and never will be. We remain on the ground, with the same principles and goals as before. We are a non-partisan, independent civic group.

Though we are still having some difficulties, they are useful for us to learn lessons on how to work more effectively.

Q: In your view, how is it possible to achieve peace and stability throughout Kyrgyzstan given frequent protests in the country?

A: Since 24 March we have had a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the revolution was seen as a victory by the people, while some people started to consider it as anarchy. Some people started to think that they could achieve goals by stopping roads or occupying buildings. Such cases discredit the types of civic protests which were used by the opposition during the Akayev regime. I think it was misused.

We must build a strong state, which is to defend and enforce human rights, democracy and rule of law. Nonetheless, there should be a balance. The government should be willing to enforce such things, while the people should have the final say.


 Theme(s) Democracy
Other recent KYRGYZSTAN reports:

Boosting health services during emergencies,  20/Dec/05

New project raising youth awareness of elections,  19/Dec/05

Media liberalisation slow, say journalists,  7/Dec/05

Focus on gender inequality,  1/Dec/05

World AIDS Day marked with concert,  1/Dec/05

Other recent Democracy & Governance reports:

ZAMBIA: Govt extends maize importation, 22/Dec/05

BENIN: Pressure mounting but elections still in doubt, 22/Dec/05

SIERRA LEONE: With no prospects, youths are turning to crime and violence, 22/Dec/05

MOZAMBIQUE: Community radio's sustainability to be put to the test, 21/Dec/05

DRC: Supporters of constitution in strong position at polls, 21/Dec/05

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