1 Introduction

Some reasons behind the worldwide decline in democracy reside not in the general lack of public appeal of the regime, but rather in the crisis of this model generated by the problems faced by an advanced democracy, increasingly successful authoritarian regimes, and the resulting shift in the balance between these sides.Footnote 1 The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been for the past four decades a platform for political debate on a broad range of security issues. In 1995, following the end of the Cold War, the OSCE developed its role in conflict management, but it still struggles with finding its purpose in a divided world where regionalisation has become the norm. Although the Ukraine crisis of 2014 has brought new impetus to the OSCE, there remains a question regarding the motive behind states’ willingness to continue to cooperate within the framework, despite inconsistent and limited visibility.

In this context, this chapter represents an attempt to contextualise the broad debate on the decline in democracy in the world by discussing the case of Kyrgyzstan. Despite the cliché of the country as an “island of democracy,” the truth remains that Kyrgyzstan has been viewed, both from within and from the outside, as a potential success story of post-Soviet democratisation. The flourishing, albeit struggling, civil society is considered a clear sign of this success, used by donors and investors as a cover for assuming that the political regime was diminishing the persistence and spread of corruption.

In this chapter, we intend to discuss the impact of a public health crisis on the democratic normative agenda. In this sense, we aim to analyse the OSCE-ODIHR Human Dimension agenda in Central Asia, specifically in Kyrgyzstan during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the capacity of the OSCE to determine the respect for democratic standards in a contested area where multiple norm entrepreneurs are active. The agenda is composed of commitments in the following specific areas: democratic society (elections, democratic institutions and rule of law), human rights for all (civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights, including provisions regarding media freedom and working conditions for journalists and general freedom of expression), human rights for specific groups (minorities, migrants, refugees, including persons in detention or prison and others), equality, tolerance and non-discrimination (including gender equality), action on specific threats to human security (trafficking in human beings, drug and arms trafficking, prevention of terrorism), and the applicability of international humanitarian law (OSCE ODIHR, 2011). The responsibility for implementing this normative agenda lies with the participating states, with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) providing assistance in fulfilling the commitments absent any sanctioning power, reflecting the political character of the organisation (OSCE ODIHR, 2011).

Specifically, we will look at the impact of the ODIHR agenda, and the role and place in Kyrgyzstan of the OSCE as an international organisation which is a norm entrepreneur of democratic rules, in relation to other international organisations in the Central Asian region, namely the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Our hypothesis is that the crisis factor of COVID-19 heightened the normative competition between the international organisations based on the debates which took place regarding the most appropriate political regimes to enforce crisis response measures, and that this, in turn, lowered the capacity of the OSCE to pursue its Human Dimension aims as it was focused mostly on crisis support. The case of post-pandemic Kyrgyzstan allows us to investigate our assumption for several reasons: the relative openness of its political regime towards norm entrepreneurs, the country being often labelled as “an island of democracy” by international donors, and the availability of local data documenting the quality of democracy in the country compared to that available in other Central Asian countries.

The following section presents the theoretical framework used for assessing the role of the OSCE Human Dimension in Kyrgyzstan during the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2022. We then proceed with an overview of the norms promoted through the OSCE Human Dimension within the ODIHR, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) against the democratic standards of rule of law, human rights, and free and fair elections, among others. The section following that focuses on the quality of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, offering a brief overview of the main democracy indices, as well as a qualitative study of the measures implemented by Kyrgyzstan’s government in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the main violations of democratic standards, as well as the activities and relevance of the OSCE, with a particular focus on the Human Dimension.

2 The Human Dimension: Democratic Norms and Crisis Factors

The long-used cliché of the “island of democracy” in relation to Kyrgyzstan, although contested in the academic literature for its inability to capture the inner workings of the local political system, still shapes public perceptions of the country (Laruelle & Engval, 2015). The foreign policy of the country has been shaped around development aid provided mostly by Western sources (Dzhuraev, 2020), fostering democracy promotion projects in order to attract external resources (Sharshenova, 2018).

Patterns of cooperation at the regional level are usually placed on a spectrum having at its extremes the process of regionalism, which is defined by formal institutionalisation of cooperation, a top-down approach, and regionalisation, which is a targeted cooperation based on geographical proximity, a rather bottom-up process (Börzel & Risse, 2016). However, the anarchical structure of the international system gives states the ultimate role in deciding the level and scope of regional cooperation based on their interests, a tenet shared by neorealist and neoliberal literature on International Relations alike. Therefore, the decision of states to cooperate in international organisations should not be considered a priori to be morally good, but rather resulting from various degrees of preference bargaining (Axelrod & Keohane, 1985). This study adheres to a view of international organisations in line with the realist school of International Relations, under which states decide to cooperate because of their own interests, which usually lie in the realms of security, power, and competition.Footnote 2

A significant portion of the regional integration literature focuses on the role of democratic norms and socialisation as instruments for facilitating cooperation bargaining. It is in this context that some scholars have argued that patterns of regionalism outside Europe should be considered in relation to regime stability (Acharya & Johnston, 2007; Allison, 2018; Libman, 2007). Referring particularly to the Eurasian regional organisations, researches have argued that they are usually not based on the normative contents and values specific to their European counterparts, leading instead to new conceptualisations such as “protective integration” (Libman, 2007) or “virtual regionalism” (Allison, 2008). These describe such forms of regional cooperation as having specific goals, usually pertaining to security, providing a framework for political solidarity and normative justification for centralisation and authoritarianism (Allison, 2018). Under this understanding, states, represented by their governments or leaders, give higher preference to their own survival and less to norms which may undermine their legitimacy. While not excluding the normative dimension of cooperation, these forms of regionalism are based upon Westphalian norms rather than those of a supranational order capable of interfering in domestic policies in the name of democratic principles.

Costa Buranelli considers Central Asia to be a likely case of illiberal solidarism based on discourses and practices aimed at “cooperation and convergence in given areas of international relations” (Costa Buranelli, 2020). The author argues that the process of counter-institutionalisation at the regional level, developed through discourses and practices going against democracy promotion, can be viewed as authoritarian diffusion based not only on the logic of consequences (regime survival) but also on the logic of appropriateness (shared norms). In turn, focusing on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Karabayeva explores the applicability to Eurasian integration of two specific instruments of normative diffusion, constitutive localisation and norm subsidiarity, as conceptualised by Acharya (cited in Karabayeva, 2021). Constitutive localisation refers to how states implement foreign ideas in order to correspond to the local cognitive priors (“local culture” broadly defined), while norm subsidiarity implies a process through which states create international norms in order to prevent domination from greater powers. Karabayeva argues that Eurasian regionalism represents a process based on the EU model of economic integration for maintaining states’ sovereignty (constitutive localisation), promoting a multi-speed and multi-level approach (norms subsidiarity) (Karabayeva, 2021). In the case of inclusive international organisations which preserve the intergovernmental approach, such as the OSCE, these approaches to norm diffusion become more relevant, since they can highlight different perceptions of the scope of international cooperation and lead to a better understanding of the capacity of the organisation to ensure that states will fully comply with the principles and prescribed norms.

These arguments are compatible with the broader discussion on the basic assumptions of democratisation and the subsequent myths regarding democracy promotion by multilateral organisations. Based on previous research by Joseph Raz, Samuel Moyn, Wendy Brown and Susan Marks on the myths of human rights, and Assel Tutumlu argues that democratisation too is built upon similar myths: presumptive universality (democracy is a universal goal of humanity), historically deep roots (democracy has a long history, proving an evolution of similar principles of representation), keeping distance from politics (democracy is universally acceptable, despite its shortcomings, transgressing all political divisions), and the clear-cut distinction between authoritarianism and democracy (abuses and inequalities, determined by economic factors, happen mostly in authoritarian regimes, since political freedoms provided under democracy offer the opportunity for economic development) (Tutumlu, 2016). All these myths shape the understanding of democratisation as an evolutionary process, which can be influenced by various actors aiming to develop the societies towards the ultimate goal of democracy. However, as Tutumlu argues, the results of democratisation actions can be explained through the “bricolage myth,” which is the unintended effect of a competition among various actors with contested views, leading to weak democratisation results (Tutumlu, 2016). Since Eurasian regionalism is a competitive space for different understandings of democracy (as a goal per se and as a means for attracting funding and aid), such a meta-theoretical perspective on democratic norms diffusion provides a basis for situating the OSCE normative framework among the alternatives promoted by Russian Federation and China through their sponsored regional organisations.

With regard to the impact of crises on the quality of democracy, research regarding the effects of the financial and economic crisis of 2007–2008 on human rights highlighted that a state-centred vision on the human rights regime limited capacity to address the negative impacts on the most vulnerable, and that international human rights standards tend to be insufficiently defined to be properly enforced in times of crisis (Nolan, 2015). Other research regarding the impact of economic crises on democracy has shown that, in times of crisis, the quality of democracy degrades due to more difficult decision-making in terms of producing legislation which caters to citizens’ needs, higher sensitivity of the citizens to the governments’ capacity to deliver, and increased alienation from political institutions (Morlino & Quaranta, 2016).

Specific research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on democracy has already emerged, citing previous evidence which shows that “publics may be willing to eschew civil liberties and democratic procedures in favour of strong leadership and technocratic governance” (Parry et al., 2021, p. 197) despite mixed evidence regarding the real capacity of authoritarian regimes. Parry et al. pursue a systemic overview of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on private and public spaces, as well as on the empowered space “where political institutions reside and where decision-making power lies” (Parry et al., 2021, p. 198). Their research, while rather Eurocentric, suggests that governments have expanded their powers and invaded the private space, but also the fact that democracies are not prepared to support deliberation and participation in times of crisis, especially as there is a need for the institutionalisation of these processes (Parry et al., 2021). A wider empirical analysis conducted by Freedom House has shown that governmental measures to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened the quality of democracy and human rights, with “struggling democracies” and highly repressive states at the forefront of this process (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2020).

In the next section, we highlight the main norms promoted through the OSCE Human Dimension, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, in order to assess their compatibility and the potential impacts on non-consolidating democratic regimes.

3 The OSCE Interplay with EAEU and SCO Normative Frameworks in Central Asia

While the OSCE has been explicit about its democracy building efforts (Lewis, 2012) and critical of the worsening human rights and democracy situation in participating states, EAEU and SCO membership come with certain economic and integration prospects, while also bearing no threats to participant state’s regime status quo. This section highlights the direct and indirect normative elements of the OSCE, EAEU, and SCO in relation to their respective participating or member states from Central Asia.

Although the declared goals and principles of the OSCE and SCO are compatible—dealing with ensuring security and regional stability through enhanced cooperation within the priority areas (counteracting terrorism, separatism and extremism, and illegal migration; promotion of regional economic cooperation; and development of energy systems, to name the few), the SCO puts an emphasis on mutual interests, non-interference in internal affairs, economic growth, and the development of good-neighbourly and friendly relations, but does not envisage a human rights or democratisation monitoring, reporting or promotion mechanism (SCO Charter, 2001). While the OSCE and SCO focus on security and cooperation, the EAEU puts economic integration and development first, and operates on the principle of the “sovereign equality of states” (EAEU Treaty, 2014).

The preparatory phases of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) serve as an indication that states engage in political cooperation out of self-interest, agreeing to compromise on certain issues in view of the possible gains they may have. The rule of consensus set out within the OSCE frameworks protects participating states from any decisions that may go against their own interest; thus, at times, making cooperation more difficult and more concerned with the national aims, rather than with finding a common ground.

ODIHR activities are not governed by a legal framework or convention, but instead by the overall norms set out by the Council of Europe and the European Conventions, as well as by UN Conventions. In addition, the ODIHR does not have a legal personality (Gasbarri, 2018). Acting only as a politically binding organisation for its participating states, the OSCE develops norms and rules without a clear-cut mechanism for ensuring that the participating states act responsibly and are committed to their agreements. In this context, one may wonder how it is possible that the OSCE is still in existence, particularly following the Ukraine crisis and the divide perceived by the participating states. The participating states act as rational actors, thus perceiving the OSCE as a unique platform which allows for exchanges, even between those actors whose relations are tense, but who nevertheless use the platform for their own benefit and interests (Iloniemi, 2015; Kropatcheva, 2012). In this way, the OSCE provides a framework which can be adjusted according to participating states’ interests in absence of the responsibility of legally binding decisions (Kropatcheva, 2012). As Isaacs argues in his research regarding the interpretation of OSCE norms by Kazakhstan, the normative framework set out by the OSCE was defined long before Kazakhstan was a sovereign state, and as a matter of fact before the sovereignty of all Central Asian states, which leads the local political elites to re-interpret the norms for their own purposes through “constitutive localisation,” thus challenging their very essence and leading to increased authoritarianism (Isaacs, 2018).

We consider relevant to this research the position adopted by the Russian Federation towards the OSCE, since it is usually mirrored by the Central Asian states (Dunay, 2017). In his research, Wolfgang Zellner considered Russian activities in the OSCE under two categories: positive interests, corresponding to the state’s political agenda, and negative interests, which are external conditions set out by other actors and whose effects have to be avoided by the respective state’s actions (Zellner, 2005). The main positive interest of Russia was to achieve a Europe-wide security arrangement, which could not be successfully fulfilled mainly because the Western states were already developing and strengthening their own security arrangements. Russia also perceived the OSCE as increasingly responding to the positive interests of the Western states, extensively promoting the human dimension and engaging in active involvement in the post-Soviet countries. This in turn represented a threat to Russian influence, becoming a negative interest in the framework of the OSCE (Dunay, 2017; Kropatcheva, 2012; Zellner, 2005). Considering these aspects, we can evaluate the involvement of the Russian Federation in the OSCE as being one of a rational actor that uses the opportunities offered by the institutions in order to maintain its foreign policy goals. The criticism brought over the years by RussiaFootnote 3 to the OSCE in general and to the activities of the OSCE ODIHR, which have also seen support from some CIS countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, provides a clearer image of the interests that these states have (Dunay, 2017; Putz, 2016). It also shows that the institutions can, in the long run, alter the structure of domestic policy, which in turn may erode the legitimacy of certain regimes, providing ground for limited involvement in order to curtail the influence of such institutions.

Strengthening respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the electoral system have been central to the OSCE agenda and activities in the Kyrgyz Republic, and over the years have become an apple of discord between the organisation and the host country. In 2016, President Almazbek Atambayev proposed a number of amendments to the country’s Constitution, deemed by the OSCE/ODIHR and the Venice Commission joint opinion as noncompliant with “the international human rights and rule of law standards and OSCE commitments” (ODIHR Opinion No. CONST-KG/ 294/2016). At the same time Kyrgyz authorities heavily criticised the OSCE for providing a platform to Kadyrzhan Batyrov (one of the ethnic Uzbeks accused of inciting the 2010 interethnic clashes in the south) during the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw (Putz, 2016). These could have served as a deal breaker leading to further political alienation and confrontation. Since the 2017 mandate change and sufficient presence downsize—initiated by the Kyrgyz government and explained as due to “the considerable progress of the Kyrgyz Republic on the path of democratic reforms”—Kyrgyzstan’s national priorities, ownership, and capacity have been put before the country’s commitments to the OSCE (OSCE Permanent Council Decision No. 1250, 2017). Not only was the OSCE Centre in Bishkek transformed into the OSCE Programme Office in Bishkek, and the OSCE Field Office in Osh closed, but the Kyrgyz government also insisted on stricter state control and limiting “the scope of the Office’s reports only to its own programmatic activities” (OSCE Permanent Council Decision No. 1250, 2017).

The EAEU was established to “ensure free movement of goods, services, capital and labour as well as coordinated, agreed or common policy in the economic sectors” (EAEU Treaty, 2014). Its normative framework prioritises economy over politics, at least on paper, promising freedom of choice to citizens and the benefits of harmonised legislation and a common market to businesses. The union promotes ideas of cooperation and regional integration, while respecting principles of the international law, including the principles of territorial integrity of member states as well as differences in their political structures (EAEU Treaty, 2014).

Leveraging its labour migration policies and the EAEU visa-free regime for labour migrants, Russia enjoys considerable support from its allies in the region in events of major international confrontations. For instance, remittance-dependent Kyrgyzstan was among the few states that recognised the results of the Crimea referendum and the decision to join the Russian Federation as legitimate (RFE/RL, 2014). Research has shown that the EAEU is used by the political elites in Kyrgyzstan as a legitimation tool for security and stability (Kudaibergenova, 2016). The country’s 2015 accession to the EAEU, however, was marred by inducements provided by the Russian Federation, consolidating the view that the organisation’s function is not based on procedural coherence, but rather on an alternative normative agenda to counter Western influence (Heathershaw et al., 2019).

The SCO lays out the normative framework for what can be described as “security-based regional cooperation” with goals formally, if not fully, compatible and non-adversarial to those of the EAEU and OSCE. The organisation is said to encourage cooperation in a variety of areas from trade to environment; ensure peace and stability in the region by combating transnational criminal activity; and promote a “new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order” (SCO Charter, 2001).

Although most often analysed from the perspective of a politico-military alliance, SCO integration takes place on several levels, including at the economic and energy levels. The success of integration in some dimensions is limited due to the divergent interests of China (as an importer of energy resources) and Russia (as a large exporter of energy resources with an inefficient manufacturing economy which is opposed to deeper economic integration within the SCO), leading to the strengthening of the advisory nature of the SCO rather than its use in other capacities (Libman & Vinokurov, 2021). While the agenda of the SCO is visibly more normative, implying an assertion of local understanding of political regimes based on non-interference and the fight against extremism and separatism, the EAEU refers explicitly only to economic cooperation and integration, but represents a vision of Russian Eurasianism (Tskhay & Costa Buranelli, 2020).

China finds the SCO instrumental to its own economic and security interests in the region and beyond, promoting economy over a political and human rights approach, and stressing both mutual non-interference and cooperation in “counteracting terrorism, separatism and extremism, illicit narcotics and arms trafficking, and other types of criminal activity of a transnational character” (SCO Charter, 2001). Increasingly dependent on China’s loans, investments, and infrastructure projects, Central Asian states stay silent on any reservations and concerns they could have about the treatment of fellow Muslims in China (Pannier, 2020). Human and minority rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks, have been reported on and heavily criticised by civil society and the international community. Despite growing anti-Chinese sentiments among local populations and pressure from civil society, Central Asian leaders prefer to maintain stable and positive relations with their powerful neighbour and demonstrate support for China’s actions to the extent possible in their own contexts (Uralova & Bober, 2020).

Moreover, Chinese, and Russian approaches to domestic politics, especially with regard to elections and suppressing public protest, also play an important socialising role for Central Asian regimes. The Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP), for instance, is quite infamous internally and internationally for their “often brutish, thuggish tactics” when dealing with riots and protests (Girard, 2020). Russia, in its turn, has been systematically tightening control over any opposition since the 2011 Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow, both in terms of suppression tactics and legislation (HRW, 2013; Omelicheva, 2021). It is relevant to note that Central Asian states have mirrored Russian legislation on restricting the public manifestation of dissent through “authoritarian policy transfer” (Lemon & Antonov, 2020).

SCO framework investment projects and military exercises benefit both Russia and China by promoting their ideas and supporting loyal regimes. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, trade volume between China and SCO partners reached 245 billion US dollars in 2020 and total Chinese investment in other member states exceeded 70 billion dollars as of July 2021 (Xinhua, 2021). To further boost integration efforts, Russia suggested switching from US dollars to national currencies for SCO trade settlements and setting a Eurasian financial advisory mechanism to facilitate this process (Russia Today, 2020). These suggestions make both SCO and EAEU membership more appealing to autocratic regimes keen on their own survival, and thus consequential for the human rights situation in the region, enabling consolidation under “norm subsidiarity” in order to resist the influence of Western powers.

While international organisations are generally viewed as vehicles for the promotion of democratic norms, some researchers analyse how their normative frameworks might undermine democratisation and benefit authoritarian regimes. Utilising “treaty nestedness” analysis, Ambrosio shows how treaties and agreements making up the SCO’s legal framework advance “a regional agenda which runs counter to promoting democratic political development and human rights by prioritising regime stability over political change” (Ambrosio, 2016). In line with this argument, a report prepared by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) states that aligning domestic legislation of member states with SCO doctrine and principles “extends the control of China and Russia, the SCO’s dominant regimes, over regional counter-terrorism policies and practices and over human rights in SCO countries” (FIDH, 2012). The “constitutive localisation” thus becomes more visible, with local re-interpretations of globally used concepts in ways that serve the purposes of the local elites.

Therefore, in comparison with the OSCE, and ODIHR in particular, the SCO and the EAEU are indirect norm entrepreneurs based on their protective integration policies and roles as intergovernmental instruments for legitimising political regimes. They promote norms through the development of discourse on protecting national sovereignty and, more generally, the status-quo. The EAEU is an expression of Russia’s normative vision, where “Russia is not a revisionist power but, conversely, a status quo, conservative one, which struggles to challenge the cosmopolitan approaches based on democracy-promotion and human-rights enhancement advanced by Western liberal powers” (Tskhay & Costa Buranelli, 2020). Tskhay and Costa Buranelli argue that the Central Asian states are using “balancing regionalism” as a tool for avoiding excessive great power influence, for obtaining economic and political gains, and for conforming to the norms of regionalism and multilateralism, “enhancing their international standing and legitimacy” (Tskhay & Costa Buranelli, 2020).

Analysis shows that, in comparison with the EAEU and the SCO, the OSCE takes a comprehensive approach to security, operating in three different dimensions, from politico-military to economic and environmental, to the human dimension. Norms and concepts promoted within the latter include democratic institutions and free and fair elections, gender equality, fundamental human rights and freedoms, media freedom and development, and others.

4 The Quality of Democracy in Kyrgyzstan and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Upon gaining its independence, Kyrgyzstan officially declared itself a secular and democratic state, enshrining this in its 1993 Constitution. Two revolutions and a coup d'état later, the country seems to struggle to keep up with the “island of democracy” label once too readily and generously offered by the international community. In recent years, the country has been categorised under either hybrid or authoritarian regime by various international organisations depending on their measurement method and scale. This section analyses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the quality of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, with consideration given to the ambivalent attitude of the Kyrgyz government backed and strengthened by the ongoing competition of the norm entrepreneurs active in the country. The case of the parallel negotiations with the United States and Russian Federation for military bases in Kyrgyzstan is well documented (Levine, 2016, p. 210), and points to the interplay between security factors and normative agendas, ultimately leading to the erosion of commitments on democracy promotion (Cooley, 2012; McGlinchey, 2020).

The first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Kyrgyzstan on 18 March 2020. Authorities responded by declaring a state of emergency, imposing a complete lockdown and curfew from March 25 until May 10 in several cities, as well as introducing social distancing requirements and switching to remote work and education. The country was among those OSCE participating states that “sought derogations from international human rights standards” in connection with the state of emergency, namely freedoms movement and assembly, however, only for cities and districts where a state of emergency had been declared (OSCE ODIHR, 2020a). The COVID-19 pandemic incited international donors to offer significant aid to Kyrgyzstan, but corrupt practices hindered proper accountability of the spending. Reports cited widespread corruption across the country at the level of the hospitals as well as in the administrative authorities, leading to repeated public outcry regarding the poorly equipped medical workers and hospitals (Satke, 2021). On a different note, Dzhuraev pointed out that the pandemic underscored the lack of regional coordination in crisis response in Central Asia, as well as a lack of “quick external solutions to domestic problems,” especially in terms of funding (Dzhuraev, 2021), an area particularly troublesome for Kyrgyzstan, whose economy is highly dependent on external assistance and remittances.

From the onset of country’s independence, Kyrgyzstan opted for a multi-vector foreign policy, thus trying to attract as much investment and support as possible for the needs of the small mountainous and poor state (Abdyldaev, 2017; Dzhuraev, 2020). State- and nation-building, “consolidation of independence and sovereignty, securing national interests by political and diplomatic methods, and the creation of favourable conditions for political and economic reforms” were among major challenges and goals to the young republic’s foreign policy (Sari, 2012). As put in the country’s National Security Concept, Bishkek officially views the OSCE mainly as a watchdog organisation, monitoring the situation with regard to human rights, democratisation, and elections, while the EAEU and SCO are strongly associated with comprehensive cooperation, the development of friendly relations with regional partners, and addressing issues of stability and sustainable development (McDermott, 2012).

OSCE activities in Kyrgyzstan focus on border management, preventing human trafficking and violent extremism, supporting human rights defenders, and promoting gender equality and inclusivity, among others. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the OSCE Programme Office in Bishkek continued its regular activities of training of staff, specialists and legislators; conducting needs assessment missions; and preparing electoral observation missions (OSCE ODIHR, 2020c). However, the OSCE was most visible during the electoral observation missions, when the ODIHR signalled its concerns around vote-buying and the possibility of the lack of impartiality on the part of the Central Electoral Commission (OSCE ODIHR, 2020b). The elections were followed by a violent change in government, which Doolotkeldieva relates, among others, to the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 measures and public dissatisfaction with the government (Doolotkeldieva, 2021).

An evident landslide shift in the quality of democracy in the Kyrgyz Republic happened when the presidential elections in January 2021 were combined with a constitutional referendum, in which the majority (81.30%) opted for a strictly presidential regime in the country. In April of that same year, 79.32% of voters approved the new Constitution, significantly expanding presidential powers (Central Commission for Elections and Referendums of the Kyrgyz Republic). Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic was used by the new government to significantly weaken democratic institutions, leaving the track of a semi-parliamentary system. Further weakening checks and balances, the country’s new Constitution also reduced the parliament in number (from 120 to 90 members) and decision-making powers, while allowing the president to initiate new laws and referendums. The incumbent now enjoys more influence over judiciary, members of the cabinet, the National Bank, and the Central Election Committee (Venice Commission Opinion No. 1021/2021). Article 7 of the document introduces a new consultative body, the People’s Kurultai, controlled by the president and duplicating, as some fear, many of the parliament’s functions (HRW, 2021). Examining the role of the Kurultai and selection procedures for its numerous members, Zhanaev points out that it might “reproduce medieval practices of its traditional way of governance,” and ensure more legitimacy and further empower the president against the national parliament (Zhanaev, 2021). Vague references made in the document to traditions, moral values, and the protection of young people could be, analysts say, manipulated to restrict activities, freedom of speech, and peaceful assembly (Imanaliyeva, 2021). These changes, coupled with ongoing economic crisis, widespread corruption, and nepotism, could be detrimental to the rule of law, human rights and freedoms, and overall democratisation efforts in the country.

Under the pretence of public health concerns and measures, the Kyrgyz government also took steps to further narrow public space targeting civil society and media (IPHR, 2020). Authorities deliberately attacked and threatened journalists and medical staff for spreading “false information” about the virus, inadequate protective equipment, and working conditions or payment (Hotam, 2020). Parliamentarians proposed a draft law on Manipulating Information aiming to criminalise the dissemination of so-called “false news.” The draft did not comply with international freedom of expression standards and has been met with public protest and heavy criticism by international organisations for its unclear purposes and for also targeting user anonymity, among other raised concerns. The revised draft law was first rejected by the Kyrgyz parliament in June but approved by late July 2020. In late August 2021, the new President Japarov signed the controversial bill into law, a decision met with general discontent (RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, 2021). This is not the first time the Kyrgyz government has attempted to tighten control and proposed laws inspired by Russian legislation. Previous examples include the Foreign Agents Law (Lelik, 2016) and the bill “against gay propaganda” (Jacques, 2018). This is arguably the case due to a number of factors, including a shared history, media space and language, and strong elite interplay that allow the Kremlin’s strategic narratives and discourse to spill outside the country’s borders so that its legislative measures governing civil society and media are copied with enthusiasm by other states in the region, as shown by previous research (Lemon & Antonov, 2020).

Amidst intensifying anti-Western rhetoric among elites and lawmakers, another law “mirroring Russia’s latest restrictions” came into force in July 2021. Adding to existing financial reporting requirements, the new law obliges non-profits operating in Kyrgyzstan, exempting those working with the state, political parties and religious organisations, to submit detailed reports on their sources of funding and spending to avoid possible forced shutdown (Talant, 2021). While proponents argue the law could help in controlling the NGO sector to protect “Kyrgyz statehood from interference from other countries, preserve the traditions and culture of the people,” critics see it as a targeted attack on “NGOs focused on government accountability regarding corruption and human rights” (Putz, 2021). The official position over the tightening of legislation is that NGOs are “overly politicised,” and that those threatening national security should be treated accordingly (Masalieva, 2021). Cooperation is welcomed, yet only from organisations complying with the new rules and not confronting the state. Such an attitude and retaliatory measures showcase the prioritisation of regime security over the human dimension and support Lewis’ observation that the SCO, unlike the OSCE, does not consider non-state bodies as useful in the promotion of security, instead seeing them as “potentially threatening stability in various ways” (Lewis, 2012, p. 1224).

Even prior to the 2021 elections and the pandemic years, the 2019 V-DemFootnote 4 report introduced the first model for forecasting autocratisation and listed Kyrgyzstan in the top-10 most at-risk countries among Philippines, Fiji, Mali, Hungary, Guatemala, Kosovo, the Republic of Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tanzania. The 2020 V-Dem report lists Kyrgyzstan as an “Electoral Autocracy,” highlighting also that violations of democratic norms in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, including excessive use of emergency powers, limitations to freedoms, and the lack of predictability regarding the foreseeable end of these measures, were more frequent in closed and electoral autocracies, such as Kyrgyzstan (V-Dem Institute, 2021). This situation is consistent with the conclusions of the previously mentioned research on the decline in the quality of democracy in times of crisis, signalling that weak democracies are more impacted by their effects.

Both the 2020 and 2021 Freedom House reports confirm the observation labelling Kyrgyzstan a consolidated authoritarian regime, coming in 14th out of 100 countries in 2021 (up from 16th in 2020). Kyrgyzstan’s democracy index was falling already in pre-pandemic 2019, when it scored 4.89 and was ranked 101 out of 167 (still the best result in Central Asia) (Freedom House, 2021). It slipped down to 4.21 in 2021 and was ranked 107 out of 167 by The Economist Intelligence Unit, as the “failed parliamentary election in October further exacerbated the steady erosion of democratic principles in the country” (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021). It is also notable that, in the report prepared for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting OSCE-2017, human rights organisations connected the deterioration of the human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan with country’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (OSCE ODIHR, 2017). Further decline in the quality of democracy in 2020–2022 in Kyrgyzstan has been connected both with COVID-19 mitigation measures and the electoral turbulences and upheaval of October 2020, which were signalled in the Freedom House report for 2021 (Putz, 2021).

As shown in this section, the pandemic challenged the weak democracy in Kyrgyzstan by fostering initiatives aimed at inhibiting the public participation of civil society and further centralising the power around the president following a coup d'état brought about by public discontent exacerbated by the public health crisis. During this time, external normative frameworks were used by the political elites of Kyrgyzstan in order to justify further repression of dissent and limitations of free speech, with the OSCE-ODIHR pursuing its regular monitoring activities with regard to the elections but having little sway in pressuring the authorities to comply with human rights standards, even when implementing safety restrictions.

5 Conclusions

The pandemic years had a harsh impact on democracy and liberal norm promotion in the Kyrgyz Republic, culminating in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2021, and the constitutional referendum which returned the country to a strong presidency. The pandemic is said to have accelerated the ongoing global decline in democracy, with no exception for Central Asia. Taking advantage of COVID-19 and political disturbance, President Japarov was able to not only fast-track his way into office but also consolidate presidential power.

Kyrgyzstan was the first Central Asian country to have a female president, and the 2018 election was considered to be “Central Asia’s first peaceful handover of power from one democratically elected leader to another” (V-Dem Institute, 2019). Thus, Kyrgyzstan has already witnessed three changes in government driven by civil unrest, as well as a peaceful transition of power, unlike its other Central Asian counterparts. Prior to the pandemic, Kyrgyzstan was the last outpost of relatively institutionalised political pluralism in a region where most of socialisation and liberal norm promotion efforts were unsuccessful (Lewis, 2012). What started as a health crisis in a politically and economically turbulent state, amplified pre-existing differences in vision and approaches between the state and some norm entrepreneurs, while working in favour of others.

Our research has shown that Kyrgyzstan’s national and regime interests and priorities are more aligned with those of the SCO and EAEU rather than those of the OSCE, mainly due to the visibility of the Russian and Chinese backed organisations, which have more resources, political weight, and leverage in the region. The OSCE, through its politically binding character, cannot advocate for significant changes and reforms, relying mostly on naming and shaming instruments to highlight violations of democratic norms, while, at the same time, working at grassroots levels and only under the mandate agreed to by the national government to promote technical procedures which can reinforce democratic standards in various areas. OSCE membership offers Kyrgyzstan, a politically weak state with a poor economy, the framework of upholding its badge of honour of being an “island of democracy,” while, at the same time, pursuing policies aimed at reinforcing the centralisation of power around the president, models already enacted and proven stable in the region and advocated for through the activities of the EAEU and SCO.

Further research is needed to evaluate the real impact of the new political leadership in Kyrgyzstan on the foreign policy orientation of the country, and to assess the real possibility of norm convergence with its Central Asian neighbours with consideration given to Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power and the ongoing border conflict with Tajikistan. The pandemic has led to temporary progress on Eurasian integration under the framework of the EAEU, especially with regard to vaccine diplomacy, customs exemptions, and relief in border control, but has deepened and exposed the pre-existent dysfunctional practices of corruption and tightened control (Figueiredo Ferreira, 2020). The SCO also supported its member states in managing the COVID-19 pandemic by fostering sharing of medical best practices (Pantucci, 2020), which shows its role as a tool for enhancing China’s international profile and reflects a larger effort in diversifying its purpose from a security-oriented organisation to one fostering economic integration and more (Neapole, 2020).