This chapter discusses how new and significant recent trends affected the enabling environment for civil society in 2012 in Kyrgyzstan, and the different actors involved in these trends. It draws connections between trends in Kyrgyzstan and key global changes affecting development partnerships. Special attention is given to Public Watch Councils and the article highlights laws and regulations affecting civil society and the impact of the political context. It examines how these new trends in Kyrgyzstan impact on governance and enable policy dialogue, pointing to some good practices in inclusive policy dialogue for democratic ownership.
Kyrgyzstan has been transitioning from socialism to a market economy since 1991. Since 1993, civil society organisations (CSOs) have developed and grown in importance. This process of civil society development has gone through several phases, including building CSOs relations with the state, governmental agencies, parliament, local governance, business entities, and with communities and the wider public.
The Public Watch Councils have become not only an enabling factor for civil society organisations in their relations with government, but they have also served as an important push for closer and stronger cooperation between civil society organisations and for the development of new civil society partnerships with business.
Being quite a new phenomenon for society and the state, there have been many challenges as well as some achievements in this evolution of Kyrgyzstani organised civil society. Beginning in 1995, the legal and regulatory framework for CSOs has gradually been developed. In 1995 a law on non-commercial organisations was adopted by parliament. In 1999 it was amended, and as such CSOs had to register again under the revised law.
The period 2008 to 2009 was characterised by political and parliamentary efforts to limit CSOs. Following this period, in 2010, the government made a significant positive move to strengthen the enabling environment for CSOs, with the enactment of a Presidential Decree for Public Watch Councils (PWCs) to fall under governmental ministries and agencies. The year 2012 has been largely successful for civil society, but the Decree has not been made into law. In the language of the last draft of the law, Public Watch Councils are renamed Public Councils. The fact that PWCs have been established and initiated in government ministries has started to have an impact on the country’s governance and has enabled policy dialogue between CSOs and state institutions. While this process is only in its beginning stages, it is significant that these dialogues have started. This contribution will set out the advocacy and lobbying process undertaken by CSOs for the law on PWCs.
Initiating Public Watch Councils
The years between 2010 and 2012 proved to be important years for developing relations between the state and CSOs in Kyrgyzstan. A unique form of partnership has been established by the Presidential Decree on Public Watch Councils, creating a new form of social and political engagement by the state with CSOs and business bodies.
In 2011 the first PWCs were established. They have become a significant factor for strengthening various stakeholders’ relations with the state in terms of transparency, accountability, democratic ownership of development, and the monitoring of state-led programmes and processes. Among the duties of the PWCs are structuring cooperation between a government body and civil society, through dialogue and consideration of citizens’ and CSOs’ proposals, within the state body’s remit.
The PWC is a significant component of an enabling civil society environment, as well as contributing to development and partnerships, development effectiveness and the involvement of the private sector in development. A PWC has it own website, which is important for transparency and accountability, providing information about its activities (work plan, schedule of sessions, place and time, minutes of meetings, etc.).
Currently there are 36 PWCs in the country, with about 500 members in total. A special committee in the Presidential Office, Members for the PWCs, chose the initial members, following recommendations from the civil society, trade union and business sectors. At present there is a process underway to clarify selection procedures. In 2012, the Coordinating Council for PWCs (CC) was established and this CC will have the responsibility of selecting new members of a PWC in the future. The term for membership is two years. The work of all members of PWCs is based on the principle of volunteerism, with no payments for members. But in cases where there is a need for financial resources to organise events (such as a conference, public debates, public hearing, etc.) the PWC will raise funds for these purposes.
In April 2013, there will be a second round for selection of PWC members and at time of writing the CC is collecting resumes and recommendations for potential members. The PWCs will ensure the transparency of the selection procedure. The current PWCs can make recommendations from among their previous members if they were working effectively. All applications and recommendations for membership will then be forwarded to a Commission on Selection.
For civil society the Public Watch Council has become a unique and important opportunity to hold government and other power-holders to account for their obligations to uphold human rights and enable democratic civic space in Kyrgyzstan.
In the period 2011 to 2012, the activities of the PWCs were guided by the following two main functions: a consultative role (give recommendations to a state body on improvement of its work, offering an alternative strategy or mechanism, and holding public hearings); and a watchdog role (monitoring the use of the budget and other funds, the conduct of tendering processes, and compliance with legislation by the state).
The process involved for the establishment and initial operations of PWCs has been a challenge for all involved actors. After one of year of successful operations, it was obvious to civil society that there was a need to legitimise these structures through the adoption of a law by parliament.
The work for many of these initial PWCs has proved difficult, despite the existence of political will at the highest level (in the form of the Presidential Decree). Many governmental bodies (ministries and state agencies) resisted involvement of the public. They hindered the work of their PWC by blocking access to required information for PWC members to do their work. Some active PWCs have been able to develop and submit serious recommendations to their respective ministries, but many of these recommendations were either ignored or not taken into consideration. More positively, there are some state agencies that have been champions of partnership and have enabled their PWC to monitor and make recommendations on their work, processes and results. Others however have strongly resisted such engagement.