ISSN 2330-717X

Kyrgyzstan’s Taza Koom Project Highlights Development Challenges – Analysis

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Taza Koom 2040 (“Pure Society” or “Clean Society”) is the Kyrgyzstan Republic’s “human-centered” initiative to transform the country into a digital economy with digitally literate citizens, while incorporating new and expansive technologies. Taza Koom 2040, announced on April 3, 2017 by former President Almazbek Atambayev, is part of the National Sustainable Development Strategy until 2040. The ambitious project is also one of three projects encompassing the Forty Steps to New Era for 2018-2023. The initiative has two overarching goals: develop human capital and create an innovation-friendly environment to build an open and transparent state. Taza Koom will also increase regional connectivity, and form the core of Kyrgyzstan’s digital economy.

According to the official Taza Koom website, Kyrgyzstan will undergo a digital transformation and achieve development through innovation, increased information communication telecommunications (ICT), and by creating and maintaining a digital economy. A trend observable in other Former Soviet Union states — particularly Belarus, Estonia, and Kazakhstan.

Prime Minister Sagnitev claims the program will increase transparency and reduce corruption as information will be widely available.

Taza Koom has four strategic tasks: creating a modern state and communications infrastructure; creating a favorable ICT ecosystem; creating an open digital society; and stimulating creation of ICT around innovation and partnerships. Within a nation-building context, the program will lead to stronger state institutions and lead to political and social accountability and transparency. Access to the internet and information ensures compliance with democratic reforms.

Taza Koom requires foreign investment and so far generated notable cooperation and investment for development opportunities. South Korea and Kyrgyzstan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on e-government in September 2017 to discuss relations on electronic capabilities and development. Two officials representing Taza Koom visited the Fujitsu Limited’s digital transformation center and visited Nippon Signal to discuss implementation of the program. Taza Koom was discussed during the second Kyrgyz-Japan Forum in Tokyo. India, a growing partner in the region, is interested in the project. Taza Koom initiative may increase trade with Eurasian countries including the Customs Union and Estonia—as many countries are focusing on developing e-government and newer and innovative technologies.

Multiple international organizations including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank, and the UN will provide assistance to the project. The EBRD will assist Kyrgyzstan in the legal framework for geospatial data to “create conditions for free access and effective use for private sector to spatial data, which is the basis for many of the investment decisions,” particularly infrastructure. Plans were initiated to build a data center in July 2017, to support the World Bank’s Digital CASA (Central Asia and South Asia) project. The project aims to “improve broadband internet connectivity,” “[connecting] the countries of Central and South Asia into a single digital hub” by promoting private sector investment in infrastructure.

Blockchain technology can aid government services and to collect and store biometric data to enable better e-government services. Blockchain technologies can also aid in fraud detection and reduction and for medical services. Kyrgyzstan flirted with cryptocurrencies in the past by attempting to establish GoldenRock in September 2017, backed by gold as, “the owner of the token after the development of the [gold mine] field will be able to exchange it for the metal.” Status of this cryptocurrency is unknown. Prime Minister Isakov stated Kyrgyzstan will use cryptocurrency in state purchases to “reduce corruption, eradicate corruption elements and optimize state revenues.”

Implementation and proper use of blockchain and cryptocurrency is one of many hurdles governments face when choosing to use fintech to solve state problems.

Taza Koom highlights many development and civil society challenges. Internet connectivity and access is highly concentrated in the capital of Bishkek in hotels, some restaurants, and at universities. Kyrgyzstan ranks 110 on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) ICT Development Index. According to the ITU’s Kyrgyzstan country profile (2017), only four out of 100 inhabitations have fixed internet and 44.9% have mobile internet. Only 1.4 million persons out of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 6.083 million, roughly 23%, have access to internet. Reporting from the Internet Society states that 30% of the population has internet access. According to a Freedom House, Kyrgyzstan has international internet connections via Kazakhstan and internet service providers “are not required to use government-owned channels to connect to the international internet.” According to 24.kg, a Kyrgyzstan news site, as of early December 2017, 1,242 schools (or roughly 55 percent of 2,200 schools) have internet connectivity.

A goal of Taza Koom is internet in every village; telecommunications companies failed on installation broadband to rural areas. Mobile internet penetration is higher with cellular phone providers. Kyrgyzstan’s large mobile providers Beeline, Megacom, and NurTelecom, expanded mobile service. Beeline has 4G coverage throughout all regions, but still limited to major cities including Osh, Karakol, and Bishkek. Megacom’s 4G and 3G coverage is similar. Kyrgyz news source, 24.kg, reported in February 2017 that 73 villages have no mobile communications.

Kyrgyzstan’s freedom of expression and press freedoms are deteriorating. Government bodies and laws are misinterpreted to silence critics ultimately challenging Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. The Law on the Guarantees for Activity of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic uses the Prosecutor General to lodge lawsuits against individuals who offend the dignity and honor of the President; former Presidents retains the title of “President” for lifetime (Article 18 of the Kyrgyz Republic Constitution). Article 19, a law analysis group, reported the Law “is indeed leading to an impressive, disproportionate restriction of the right to free expression in the country.” The law violates Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This law and other actions against independent media rails against Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to in accordance with UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/14/L.2), of June 11, 2010.

Under the law, seven Kyrgyz journalists and human rights activists must pay more than $1 million in compensation to former President Atambayev and his successor President Soroonbai Jeenbekov for insult and slander. The payment and the law itself attempts to silence critics, discourage criticism of the President (and past Presidents), and is extractive. The monthly income for Kyrgyz journalists in large regional media earn approximately KGS 10,000 to KGS 15,000 per month; and smaller publications receive KGS 5,000 to KGS 7,000 per month.

The Law on Countering Extremist Activity – prompted by the rise of the Islamic State – loosely defines extremism allowing for arbitrary enforcement. The Law on Countering Extremist Activity blocked internet resources deemed to promote or host extremist content. Multiple governments throughout the region have used the Islamic State to crack down on freedom of speech, press, and assembly. In May 2016, Kyrgyz Parliament rejected a foreign agents law, similar to the Russian law, which threatened operations of Western NGOs in the country because of the valuable contributions of NGOs. The 2016 attempt at creating an information policy in Kyrgyzstan fell flat. Amendments to the Law on Mass Media in 2016 restricted information of foreign ownership of media outlets by Western nations, not Russia or China, was discussed. OSCE analysis (in Russian) of the Law on Mass Media concluded the proposed changes conflicted with Article 19 of the ICCPR.

A report by Digital Report Analytica stated in July 2016, the newly formed State Committee for Information Technology and Communications, which sought to “incorporate the State Communications Agency (SCA) and the Center for Electronic Governance … [and] some of the communications components from the Ministry of Transportation,” violated WTO commitments and removed “the SCA of its politically independent regulatory role.” Understanding the need for regulation, regulatory bodies should be separate to avoid political intervention and corruption.

Taza Koom, if implemented effectively, will resolve communication and civil society problems. Taza Koom will aid in strengthening freedom of press and speech. Improved internet access across the country will enable national and regional level grassroots discourse and generate more Kyrgyz-language content. Increased internet access and a more developed ICT eco-system will increase access to world markets and boost e-commerce and investment. As Kyrgyzstan updates its internet infrastructure, legislation will be updated regarding cyber-crime and data protection. Kyrgyzstan, like several other former Soviet Union countries, must balance security with innovation, basic human rights including freedom of speech and press, to avoid a negative economic impacts and a rollback on reforms.

*Samantha Brletich is a researcher on the region of Central Asia and Russia. She focuses on extremism and terrorism, governance, culture, mining, and foreign policy. She holds a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University. She is an employee of the U.S. Government (opinions and ideas are her own).


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