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NDI Study Mission: Kyrgyzstan

Friday, January 27, 2012 to Sunday, February 5, 2012

From January 27 to February 5, 2012, the National Democratic Institute (NDI or the Institute), in cooperation with the Institute for Representative Government (IRG), organized a study mission for a delegation of 10 members of parliament (MPs) from Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Democracy Committee. The delegation traveled to Washington, D.C. and Annapolis, Maryland, where they met with members of the U.S. Congress, senior legislative staff, and other influential policymakers and civil society representatives. The exchange provided an opportunity for the MPs to examine the U.S. legislative process, focusing specifically on issues of transparency and openness in government and methods for improving constituent outreach. The visit also provided an opportunity for delegates to discuss matters of importance to U.S.-Kyrgyzstan bilateral relations with influential U.S. policymakers. Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Democracy Committee is an informal parliamentary group, comprised of 10 reform-minded MPs, with two members nominated from each of the five parliamentary factions. The committee aims to strengthen the parliament’s responsiveness and accountability to citizens through researching best practices and developing recommendations for institutional strengthening and democratic reform.

NDI organized a number of sessions for the group designed to provide an overview of the U.S. Congress. Tom McMahon, a former Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), gave an overview of the current U.S. political landscape, including discussion of the then ongoing presidential campaign, the decentralized nature of political parties in the United States, and issues currently being debated on the national stage. Walter Oleszek, a preeminent expert on the U.S. Congress from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), provided an overview of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as various legislative support agencies, such as CRS, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This session was complimented by presentations from the House Parliamentarian, the Deputy Clerk, and the Legislative Counsel, who described their offices’ roles in supporting plenary operations, legislative information administration, and legislative drafting in the House of Representatives. Additionally, the MPs had the opportunity to meet with Rep. Gwen Moore, the Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, and Rep. Susan Davis, who led a discussion on the Women’s Caucus and how bi-partisan parliamentary groups operate in the U.S. Congress. A final overview session was provided by former Senator Thomas Daschle, who served as both the Majority and Minority Leader in the Senate. Finally, the delegates visited Annapolis, Maryland, to learn about the legislative process of the Maryland General Assembly and observe governance on a scale similar to Kyrgyzstan.

One focus of the study mission was to share experiences and identify best practices in the areas of legislative transparency, parliamentary openness and anti-corruption. The MPs met with the House Deputy Sergeant-At-Arms and the Chief of the Capitol Police, who led a discussion on maintaining balance between ensuring security in the U.S. Congress and providing meaningful accessibility to citizens, a key component of openness. The study mission participants also observed an open committee hearing of the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity, and visited the studio of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN). The MPs visited the Sunlight Foundation, which uses the internet to encourage greater government openness and transparency, providing new tools and resources for media and citizens to track legislative action, lobbying, and political campaign contributions. Lastly, the group met with Rep. Mike Conaway, a member of the House Committee on Ethics, who led a discussion on how the committee helps combat corruption in the House, supports ethical conduct of members of Congress and staff, and bolsters transparency through financial disclosure requirements.

A second focus of the study mission was to share experience and identify methods for improving constituent relations in the Jogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyzstani parliament. The delegates met with Kathy Gest, former press secretary of the U.S. Senate and NDI’s current director of public affairs, who led a discussion on reaching out to constituents through the media and the role of the press secretary in this process. Former Rep. James Jones, the co-chairman of IRG, met with the group to discuss his personal experiences in constituent relations. Finally, the MPs visited the constituent office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Rockville, Maryland, to learn about tools for maintaining contact with constituents and responding to their needs, such as mailings and town hall meetings. District Director Joan Kleinman led a discussion on how the office facilitates problem solving for constituents with federal government agencies through casework and gathers information from constituents to inform the Congressman’s legislative and oversight priorities.

In addition to learning about the Congress and the U.S. political system, the study mission was also designed to provide an opportunity for participants to discuss U.S.-Kyrgyzstan bilateral issues with senior foreign policymakers and opinion leaders, particularly on the issue of U.S. support for continued democratic reform in Kyrgyzstan. In Congress, the MPs met with the following individuals: Rep. Dan Burton, Chairman of the Europe and Eurasia Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which has jurisdiction over U.S. policy toward Central Asia; Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, the Co-Chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Central Asia; Reps. David Dreier and David Price, the Co-Chairmen of the House Democracy Partnership, which is considering the Jogorku Kenesh as a potential partner parliament; and senior staff responsible for Central Asia at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Beyond Congress, the MPs met with a number of influential foreign policymakers, including: Lynne Tracy, the Director for Central Asian Affairs on the National Security Staff; Dan Rosenblum, the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia at the State Department; Susan Elliott, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department; and senior representatives from the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The Kyrgyzstani delegates participated in a public event at NDI, hosted in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute where the MPs discussed the role of parliament in Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and answered questions on a variety of U.S.-Kyrgyzstan bilateral issues. The public event was attended by approximately 50 people, including representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Defense, members of the diplomatic corps, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on democracy, human rights, and socioeconomic development in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.

The study mission also provided the delegates opportunities to take part in several cultural activities, including a bus-tour of Washington, D.C.; a visit to the National Mosque; a Washington Capitals ice-hockey game; and tours of the U.S. Capitol Building and the Maryland General Assembly.

At the end of the program, participants were asked to reflect on their experience and on what they had learned during the study mission and complete an evaluation form. The delegates noted very high satisfaction with the study mission, both in terms of the substance of meetings, as well as logistics and quality of service. The average scores for substantive sessions in the program ranged from 4.6 to 5 (out of 5), while the logistics and service scores ranged from 4.5 to 5. The highest rated substantive sessions were Senator Daschle’s discussion on majority-minority relations and the meeting with the Sunlight Foundation on transparency and openness in the U.S. government.

Additionally, participants identified several elements of the U.S. system that could serve as useful models for reform in Kyrgyzstan, including: strong legislative support services like the CRS and Office of the Legislative Counsel; clear delineations between partisan and nonpartisan staff; budgetary control for MPs personal offices and meaningful financial disclosure for those offices; and support for constituency offices. One MP noted a desire to learn more about how political campaigns take place in United States, particularly how candidates interact with voters and the role of youth in campaigns.

The success of this study mission was further established by the numerous follow-on activities that took place upon the delegation’s return to Kyrgyzstan. The group has gathered multiple times to discuss the outcomes of the study mission, strategies for effectively disseminating information provided during their trip, future activities and potential expansion of the Committee, and increased coordination with other reform-minded deputy groups. Shortly after the study mission, five of the ten IRG participants, representing each of the five participating parties, appeared on a popular national television show in Kyrgyzstan to discuss their visit to the United States, thus immediately following through on pledges to be more transparent and communicative with constituents. The delegation plans to continue these outreach efforts by visiting regions outside of Bishkek to share ideas on parliamentary reform and build relationships with citizens.