2 Years Protecting the Business Environment
It is now nearly three years since I resigned as a UK diplomat and subsequently took up the challenge of becoming the first Business Ombudsman of the Kyrgyz Republic, a project funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a partnership with the government and business. While not as conventional as going on to my next diplomatic Head of Mission role, I hoped that the creation of an organisation that could help protect the private sector from the state might contribute to the positive development of the economy and country. I was under no illusion that the challenge would be easy.
Looking back, just over 2 years have passed since opening the Business Ombudsman Institute (BOI) at the end of February 2020 to establishing ourselves as trusted partners with business and government. But the headline figures, having helped save businesses over $24 Million and a case success rate of over 50%, give hope that it will be possible to deliver the mandate as the authorised person to “protect the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of business entities”.
There are different models of Business Ombudsmen around the region and World. That the government of the Kyrgyz Republic chose to establish an independent Business Ombudsman and not one either reporting to government or being a civil servant is perhaps reflective of the unique openness of this country in the wider region. But in keeping with other Ombudsmen, my role is to provide a free, pre-court, alternative dispute reconciliation service that can help business overcome areas of disagreement with state bodies.
My mandate is three-fold. Private business can complain to me that the state (national, local, regional government, Ministries or Agencies, State Owned enterprises or state servants) have in their actions (or inactions) infringed their legitimate rights. Secondly, I should help to increase “transparency” in state bodies and lastly I am able to recommend changes to existing laws or even suggest new laws where my work determines that there are gaps or inconsistencies that hamper business. Successive Prime Ministers have also asked me to contribute to the drive to improve the business and investment climate.
Even by the standards of post-independence Kyrgyzstan, the past two years have been a period of tumultuous challenge. The pandemic hit businesses and the economy hard with lockdowns, supply chain and border disruptions and inflation. October 2020 saw unrest that led to a change in leadership and since then there have been Presidential, parliamentary and local elections and associated government changes and legislative reform. This has impacted the ability to communicate our existence and mandate, especially in the regions. Nonetheless, in this time over 200 businesses have formally registered complaints with me. Others have sought our expert advice and support to help overcome their difficulties.
Part of the challenge for my colleagues and I has been to establish and maintain good working relations with government and state bodies. As my powers are limited to recommendations it has been essential to secure political support to encourage state bodies to implement the Response Acts that I issue if I find a business has had its rights infringed. Successive Presidents, Prime Ministers have confirmed this and my team and I work very closely with the Ministry of Economy, the General Prosecutor’s Office and the State Tax Service. And of course, our partners amongst the Business Associations who also work tirelessly to protect their business members. But a challenge remains to get some state bodies to engage or, at times, to implement recommendations.
Increasingly, government Ministries consult my colleagues and I on proposed changes to legislation that affects business or the economy. I am fortunate to have an expert team that provides high quality advice from a legal and international best practice perspective, and uses the experience we gain from the consideration of complaints and our other work. In total I have sent government over 200 proposals and recommendations, including 34 Response Acts where I have found a complainant’s rights infringed and recommending how to rectify this and avoid them being repeated. Oher recommendations have been aimed at reducing inconsistencies and improve the prevailing business climate. Many of these recommendations have made it through to the updated legislation.
From this wider work, we have identified several key systemic problems holding back the private sector in the Kyrgyz Republic. These include a worrying lack of consistency in state policy and frequent changes in legislation, a tendency for state bodies to make decisions in favour of the state even if improper (and even illegal at times), a lack of transparency, accountability and an apparent increase in pressure from law enforcement bodies.
Assessing where the BOI has got to halfway through my five-year term as Business Ombudsman, I see similarities with my school reports of many years ago: some notable achievements, but much more still to be done! But, given the ongoing geopolitical, economic, and other challenges affecting Kyrgyzstan my colleagues and I must redouble our efforts to protect the entrepreneurs and help bring about the reform in state bodies working practices, and the necessary improvements in the business and investment climate, that will provide the sustainable economic growth that Kyrgyzstan needs and deserves.
I spent thirty years as a British diplomat and was especially proud to have been Ambassador to Tajikistan and then Kyrgyzstan. But I have never been more proud to lead a team of such dedicated, determined and professional colleagues trying to make a difference in such an important field. There will be many more challenges ahead to deliver a lasting impact, but I remain confident that my mandate is achievable, the challenges can be overcome and that we can make a real difference in this fascinating country that has become home for me.
The Business Ombudsman is an authorized person to protect the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of entrepreneurs and business entities, who operates on the basis of Decree No. 647 of the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic dated December 31, 2018.
The Business Ombudsman accepts complaints by post, email, in person or online.
For more information, please visit the BOI website www.boi.kg