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Central Asian NGOs Under Fire

Officials in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan call for curbs on “politicised” non-government groups.
By Valentina Kasymbekova
Not for the first time, non-government groups in Central Asia are under attack, accused of over-reliance on foreign funding and pursuing political rather than social aims.



The Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities – unlike their counterparts in repressive Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have allowed non-government organisations, NGOs, considerable freedom to operate in recent years.



Apart from the relative liberalism of these states, one reason is that government finances are in short supply, so charities can help plug some of the gaps in welfare provision.



But new moves to clamp down on NGOs suggest that officials are increasingly nervous of a sector they see as lying beyond their control.



In Tajikistan, the government has approved substantial revisions of the Law on Public Organisations. Deputy justice minister Rustam Mengliev told IWPR that many NGOs do not act within the law, for example failing to notify the ministry about changes to their activities, to register themselves for tax purposes, and to keep proper accounts.



“In the new law we have established a deadline by which NGOs must from now on fulfil these requirements,” said Mengliev. “Otherwise we will have the right to take measures in response.”



But the real purpose behind the changes appears to based more on suspicions about NGOs as quasi-political institutions than on any technical breaches of the law.



“We don’t know why NGOs want to work without supervision, why they show such enormous interest in working with young people, or what influence they have on them. We need to impose order on this,” said a justice ministry employee who did not want to be named.



“It is common knowledge that NGOs operate solely on the basis of foreign donor funding,” said a parliamentary deputy who also asked to remain anonymous. “The state needs to know exactly how much funding is coming into the country, where the money goes and what the purpose is.”



Even before the amended Tajik law comes into force, the authorities have already begun running checks on local and international NGOs. And it is the organised crime department of the interior ministry, not the tax or other agencies, who are in charge.



Davlat Niyozmatov, head of the department’s office in Soghd region in the north of Tajikistan, said the interior minister issued orders to check up on NGOs to prevent a repeat of the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan last year and the May violence in the Uzbek city of Andijan.



This only strengthens concerns that the authorities in Tajikistan regard some or all NGOs as subversives who are either plotting civil unrest or are linked to Islamic radicalism.



There is a similar trend in Kyrgyzstan – even though the government here is itself a product of the change of regime in March last year.



Here it is the ombudsman, the official responsible for upholding human rights, who has been leading the campaign. Ombudsman Tursunbay Bakir Uulu has asked both the justice ministry and the prime minister to consider a set of revisions he is proposing in the NGO law.



Among his proposals are a ban on NGOs funded by governments, political parties and individuals abroad, if these donors are “pursuing political goals and…. harming the constitutional system, the state and national security”.



“Foreign NGOs pursuing certain aims exert a latent influence on the political situation in Kyrgyzstan, by affecting political and economic decision-making,” Bakir Uulu said in a letter to the government.



As for domestic NGOs, “they must not fulfil the role of political parties”, he said, recommending that their role needs to be prescribed by law.



“If they do take on a political direction, then they should register as political parties,” Bakir Uulu told IWPR. “NGOs should work in the social, cultural and civil and legal spheres. Don’t confuse matters - NGOs have no right to interfere in politics. If they do, they become parties.”



In the end, the justice ministry decided there was no point in acting on the ombudsman’s suggestions. After a meeting on March 9, the ministry wrote to Bakir Uulu saying that the constitution already contained sufficient safeguards prohibiting activity by foreign political and religious organisations.



However, the ombudsman’ initiative may reflect wider unease about the strong and sometimes politicised NGO sector.



In January, NGOs reacted angrily at reports that Justice Minister Marat Kayipov was proposing to run checks on them. The minister said his remarks were misrepresented and that he only wanted to weed out religious extremists operating under the guise of legal NGOs.



But many drew comparisons with moves by the Russian parliament to severely curb the activities of foreign-funded charities.



Non-government groups in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have responded with outrage at what they say are indiscriminate attacks on the whole of their sector.



“If anyone is interfering in politics and breaking the law, they should prove it in court, said Tolekan Ismailova, who heads the NGO Citizens Against Corruption. “If this doesn’t stop, Kyrgyzstan’s reputation among the international community may be tarnished.”



Several legal experts in Tajikistan told IWPR that the proposed legislation would make an already cumbersome bureaucratic process even more difficult – perhaps as a deliberate ploy.



According to Nigina Bahrieva, the director of the Human Rights Bureau in the capital Dushanbe, the amended law reduces the types of NGO that can operate, and sets up new hurdles for them to fall at – for example, the requirement that every year, they will have to obtain new registration documents from the justice ministry allowing them to operate.



Given that they will have to complete the formalities within a three-month window, and that there are over 2,600 registered NGOs, Bahrieva doubts the ministry itself will be able to cope.



“But the most unpleasant thing in this law is that the [justice] ministry has total control over NGOs,” Bakhrieva continues. “In the past the finance ministry and the prosecutor’s office had the right to check us, now the justice ministry has been added to the list - with unrestricted control, including over financial activity.”



The police checks currently being conducted have also caused alarm, since they seem to involve a lot of prying into NGO staff’s lives to collect personal information on them.



“We don’t understand what the police are doing here, because they are an operational crime-response agency,” said an NGO head in Soghd region. “There are no criminals like this in the environment in which we work.”



The Law on Public Organisations has now gone to the Tajik parliament, and NGOs are trying to lobby members so that their views are taken into account.



But a former member of parliament is sceptical that this will have any effect. “No matter how much fuss the NGO employees make, if the project has already been approved by the government it is going to be passed in this form, without any of the amendments they are lobbying for,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.



Even if Kyrgyz and Tajik NGOs get accused by their governments of being out of control, too involved in politics or over-reliant on foreign funding, it is hard to envisage anyone else stepping in to fill the niche they now occupy.



As Tursunbek Akun, who sits on the Kyrgyz president’s human rights commission, noted, “Civil society carries out important work in the interests of the state. Since we don’t have our own philanthropists like George Soros, it is understandable why we should need aid from abroad.”



Political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev commented that the Kyrgyz ombudsman was poorly placed to criticise donor-supported NGOs, “The ombudsman himself has said he does not receive money from the state treasury and that 80 per cent of his [office’s] budget is covered by foreign income. In that case we’d need to close down the institution of ombudsman.”



Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe. Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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