Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Civil Society Under Threat

NGOs and other public groups harassed and denied permission to register.
By IWPR staff
In a country where loyal servants of the regime are as much under suspicion as opposition activists, it goes without saying that President Saparmurat Niazov views Turkmenistan’s handful of civil society groups with deep distrust.

Perhaps more surprising and frustrating though is that his policy of iron control over all aspects of public life also extends to groups with no interest in politics.

The National Chess Committee and the National Artisans Association are among several seemingly innocuous organisations that have been denied permission to register with the justice ministry - a legal requirement in Turkmenistan.

“We submitted documents to the ministry twice, and twice the documents were returned to us, with the explanation that the papers were drawn up incorrectly. We realised that they don’t want to register us,” said a member of the artisans group.

“It’s strange. How can we do anything to disturb the country? We are not involved in politics. We only glorify the country, preserving national art and crafts.”

When Counterpart - a US civil society support initiative - set up its office in Turkmenistan in 1997 it had over 400 non-governmental organisations on its database. Today, that number has dwindled to less than 90 - the overwhelming majority of which are pro-government bodies like the Youth Organisation, the Union of Women, the Union of Dog Breeders and the Union of Camel Breeders. A handful of independents include the Ufologists Society, the Environmental Protection Society, the Agama Mountain Climbers Club and the Beekeepers Club.

At the heart of the problem is a repressive law passed in late 2003 that criminalised unregistered activities of public organisations. At the urging of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that law was softened in 2004, but civil society has never recovered.

Hindering its development is the requirement that NGOs must register in order to operate - an impossible task not only for the artisans and chess enthusiasts but also for any organisation the government sees as a threat.

A member of the Arkadag human rights NGO told IWPR that his group has given up trying to register. “We have lost count of how many times we have tried to legalise our position,” he said, explaining one application was denied because of an incorrectly placed comma on the form. “The last time, when there was nothing to find fault with, they said, ‘you didn’t pay the [registration] fee’. We haven’t been there again. There is no point. It is clear that they don’t want to register us.”

An environmental NGO from the eastern Lebap region has experienced similar problems. The head of the group told IWPR that during his last visit to the justice ministry in July it was made clear that his hopes to register were in vain.

“We submitted documents twice. The second time we were given the proposal to pay a [registration] fee of 1.5 million manats [300 US dollars], although according to the law it is paid after the decision on registration is made,” said the NGO representative.

“A year has gone by since we paid. I recently learned of the result. I was kept waiting at the ministry waiting room for a whole hour, and then the secretary told me that the head of the registration department was not in.

“They evidently have an order not to register NGOs, but they can’t refuse us directly, and they have run out of arguments for lying.”

Unable to work in the non-profit sector, many NGOs, especially human rights organisations, have registered as commercial enterprises because such businesses are subject to less stringent controls. Ecological group Ecosodruzhestvo is among those who’ve taken this option, and in addition to its environmental work now offers management consulting.

But this brings its own set of problems, as changing from a non-profit organisation makes it hard to get foreign funding. International donors are thin on the ground in Turkmenistan, however, discouraged by the hostile political environment.

Even NGOs that do manage to get legally registered struggle to operate.

The justice ministry is slow to approve any projects they try to undertake and harassment is commonplace.

The Ufologists Society recently organised a training session with instructors from Ashgabat. “Before the seminar began, a representative of the interior ministry entered the room and declared the seminar to be closed, because the organisation had not warned the local administration about it,” said one of the trainers.

Meanwhile, a journalism seminar supported by the OSCE was disrupted three times. When the OSCE appealed to the foreign ministry, the minister Rashid Meredov refused to allow it to proceed. In the end it took place in a US embassy conference hall, but organisers say the future of the project is now in jeopardy.

A public health project organised by Counterpart - which is registered - is also under threat. Counterpart awarded 12 grants to groups around the country to implement the scheme but workers trying to register with their local authorities have been intimidated.

“The regional administration summoned us and started shouting at us, demanding we take back our documents for registration,” said a young doctor from the Balkanabat region. “I was summoned to the administration and asked a lot of questions and threatened with dismissal from my job. I will have to turn down the project.”