Analytics and Interview

On 16 January 2015 late in the evening the website of the Ministry of Justice published a statement that the NGO Committee Against Torture had been added to the register of non-profit organizations designated as ‘foreign agents’.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch and Honorary Participant of International Youth Human Rights Movement: As the crisis in Ukraine escalated this spring, the Kremlin’s vicious crackdown on civil society also escalated. Space for independent civic activity in Russia is shrinking dramatically, but international policymakers and the media have been understandably too distracted to do much about it. Since early spring, it seems as though every week brings a new pernicious law or legislative proposal.
Earlier this year, the correspondent of Youth Human Rights Movement from Germany Jakob Stürmann interviewed Konstantin Baranov, member of the Coordination Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement. They discussed so called “law against homosexual propaganda” and the overall situation of LGBT in Russia.  

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Oleg Sentsov, Olexander Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy have been held in Russian jails for two years already under fabricated charges of ‘terrorism’. We consider it being necessary to express solidarity with those who are persecuted due to their pro-Ukrainian views, civic stand and desire for freedom in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia has published “Human Rights in Armenia 2014” Annual Report. The report reflects on the Right to Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, Political Persecutions, Freedom of Conscience and Religion, The Rights of the Child, Protection of Labor Rights.
«We have a few questions for you,» a border guard told Sinaver Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, at the Armyansk checkpoint in northern Crimea on Jan. 23. Kadyrov was on his way to Kherson, in southern Ukraine, to fly to Turkey for medical treatment. It was the beginning of an ordeal that ended with a local court expelling him from Crimea, his home of almost 25 years.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority It is time to sit back and reflect.

Mark Twain


Youth Human Rights Movement

Is there a civil society in Uzbekistan? Perspectives of development

On November 12 Uzbek president Islam Karimov addressed the joint session of the Legislative Chamber and Senate of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) with a so called “Concept of further deepening of democratic reforms and establishment of civil society”. Section 4 of this Concept named “Establishment and development of the institutes of civil society” focuses on the current stage of the civil society in Uzbekistan and its perspectives.1

We have decided to share our view on this issue as we think there is no civil society in Uzbekistan in the full notion of this term, in other words a civil society being a free sector of the society. But for the beginning let us recall the most important pieces from the parliamentary address of the head of state..

Having noted intensification of the role of the institutes of civil society in accomplishing an effective public control over the activities of the government and power structures the president mentioned that the institute of public, civic control through the NGOs and other actors of the civil society is becoming one of the important instruments of providing a feedback of the society with the government, identification of the public mood, public attitude to the ongoing reforms in the country. The president has also stressed the existing wide spread network of the NGOs throughout the country which cover the interests of a wide variety of the Uzbek population. According to the president’s speech, currently there are more than 5.100 NGOs in the country, while the number of the citizens’ local bodies of self-government exceed 10 thousand. In his address the president has also pointed out the need for development and adoption of a series of new laws, including Law “On public control”, Law “On environmental control”, the National Action Plan on human rights implementation and other laws which strengthen the role and participation of the NGOs in implementation of the state programs in such sectors as the public health care, environmental security, combating unemployment especially among the rural youth, providing social protection for less-secured groups of the population and other socially significant problems.

The existing legislative base concerning the NGO activity in Uzbekistan is impressive. According to official statements during the national independence years more than 200 laws and bylaws on strengthening the role of the civil society institutes and solution of the most important social-economic problems of the citizens have been adopted. In particular the following laws could be mentioned here: Law “On guarantees of the NGO activities”, Law “On public foundations”, Law “On charities”, and the presidential Decree “On measures of assistance on development of the civil society institutes in the Republic of Uzbekistan”. However, in spite of this establishment, state registration and licensing of the activities of a new NGO, mass media or political party are still regulated not by laws which seem liberal at the first glance, but unfortunately by bylaws. For example, the issue of state registration of the NGOs, political parties, public movements and trade unions is still regulated by “Rules of consideration of the registration documents and charters of the public associations on the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan”.2 According to those Rules the Ministry of Justice and its local branches are entitled to reject a state registration and return the registration papers of the NGO, political party and etc. for unlimited times referring to so called mistakes in the registration papers. Numerous attempts of the Uzbek human rights groups to receive a state registration tell us about such practice. Paradoxically, in fact it is much easier to register a business entity in Uzbekistan rather than a NGO or other institutes of the civil society. The requirement on the terms of consideration of the registration application from the NGOs, political parties also seems to be really burdensome – from two to three months. The practice demonstrates that currently it is almost impossible for an independent NGO or any other public association to receive a state registration as this issue is heavily controlled by the executive power of the country.

Observations on the tendencies with development of the civil society in the country beginning late 2005 point out to one main trend: the ruling political elite of the country has started to reconsider the role of the civil society and consequently commenced taking efforts to establish its own, controllable civil society by using the same techniques and mechanisms practiced by the international donors, international development groups in Uzbekistan before they were kicked out of the country. During the last several years and up to the present day we can witness the results of this main trend. This also speaks for an exaggerated artificial official rhetoric on the growth of the overall number and influence of the civil society institutes in Uzbekistan.

The official statement regarding the overall number of operating NGOs in Uzbekistan exceeding 5 thousand might not conform reality. It should be kept in mind that most of the huge GONGOs or so called government organized NGOs such as the Public Movement Youth of Uzbekistan “Kamolot”, the Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan, “Soglom Avlod Uchun” Public Foundation, the Public Foundation of Intellectual Activity, the Public Association “Nuroniy”, the Public Association “Mahalla”, the National Association of the NGOs of Uzbekistan, the Chamber of Commerce and Commodity Producers and others have branches and cells in towns, districts and different regions of the country. In pursuit of growth in the overall number of the NGOs the official statistics might count each local branch of the GONGOs as a separate NGO.

*Note: The column “NGOs created by citizens” means those NGOs which have been created at the initiative of the citizens. The last column “Total number of NGOs” includes those NGOs created at the initiative of the citizens as well as the GONGOs.

According to this source, the total number of NGOs in Uzbekistan could slightly make up 576 or around this taking into consideration this information was received in September 2010 and the number might have changed a little. The source clarifies that among those 576 NGOs 156 are created by the citizens who decided to establish NGOs driven by common goals and interests.

It is impossible to ignore the issue of financing for the civil society sector while looking at the question of whether there is a civil society in the country. In his parliamentary address the president has also drawn attention to this particular issue. He has noted the role of the joint Decree of the Boards of the Legislative Chamber and Senate of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan “On measures of strengthening the support for NGOs and other institutes of the civil society” (adopted on July 03, 2008 года, Decree # 842–I/513–I) and creation of a Public Foundation and Parliamentary Commission under the Uzbek Parliament (the Parliamentary Commission is made up of authorized representatives of the NGOs and public associations, the MPs and officers of the government financial bodies). The Parliamentary Commission makes decisions on the issue of distribution of the financial means allocated from the state budget to support the local civil society institutes. According to the official data, for the last three years the Public Foundation under the Parliament has allocated more than 11 billion Uzbek sums (approximately $ 6.7 million USD under the official exchange rate) in support of the projects of the Uzbek civil society groups.

Under article 3 of the above mentioned joint Decree of the both houses of the Uzbek Parliament the Public Foundation under the Parliament shall have the following tasks:

Accumulation of means received from the state budget of the Republic of Uzbekistan, other means not prohibited under the law, arrangement of their utilization and realization of the programs aimed at stimulating development and support for the activities of independent NGOs and other civil society institutes, for their active participation in solution of actual social, economic and humanitarian problems;
Assistance in implementation of programs and projects related to strengthening material-technical basis of the NGOs, providing legal, consultative, organizational, technical and other types of assistance, expanding their links with foreign and international partners (holding joint conferences, seminars, roundtables, training, implementation or joint projects and other activities) on the issues of NGO development, other civil society institutes and their participation in democratic reforms and modernization of the country.

The role of the joint Decree on financing the civil society institutes should be considered through the prism of the latest tendencies taking place in the NGO sector of the country. It is not a secret that the Uzbek authorities have always tried to maintain a strict control over the NGO sector. Pretty tough national legislation regulating setting up and state registration of NGOs, strict accountability rules for the local NGOs before the government bodies, creation of clone NGOs in the form of GONGOs (NGOs created and financed by the government, for example, Youth Public Movement “Kamolot”, the Women’s Committee, Public Association “Mahalla”, Public Association “Nuroniy”, the National Association of NGOs of Uzbekistan, the National Association of Electronic Mass Media, the Pubic Foundation for Supporting and Development of Printed Media and etc.) and strict restrictions for receiving grants and other forms of financial aid from foreign donors – all of these are indicators of the government policy on NGOs. Beginning late 2005 the control and accountability rules for the NGOs in Uzbekistan have increased. Forced closure of tens of NGOs all over the country also falls under this period.

Even though the national legislation on NGOs theoretically provides for an unhindered development of NGOs most practical issues related to free and independent activity of the NGOs, including the issues of state registration of NGOs, holding the NGOs events, receiving necessary information from the government agencies and other organizations, receiving grants and other forms of financial-technical assistance, publication and distribution of information on behalf of the NGOs, are just symbolically regulated by laws, while in practice all these questions are solved in the favor of the government in numerous bylaws.

In our mind, the creation of the Public Foundation for supporting the NGOs and other civil society institutes makes up another step toward those tendencies observed in the NGO field of Uzbekistan. In short, this tendency includes the following two main characteristics: а) Neutralization of independent NGOs and making them work under the GONGO umbrella associations; b) Planning, creation and purposeful utilization of the NGO sector for creation of so called social order and partnership for the cause of the official needs.

The optimists could certainly note the following basis for positive expectations in the idea of creation of the Public Foundation under the Parliament:

Creation of additional structure and system of financing for purposeful establishment of the NGO sector in Uzbekistan which can eventually assist in strengthening the organizational, material-technical basis of the local NGOs;
The Uzbek authorities in general and government agencies will eventually learn to formulate a social order, attract the NGO resources and forces and rely on the help of the civil society in solving actual tasks. This can potentially bring to deepening of the NGO cooperation with the government bodies and implementation of socially oriented priority programs and projects.

At the same time the centralized model of financing the NGOs and other civil society institutes is also subject to the following risks:

Excessive centralization and monopolization of the incoming financial means for the NGO assistance and development in Uzbekistan (article 2 parts 1,3 and 1,4 of the joint Decree of the Parliament);
Intensifying control over the activities of the NGOs through excessive intervention into setting priorities in the programs and projects of the NGOs. Creating such situation in which the Public Foundation under the Parliament will consider and approve only those projects of the NGOs, which it deems necessary.

While considering the issue of financing for the civil society institutes we have unfortunately to exclude the possibility of financing for the NGOs activists through the membership fees or charity donations from the citizens or other organizations because the low incomes of the population, high rates of unemployment in the country and lack of an effective fundraising strategy among the local NGOs negatively influence on this issue.

It is known that the Uzbek NGOs relatively depend on the financial assistance and support from international and foreign donors. However under the Uzbek Cabinet of Ministers Decree adopted on February 04, 2004 the regulations for receiving grant funds from international or foreign donors to official bank accounts of the Uzbek NGOs were markedly toughened. According to the new regulations a special commission set up under the relevant Uzbek banks are entitled to request the Uzbek NGOs to submit the project proposals which have been already approved by the international or foreign donors for grants funds. After receiving such proposals the special commission makes a decision on whether the NGO can receive the grant funds which have been transferred to the bank account of the NGO with the Uzbek bank. Almost in all cases when the grant funds are allocated by the international or foreign donors based outside Uzbekistan the grant funds are not given to the entitled NGO but returned back to the sender. If the donor which has approved the grant funds for the Uzbek NGO maintains a representative office inside Uzbekistan and operates openly, and if the NGO claiming for the grant funds is officially registered in Uzbekistan it usually takes up to 9-10 months before the special commission allows the NGO to receive its grant funds from its bank account.

It should be mentioned that through obligatory periodic reports to relevant government agencies (the Ministry of Justice, the State Committee on Statistics and the Tax Committee) and by other means not specifically mentioned in the national legislation the Uzbek authorities regularly monitor and study the activities of the Uzbek NGOs, other civil society institutes and their activists. It should be clarified that monitoring of the activities of NGOs and other civil society institutes are carried out by the Uzbek law enforcement agencies and the information analytic centers of the Institute for Civil Society Study, a government agency. Such monitoring over the NGO activities and their activists is carried out through different aspects: the events organized by the NGOs, publications, materials and reports distributed by the NGOs, etc. Not only the Uzbek civil society institutes, but also representative offices of international and foreign organizations are also subject to such periodic monitoring and study.

Talking about a widely spread network of the civil society institutes along the country the Uzbek president noted in his address to the Parliament the role of the citizens self-government bodies – so called mahalla committees the overall number of which throughout the country exceeds 10 thousand. As mahalla committees are considered by the Uzbek authorities as a foothold of the civil society it would be interesting to listen to how Mr. Akmal Saidov, professor, doctor of jurisprudence, member of parliament, the head of the National Human Rights Center, identifies the role of mahalla institute.

“The roots of “civil society” in our country lie deeply in an ancient history of our nation. The citizens bodies of self-government are unique and rare national institutes of the civil society in Uzbekistan. For example, the national democratic institute – mahalla committee which is relevant to the life of only our people, our society. Indeed, Uzbekistan has both those civil society institutes which are relevant to western democracies, and traditional ancient institute of the mahalla committee identified in the national legislation as citizens self-government body. The functions of the mahalla committee in the local body are very broad. They (the mahalla committees) are closely linked to the local population and carry out the form of a public control over the activities of the local executive bodies of the government, provide targeted social support and assistance for the less-secured groups of the population, take part in providing the well-being of the local territories and bringing up of the young generation”.4

The mahalla committee has been established many centuries ago under the influence of Islamic traditions and local community beliefs. This is a traditional public institute in Uzbekistan, that is why under different circumstances it might have different contexts and meanings. It might mean a certain locality (a territory or neighborhood), a complex of social relations in the local community, or an administrative unit in the state system. The mahalla committee stresses the rights and obligations of the local community in the general state system. During the post-Soviet period the mahalla institute began being regulated by the law.5 In addition to its traditional functions, the mahalla committee has also received a series of new functions targeted at the local self-government. During this period the Uzbek authorities have started introducing the mahalla system of local self-government all over the country and entitling the mahalla committees with a broad range of new functions. As a result of a new administrative division of the country the mahalla committees have become the main form of citizens local self-government body. At present there are approximately 12 thousand mahalla committees in Uzbekistan. Each mahalla is made up of 150 to 1.5 families.

However, there are problems which prevent the mahalla committees from becoming a firm ground for the civil society in Uzbekistan.

Interference of the executive branch of the government of district and city levels into the process of formation of the heads of mahalla committees except direct legislative bans on this remains as according to existing laws the chairman of mahalla committee and his counselors are elected by voting among the residents of each mahalla area.6 In practice this causes the mahalla committees not to serve the interests of their constituencies per se and take their messages to the upper levels of the government bodies but take the orders from the upper level government bodies and enforce those orders at the mahalla level. Sometimes the orders of the upper level government bodies might be in contradiction with the interests and rights of the residents of the mahalla residents. It would be correct to say that the mahalla committees are markedly far from their constituencies and have already turned into an element of the state apparatus. In a socialist Cuba every locality has so called Committees for Defense of Revolution (Comite de la Defensa de la Revolucion – in Spanish). If we look for parallels the Uzbek mahalla committees do also remain as such local footholds for defense of the ruling state ideology in Uzbekistan.

In conclusion it should be mentioned:

Uzbekistan hasn’t have yet a civil society as an equally fully-fledged, entitled to equal rights, and free sector of the society. Most probably the civil society sector in the country can still be identified as in the process of establishment under a never-sleeping control and in some cases direct intervention of the government;

It might seem as strange but independent NGOs, human rights groups and international donors should accept the following existing fact – the Uzbek authorities have purposefully started establishing the national NGO sector in a way it want to see it and under a full control. Independent NGOs, human rights groups and international donors would be able to impact this process only by directly participating in it. No other way, including the choice of becoming an outsider observer can provide for a desirable result;

Independent NGOs and human rights defenders should put all the efforts to raise their professionalism and competence, strengthen their organizational, material and technical capacity, where it is possible receive the state registration in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the government;

The international donors should maintain their assistance programs targeted at supporting independent NGOs and human rights activist. But at the same time while providing assistance for the GONGOs, including the Public Foundation under the Uzbek Parliament they should seek for the ways to insist on inclusion of the representatives of independent NGOs and human rights activists into the programs and events of such grantees among the GONGOs;

We are observing growth of the tendency of relocating part of the traditionally government functions (mainly socially oriented functions or functions with characteristics of public control) from the government bodies to certain so to say “trusted” civil society actors, of course with ensuring that eventually the overall control and guidance is still kept in the hands of the government. The latest legislative initiatives of the Uzbek president targeted at increasing the role of the civil society once again could confirm that such tendency exists. It has been known that even before making public those legislative initiatives by the Uzbek president the Parliament has already started development of draft laws on social partnership between the government and civil society and public scrutiny or control. That might point out to the fact that a peculiar and interesting mutual integration of the civil society and government is already underway. Such tendency shall continue and intensify in the nearest future. We think it deserves a close attention and support by so called independent wing of the Uzbek civil society and international donors;

Growth of difficulties in the social-economic sectors of the country will eventually force the Uzbek authorities to choose a more open position towards international donors and their assistance / development programs in the country;

As a result of the latest official rhetoric on expansion of the rights of the mahalla committees this public instrument might splice with the executive branch of the government even more and further lose its public character.

November 26, 2010 Tashkent, Uzbekistan