CABAR.asia: NGOs in Uzbekistan’s new environment: will there be a stimulus for development?
“In Uzbekistan, non-governmental organizations, which should play the role of “connecting bridge” between the state and society, are mainly engaged in promoting government policy without vertical feedback or generally exist in name only.” – expert from Uzbekistan, writing specially for CABAR.asia, discusses development problems of the country’s NGOs.
Legal and regulatory framework of NGO activities in Uzbekistan
Since independence, Uzbekistan, as well as other post-Soviet states, has declared its state of transformation to be towards democracy and the rule of human rights. Such statements imply a need for the development of civil society through the creation of relevant public institutions and legal acts. The laws governing the activities of non-governmental organizations in Uzbekistan for the past 25 years are as follows:
- Law on Public Associations (1991);
- Chapter XIII of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan (1992);
- Law on Non-government Non-profit Organizations (1999);
- Law on Public Foundations (2003);
- Ordinance of the President of Uzbekistan on the Measures of Support to Development of Civil Society Institutions in Uzbekistan (2005);
- Law on Guarantees of the Activities of Non-government Non-profit Organizations (2007);
- Law on Charity Activities (2007)
- Joint Resolution of the Kengashs (Councils) of the Legislative Chamber and the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of Uzbekistan on the Measures for Strengthening Support for NGOs and Other Civil Society Institutions (2008);
- Law on Environmental Control (2013);
- Ordinance of the President of Uzbekistan on the Additional Measures of Support to Development of Civil Society Institutions in Uzbekistan (2013);
- Law on Social Partnerships (2014).
The special Uzbek model
Various governmental and non-governmental organizations have been created for the support and consolidation of Uzbek NGOs such as the National Association of NGOs, the Public Fund for the Support of NGOs and Other Civil Society Institutions under the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the Parliamentary Commission on Resource Management of the Social Fund under the Oliy Majlis, the Independent Institute for Monitoring the Formation of Civil Society, and others. These measures have led to a significant growth of NGOs in Uzbekistan (see. Figure 1).
Note: In 1991, there were about 100 NGOs in Uzbekistan, and around 2,500 by 2000.
For example, if in 1991 there were about 95 NGOs in Uzbekistan, at the beginning of 2016 there are already 8,417 according to the Independent Institute for Monitoring the Development of Civil Society (IIMDCS).
As can be seen from Figure 1, the number of NGOs in Uzbekistan is growing every year, but what are the results of their operations and is there a qualitative change in the country’s political situation? After all, even the official level commented about the special “Uzbek model” of a democratic and civil society with a focus on the social sphere and a market economy. This process takes place under the slogan “From a strong state – to a strong civil society”, which implies an active and almost state monopoly on civil society formation. Consider the specialization of Uzbek NGOs’ activities in the social sphere (see. Table 1).
Table 1. Distribution of NGOs by fields of activity for 2015
As can be seen, Uzbek NGOs mostly specialize in social and cultural issues, which allow government agencies to function autonomously in monopolistic conditions. In fact, Uzbekistan’s example can be stated as becoming the classic design of “state NGO” – almost entirely financed and controlled by state organizations (GONGO – Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations).
The state’s role in regulating the activity of NGOs can be seen in some reports. For example, over the past eight years, state budget organizations have provided about $17 million, including $3.6 million in 2015. And in the period from 2010 to 2013, 159 representatives of public organizations were awarded various governmental awards along with another 46 representatives of NGOs having received state awards in 2014.
Stages of NGO development but also existing barriers and challenges
In general, the stages of NGO development in Uzbekistan can be divided into the following:
- “Soviet” (end of 1980s-1991) The first stage of emerging NGOs and associations with numbers reaching 100 by 1991;
- “Liberal” (1991-2000) NGO development, the emergence of the first laws regulating the activities of non-profit organizations, and international NGOs and institutions opening their offices;
- “Maximum development” (2000-2005) The number of NGOs is increasing markedly and international NGOs are active, including in human rights;
- “Crackdown” (2005-2010) The central government starts to actively interfere in NGO activities, closes the offices of international human rights institutions, and there is a large number of state-controlled companies;
- “Hidden pressure on NGOs” (2015-Present) A large number of regulatory barriers are adopted that severely restrict the activities of NGOs, including foreign funding.
Despite considerable assistance from the government, or rather, thanks primarily to the state monopoly over all spheres of society and the control of international organizations, it cannot be said that Uzbekistan has developed a vibrant civil society with truly independent non-profit associations. Moreover, Uzbekistan is regularly criticized for numerous human rights violations and the lack of political pluralism. In the 1990s there was enough of a loyal attitude to emerging NGOs at the time when the state apparatus was mainly engaged in combating illegal extremist groups and opposition parties, but after the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in Andijan in 2005 there began a period of persecution of NGOs that were “inconvenient for the authorities”. This was due to the sharply negative international reaction of Western countries and various human rights organizations concerning the Andijan events.
In response to criticism, the government of Uzbekistan has further developed tactics of “cracking down”. In 2004, the Soros Fund’s office was closed for formally failing to abide by the Law on Non-government Non-profit Organizations. In 2006, Crosslink Development International was shuttered for failing to provide adequate information on their activities, and, in 2011, Human Rights Watch was shut down for unknown reasons. The list goes on. Requirements were also announced for prior approval of ongoing NGO activities, lists of participants, exact lists received from international donors and organizations, and technical and financial assistance. Failure to abide by these regulations will result in the organization’s liquidation. For example, during 2015, 115 NGOs were eliminated with 27 being liquidated by the courts and 88 voluntarily. Despite the fact that most of the NGOs were officially closed voluntarily, there is reason to believe that the leaders of some of them were subjected to administrative pressure, as is the case with the 27 closed by court order.
Other artificial barriers have been introduced, which limit access to the emergence of oppositional and disagreeable organizations:
- Despite the unification of the registration procedure for different types of NGOs, there remains the need for a large amount of official documents;
- In accordance with the “Rules of processing the applications for charter registration of public associations acting on the territory of Republic of Uzbekistan”, the registration authority is entitled to not consider a NGO’s statement, which it is in this case deprived of a right to appeal and the possibility of submitting a second application;
- The registration application, at the discretion of registration bodies, can be sent for “expertise” to other government bodies, which prolongs the registration procedure beyond the two months allowed for by law for consideration of the registration application;
- A lack of clear requirements for the content of non-profit organizations’ reports that they should submit to the Ministry of Justice and the State Tax Service allows public authorities to change not only the content but also the timing and frequency of their submission. Meanwhile, failure to submit reports or fill in the correct form entails a fine amounting to 100-150 times the minimum wage;
- NGOs in Uzbekistan are required to notify the Ministry of Justice on upcoming trips abroad, as well as receive permission to conduct international activities;
- On June 15, 2016, Order No. 157 was signed by the Minister of Justice, which states that all NGOs should receive official approval from the Ministry of Justice in order to obtain any foreign financial assistance.
New president – new opportunities for NGOs?
Thus, the well-established model in Uzbekistan, with a predominance of “state NGOs” and other underdeveloped elements of civil society, is one of the problems of modern Uzbek statehood. On one hand, a “closed” society is one of the safeguards against the penetration of potentially dangerous ideas. In particular, the threat of religious terrorism is quite real for Central Asian countries. On the other hand, you can clearly see the passivity of the population in its participation in the social and political processes of the country. In Uzbekistan, non-governmental organizations, which should play the role of “connecting bridge” between the state and society, are mainly engaged in promoting government policy without vertical feedback or generally exist in name only. In light of these factors, it is necessary to introduce several other mechanisms of social partnership aimed at encouraging more active citizen participation in Uzbek society, in particular:
- Increased use of traditional institutions, such as the “Mahalla”, which, unlike NGOs more, effectively exercises itself although it is also fully controlled by the central government;
- Encouraging the use of modern alternative sites such as social networks where one can create an online community aimed at solving social problems.
In addition, the international community must more actively engage with the Uzbek authorities and respond to alarms from international human rights organizations. But, nevertheless, today we cannot say that a change in state policy towards NGOs will follow the change of the head of state. It can be argued with high probability that the new president will continue the chosen course of his predecessor and preserve the stable and rigid system where any organization, power, and movement is controlled by the state.
 Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Preamble, http://www.constitution.uz/en/clause/index#section1. The preamble of Uzbekistan’s Constitution states that, “[t]he people of Uzbekistan, solemnly declaring their adherence to human rights and principles of state sovereignty, being aware of their ultimate responsibility to the present and the future generations, relying on historical experience in the development of the Uzbek statehood, affirming their commitment to the ideals of democracy and social justice, recognizing priority of the generally accepted norms of the international law, aspiring to a worthy life for the citizens of the Republic, setting forth the task of creating a humane and democratic law-governed state, aiming to ensure civil peace and national accord, adopt in the person of their plenipotentiary representatives the present Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”
 Independent Institute for Monitoring the Development of Civil Society. Гражданское общество в Узбекистане: цифры и факты 2015 [Development of Civil Society Institutions in Uzbekistan: Facts and Figures 2015]. Taskent, 2016. http://www.nimfogo.uz/sites/default/files/styles/Brochure%202015%20%28rus%29.pdf.
 Sputnik. В Узбекистане в 2015 году были закрыты менее 1,5% НКО [Less than 1.5% of NGOs in Uzbekistan were closed in 2015]. February 25, 2016. http://ru.sputniknews-uz.com/society/20160225/1875272.html.
 Independent Institute for Monitoring the Formation of Civil Society. Development of Civil Society Institutions in Uzbekistan: Facts and Figures 2013. Tashkent, 2014. http://www.nimfogo.uz/sites/default/files/styles/eng.pdf.
 Institute for War & Peace Reporting. NGO Numbers Wane in Uzbekistan. Global Voices, July 2008. https://iwpr.net/global-voices/ngo-numbers-wane-uzbekistan.
 The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. “Civic Freedom Monitor: Uzbekistan.” June 30, 2016. Accessed November 4, 2016. http://www.icnl.org/research/monitor/uzbekistan.html.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Cabar.asia