Authorities have yet to respond to concerns about a bill that civil society groups fear will curb their activities.
www.iwpr.net Gaziza Baituova
As rights activists in Kazakstan warn of increasing pressure on civil society groups, the government appears to have stalled on negotiations about a draft law that critics say would restrict the work of non-government organisations.
Meanwhile, a separate set of proposed amendments to legislation on NGOs, tabled by a pro-government grouping, has been dismissed by other civil society groups.
NGOs say they will be put at risk by changes to criminal law which take effect from January. It will become an offence to run an organisation that is not registered with the authorities, or to take part in a public gathering without government approval. These offences could lead to a six-year jail sentence. (See Hard Times Ahead for Kazakstan Civil Society.)
As these changes come into force, the government has remained silent on a separate piece of legislation covering NGOs. This bill perpetuates the existing system whereby NGOs can bid for contracts to get state funding. Critics say that this will further strengthen the kind of group that is popularly known as a “government-organised non-government organisation” or “GONGO”. (See Concern that NGO Law Favours Kazak Regime Loyalists.)
Several groups have spoken out against the bill amid fears that the authorities want to use it in combination with the new criminal legislation to curb NGOs that are critical of the government or that work on sensitive issues.
“The space in which civil society operates continues to shrink,” Yevgeny Zhovtis, founder of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told IWPR. “New challenges have emerged out of the authorities’ attempts to create a civil society sector that they control, and which consists of GONGOs… and civil society groups [contracted] to provide social services because they are pro-government.”
Zhovtis was speaking at a November 28 meeting organised by the human rights group Kadir-Kasiet in the town of Borovoye, northern Kazakstan, to discuss the challenges facing NGOs.
In response to the NGO bill, civil society groups set up a committee to discuss their objections with the culture and information ministry, which drafted the legislation. However, after submitting recommendations back in January, they are still waiting for the ministry to respond.
Svetlana Ushakova is director of the Institute for National and International Development Initiatives, one of the groups involved. She says the culture ministry was initially responsive and in early 2014 accepted a number of their proposals, including provisions for state-funded grants, involving NGOs in the work of the grant-making commission and in monitoring and evaluating projects, as well as simplifying the procedures for qualifying for these contracts.
But since then, the ministry has fallen silent. Over the summer, the NGO committee wrote to it in the hope of reviving the dialogue, but it has not received a response.
Now another grouping, the Civic Alliance of Kazakstan, which is seen as pro-government, has come up with its own proposals in the shape of a separate bill. It has suggested amendments to two existing laws that govern how the government handles contracts with civil society groups and other non-commercial organisations.
Civic Alliance leader Nurlan Yerimbetov said the proposals would address problems with the way the government decided which organisations should receive funding. He has proposed setting up a grant-making body which would manage the state funding and be responsible for holding bids. This would reduce the potential for corruption and distance government from grant decisions, he said.
Other NGOs oppose this move, and instead want to push ahead with the stalled negotiations on the current NGO bill. They doubt the grant-making body proposed by the Civic Alliance would be all that independent, and they say its other recommendations do not address the system of awarding contracts to NGOs as if they were profit-making entities, by selecting the cheapest service provider regardless of social impact.
Zulfia Baisakova, who heads the Crisis Centres Union of Kazakstan, criticised Yerimbetov’s approach.
“The amendments proposed by the Civic Alliance are very limited,” she told IWPR. “Introducing a single grant-making body is a step backwards and it is open to corruption. The voice of the majority of NGOs is not being heard.”
Baisakova said the Civic Alliance’s move to table separate proposals also reflected broader problems in the sector.
“What we are seeing these days is that civil society is very fragmented,” she said.
Rights activists also worry that the expansion of government control over NGOs is affecting the way international donors behave. Zlata Udovichenko, a journalist with the Vremya newspaper, believes that these donors are taking a more cautious approach to their own grant-making.
“The leaders of many human rights groups are telling us that big European donors that have been supporting their work are now refusing to fund a project if the NGO does not have a friendly relationship with government institutions,” Udovichenko said.
Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz.