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Online Petitions in Central Asia: How Do They Work?

In 2019 and early 2020, about 90 petitions from Central Asian countries were published on the popular platform Change.org.

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However, in fact, online petitions published on international platforms have no legal validity in Central Asian countries. That is, they cannot directly influence the authorities’ decision. 

So, why does everyone sign and distribute online petitions? We will examine the details.

I constantly see requests to sign online petitions on social media. What is it?
An online petition is the digital type of a collective request or address, usually to authorities or organizations. The most popular platforms for publishing such petitions worldwide are change.org, avaaz.org, and 38degrees.org.uk.

At the same time, in Tajikistan, the platforms change.org and avaaz.org were blocked after petitions against the demolition of a number of buildings in Dushanbe and for restricting the plastic bags usage. However, activists use tricks to publish online petitions: they create them on blocked platforms via VPN.

In Kazakhstan, avaaz.org platform is blocked for several years, after the petition for the president’s resignation appeared there.

In mid-July 2020, the platform change.org was blocked in Kyrgyzstan after two petitions appeared there: against the new law “On the Manipulation of Information” and for president’s impeachment.

In Turkmenistan, the access to international resources for the online petition publication is repeatedly blocked. There is only one collective petition on change.org initiated by the journalists of Alternative Turkmenistan News three years ago. The petition was against the homeless animals shooting. It registered 6 thousand votes.

Why are they needed?
They create the connection between the civil society and the government. They do not have a power, but direct interested public figures. For example, lawyers can join the petition and help compiling a lawsuit or appeal correctly. The politicians can put the issue on their agenda and speed up the resolution of the problem. Often, the media talk about certain petitions that cause the greatest public discussion.

In addition, the number of votes makes it possible to measure the population’s attitude towards the particular issue.

Can the petition be created on any issue?
Yes, online platforms change.org, avaaz.org and 38degrees.org.uk. allow creating a petition on any issue.

For example, in 2016, a petition appeared on change.org for the dissolution of the Russian national football team. However, most often the petitions are created on the environmental and political issues.

Do they work?
In 2018, a platform for collective digital addresses Mening fikrim (“My opinion”) was developed in Uzbekistan. To publish a petition, one needs to log in and fill out the form by selecting one of the available topics. After filing, the petition undergoes an examination on whether it complies with the legislation. The parliament accepts the petition for consideration if it collects at least 10 thousand votes.

Since the resource’s launch, citizens have submitted more than 3.8 thousand collective petitions. According to the portal’s data, the Legislative Chamber of the Uzbek Parliament considered seven petitions that collected more than 10 thousand votes; two more petitions were assessed at the local level.

A petition for improving tree protection appeared in May 2018 and collected the required number of votes in 12 days. On July 27, it became the first online petition considered by the Lower House of the Oliy Majlis. The members of Parliament recognized the problems of the preservation of the forest resources, but approved only a part of the proposals from the petition.

To one degree or another, the Legislative Chamber approved petitions for the cancellation of powers of attorney for the right to use and drive vehicles for close relatives, for the installation of the countdown traffic lights, for the prevention of cruelty to animals and for the opening of Shakhrisabz branch of Karshi State University.

Unfortunately, in other Central Asian countries, online petitions do not have legal force: they have nothing to do with the legislation. Some of them do attract the attention of the authorities. However, most often this happens when they are part of a larger campaign or because of the massive public discontent.

For example, online petition against uranium mining in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan in 2019 collected about 33 thousand digital signatures. The uranium exploration and mining license was revoked. However, citizens also protested in several cities of the country and there was a wide discussion on social networks. Therefore, we cannot say that the license revocation was the result of the petition only.

Then, why does everyone distribute and sign online petitions?
Despite the fact that online petitions are not very effective in Kyrgyzstan, they indicate the people’s attitude. This is thought provoking information for the decision makers.

In addition, the easy usage of online petitions engages more people in political processes: those who do not usually participate in politics.

There is the possibility to rig votes online, is not there?
Yes, there is. For example, to sign a petition on change.org, one only needs to enter his email address, first and last name. On this platform, anyone can vote even without registration, or enter, for example, invalid email address unlimited number of times.

Therefore, the countries where online petitions are legalized created special state services, which make the cheating impossible. For example, in Germany, the right to send a petition to the Bundestag is enshrined in the constitution. The parliament’s website has a special section where anyone can create the digital petition or sign the existing one. 

What is wrong with regular paper-based petitions? Are they legal, unlike online ones?
In this understanding, they are not. In Kyrgyzstan, there is a procedure for the people’s legislative initiative. It is necessary to collect 10 thousand votes to propose a bill for the parliament’s consideration. This is labor-consuming process. It is difficult to gather a large number of people at once, while visiting everyone to collect signatures is the long and problematic process.

The Uzbek legislation states that citizens can address the authorities with statements, proposals and complaints, including collective ones. However, the minimum number of votes for such documents is not specified.

In Kazakhstan, one can address any department, authority or official. It is not necessary to collect signatures for it, just correctly comply and send.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also have laws on citizens’ addresses. There, “addresses” also mean requests, complaints and statements.

Then, why not legalize the online petitions in Central Asian countries where they do not have legal force?
In 2019, the Ministry of Social Development of Kazakhstan proposed to legislate the procedures for considering online petitions.

In February this year, the government announced the development of the E-Petition service. The platform will allow voting with the digital signature. The work on the platform is still ongoing.

In April 2020, the deputy Aida Kasymalieva developed a bill on online petitions in Kyrgyzstan. It was planned to collect citizens’ signatures not on a third-party platform, but on the parliament’s website. If the petition gets the required number of votes, the parliament will be obliged to consider it.

However, the document was not supported by other members of parliament and was frozen.

In Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, this issue was not considered at all. Since, if the online petitions are included to the legislation, the authorities will have to respond to them.

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