«Excessive bureaucratic hurdles, a lengthy registration process, language barriers, low legal literacy and absence of legal support combined with unwritten rules of “expertise” complicate the formation of a genuine civil society in Uzbekistan», – mentioned Dilmurad Yusupov, specialist in inclusive development, and Oybek Isakov, Chairperson of the Association of Disabled People of Uzbekistan in an article, written specifically for CABAR.asia.
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It has been over a year and a half since the decree of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev “On measures to radically increase the role of civil society institutions in the process of democratic renewal of the country” was adopted in May 2018. The document listed a number of systemic issues and shortcomings that impede the effective operation of non-governmental non-profit organizations (Non-profit NGOs, in other countries such organizations are shortly called NGOs – ed. note) in Uzbekistan. One of the problems mentioned in the decree is excessive bureaucratic requirements and red tape for the registration of NGOs due to outdated legal norms that do not meet current requirements.
Since January 1, 2020, the relevant state fee for official registration of NGOs have significantly decreased. Moreover, an NGO portal has been developed under the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Since the end of November 2019, foundation documents can already be submitted electronically via this portal in test run mode. Despite all these advances, the registration procedure of NGOs is still overly burdensome, which requires a lot of time and effort. Why is it so difficult to open an NGO in Uzbekistan? On what and on whom does it depend? In order to find answers to all these questions, the authors conducted a study based on interviews with representatives of initiative groups in various fields of activity.
Systemic and self-initiative NGOs
The positive trends in the number of public organizations in Uzbekistan over the past ten years might create an impression that there should be no problems with registering NGOs. For instance, in contrast to 2009, in 2018 their number almost doubled and amounted to 9235 NGOs. However, it is worth noting that this figure includes all subdivisions of political parties, trade unions and regional branches of NGOs operating at the republican level.
For example, the Society of Disabled People of Uzbekistan has 150 branches in regions, districts and cities, and each unit is considered as a separate NGO. As of 2018, 613 NGOs were functioning in Uzbekistan to protect the rights and legitimate interests of people with disabilities, and 150 of them are the only regional branches of one organization of people with disabilities. In addition to the Society of Disabled People, which is mainly concerned with protecting the rights and interests of people with physical impairments, there are other Societies of Blind and Deaf People with dozens of their branches in the country’s regions. Thus, a multiplier effect is created, and it seems that the total number of NGOs is increasing year upon year. In fact, all regional branches of NGOs should be considered as a single organization.
There are quasi-governmental and “systemic NGOs” with an extensive network of branches, many of which were established by government regulations and are funded by the state budget. In other words, these are government organized non-governmental organizations (GONGO). Examples of such large NGOs include the Mahalla Foundation, the Youth Union of Uzbekistan, the Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan, the Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan, the Society of Disabled People of Uzbekistan. The number of their branch-units may exceed 1000 units throughout the republic.
According to the NIMFOGO, more than 6,000 NGOs (about 65% of the total number of NGOs in the country) belong to the category of “systemic NGOs”. Only about 3,000 are “self- initiated NGOs” that were created on a “bottom-up” initiative and operate at the local level without an extensive network of territorial branches throughout the country. It is the representatives of self-initiative groups and NGOs that face formal and informal (invisible) barriers when registering and re-registering their organizations at judicial authorities.
Bureaucratic requirements and red tape
Registration of NGOs in Uzbekistan is carried out in compliance with the two laws “On Non-State Non-Profit Organizations” and “On Public Associations” [i] , as well as the regulation on the state registration of NGOs approved by the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan No. 57 of March 10, 2014 [ii] . The term for consideration of constituent documents by the justice authorities is one month from the date of filing. As a result, the registration authority decides on registration or refusal. In case of refusal, the justice authorities must notify the applicant within 3 days after the adoption of such a decision.
However, analysis of data from interviews with representatives of ten initiative groups in various fields of activity showed that in practice the registration procedure for self-initiative NGOs remains excessively burdensome. On average, registration of NGOs takes from 7 to more than 10 months. Initiative groups receive multiple rejection letters from the justice authorities and the number of such refusals can reach an average of 4 to more than 10. If in the first refusal the registering authority reveals several shortcomings in the constituent documents, then in subsequent refusals, having received the same corrected documents, it refuses based on previously unspecified shortcomings. In other words, the justice institution does not indicate the entire list of shortcomings in the first refusal and seem to stock up with them on purpose for future repeated refusals.
Moreover, according to IIMFCS, another artificial barrier is the intentional delay of the reviewing process of the documents by the judicial authorities. Even if the identified shortcomings are minor (providing the organization charter in a single copy instead of two copies, the charter is not sewn together, etc.), the justice authorities wait for the expiration of the set review period and only then give a refusal. Thus, the process of registration of NGOs is delayed. Applicants rarely go to court despite the fact that at the end of each refusal letter, the justice authorities write that the applicants have the right to re-appeal after eliminating errors, and if they disagree with the answer, they can go to a higher authority or court. Most often, dissatisfied people address their complaints to the virtual reception of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
The International Centre for Non-for-Profit Law (ICNL) identifies six major barriers to entry of self-initiative groups into the third sector of Uzbekistan. Among them: vague grounds for refusal of registration; norms allowing the registration authority to “leave the application for registration without consideration” , which is contrary to the law and does not allow appealing against a refusal in court or re-submitting documents; excessive delays in processing applications and other obstacles. In addition, ICNL notes that the application for registration, at the discretion of the registering authorities, can be sent for “examination” to other government bodies, which extends the registration process by more than one month.
For example, if a group of young people wants to register a self-initiative NGO in order to protect the rights and interests of young people, their application can be sent for “examination” to the systemic NGO – the Youth Union of Uzbekistan. With its direct subsidies and support for NGOs on a “top-down” basis, the government seems to monopolize the right of individual quasi-state NGOs to carry out activities in certain areas. Moreover, state bodies, specialized ministries and departments themselves can participate in such an “examination”, providing their conclusions on the practicability of opening a new self-initiative NGO. As a result, this creates an additional invisible barrier to the registration of NGOs initiated on a bottom-up basis.
The 2018 IIMFCS analytical report mentions the dissatisfaction of the initiative groups with the fact that the justice authorities “instead of registering their organization charter, offer them to be in charge of another inactive NGOs”. Registration authorities can also informally hint to self-initiative groups to become members of existing systemic NGOs. In turn, this contradicts article 34 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan and other generally recognized international treaties and leads to a violation of the rights and freedoms of citizens to join public associations, which no one has the right to infringe.
Personal factors of the establishers
Another proposed barrier is the personal factors of representatives of self-initiative groups. Many participants in our interviews mentioned that the judiciary allegedly checked them, including their relatives, for a previous criminal record. For example, the Uzbek authorities refused to register the “Restoration of justice” human rights organization of former political prisoners. Their application was rejected on March 29 last year “on formal grounds regarding the registration process, which were formulated vaguely on purpose”.
As can be seen in the distribution diagram of NGOs by field of activity, most of them specialize in socio-cultural issues, not counting five political parties with their territorial divisions – 839 units, and the development of democratic institutions – 830 units, which most likely includes the “Mahalla” Foundation with all its territorial branches. It can be assumed that the justice authorities impede the registration of self-initiative NGOs wishing to deal with politically sensitive issues, such as protecting the rights of political prisoners and their reintegration into society. In other words, the process of registering new NGOs may also depend on the scope of activities of the self-initiative group. The experience of the long stay of the establishers abroad (for example, permanent residence) can also have a negative impact on the registration process of self-initiated NGOs. The interview participants agreed that most likely for the justice authorities the ideal portrait of the founder of a local NGO is a person who permanently resides in Uzbekistan, who is “as clean as a whistle” and shares the political and various views of the government.
Among other things, additional difficulties may arise for the Russian-speaking population of Uzbekistan in the process of preparing the constituent documents of NGOs. If earlier the justice authorities accepted the organization charter in Russian language and there were no problems with translations, now documents are accepted only in the state language – which is Uzbek. Recently, the number of translation agencies has increased, and the quality of translation may vary depending on the qualifications of the translator. Professional terminology of charter documents requires certain knowledge in the field of NGO law. For example, one initiative group was refused on the basis that instead of the Russian word for “Charter (Устав)”, they mistakenly used the Uzbek word “Nizom”. Ignorance of such nuances of translation can cause another refusal.
Representatives of the self-initiative groups participating in the interview cited a lack of legal knowledge, which could be the cause of frequent errors in the charter documents. At the same time, the services of professional lawyers require additional financial resources. Despite the fact that a special department for working with citizens is functioning under the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan and legal advice is included in its direct responsibilities, legal support is not provided in the process of registration of NGOs. In September 2019, the NGO Madad was established by a resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan with an extensive network of legal advisory bureaus in all regions of the country providing free legal assistance to the population. However, the bureau provides online and offline legal assistance exclusively to individuals on their personal problems and issues. At the same time, the bureau plans to provide assistance to legal entities. But it is not yet clear whether the systemic NGO “Madad” will provide legal assistance to self-initiative groups wishing to register with the justice authorities. An important factor is the availability of samples of the Charter of NGOs based on their organizational and legal forms – public associations, foundations and other forms provided for by law. It is impossible to find such samples neither on the official website of the Ministry of Justice or on the legal information portal “Advice.uz“, nor on the new NGO portal “E-NGO.uz“.
In Uzbekistan, there are territorial restrictions on the activities of local NGOs, depending on their status. For example, if the organization is registered with the Tashkent Justice Department, then the “region of activity” – the city of Tashkent will be indicated in the certificate of registration. In this regard, problems exist not only while registering new NGOs from scratch, but also when re-registering existing NGOs from city to republican levels of activity. Re-registration takes place a little easier than registration, however, bureaucracy occurs here as well. A barrier can be the monopoly position of systemic NGOs operating throughout the country.
Green light for business. What about NGOs?
Uzbekistan climbed 7 positions and entered the top 20 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 ranking. The indicator for registering enterprises is particularly impressive – Uzbekistan occupies 8th place in the global ranking and this is the best indicator compared to the other nine available. Why a business entity can be registered online in 30 minutes after submitting an application through the “Single-Window System” center, and social activists spend years registering NGOs? If there was a world ranking of “Doing NGOs 2020”, Uzbekistan, probably, would be in the very last places by the indicator of NGO registration.It should be noted that for the development of civil society, as well as for the development of business and entrepreneurship, it is very important to facilitate the registration and organization of NGOs. Otherwise, bureaucracy, formalism and paperwork eat up all the energy of enthusiasts, which can already be counted on one’s fingers.
Excessive bureaucratic requirements and obstacles, the deliberate delay of the registration process of NGOs by the justice authorities, multiple refusals on the basis of vague reasons related to the need for “expertise” from quasi-state NGOs and government agencies, discourage any desire of indifferent and socially active citizens of Uzbekistan. Yet another filing of constituent document turns for them into a “fight with one’s own shadow”, and the efforts of self-initiative citizens are spent on paperwork, whilst all this time and resources could be spent on something useful done for the society. The existing principle of “regional NGOs” can impede the social development of regions and lead to even greater monopoly of quasi-state systemic NGOs.
Moreover, burdensome procedures for registration and re-registration of NGOs will contribute to the development of the activities of informal (unregistered in the justice authorities) organizations and many self-initiative groups will drop off the radar. Such informal organizations would prefer to work through their projects on social networks and on the Internet rather than to spend money, time and effort on bureaucratic procedures for state registration of NGOs. In turn, such informal forms of social activity will not be regulated by law, and their activities will not be subject to control, as noted in the report of the NIMFOGO. In the worst-case scenario, self-initiative groups will disintegrate and lose all desire to make their unique contribution to socio-economic and political development and the formation of a genuine civil society in Uzbekistan.
How to simplify the process of registration of NGOs?
A qualitative research based on interviews with initiative groups has led to the conclusion that the problem of registration of NGOs does not concern specific initiative groups or citizens but is of a systemic nature. The repeated failures of the justice authorities in registering self-initiative NGOs have turned into something natural and is considered as normal state of things. Excessive bureaucratic obstacles and requirements, a lengthy registration process, language barriers, low legal literacy and lack of legal support from the justice authorities, unwritten rules of “expertise” from government agencies and quasi-state NGOs – all this complicates the emergence of NGOs initiated by active citizens at the lower levels, unlike the NGOs organized and controlled by the state.
However, it should not go unnoticed that some progress in simplifying the registration and re-registration of NGOs is taking place. Thus, according to the October presidential decree from January 1, 2020, the state fee rates for the official registration of NGOs have decreased, depending on the scale of their activities at the republican, oblast, district, city or other levels. Moreover, at the end of November 2019, the portal of non-governmental non-profit organizations “E-NGO.uz” of the Ministry of Justice started operating in test mode, which provides electronic filing of documents for registration and re-registration of NGOs. However, despite all presidential decrees on the development of civil society, the NGO registration system has not yet changed from within. The exterior may have changed its image – it became possible to submit constituent documents online at reduced rates of state fees for registration, but judging by the unsuccessful experience of initiative citizens, bureaucratic obstacles still hinder the formation of new public organizations on a “bottom-up” basis.
In May 2018, an Advisory Council on the Development of Civil Society was created under the President of Uzbekistan, the tasks of which include making proposals on improving the organizational, legal and economic foundations of NGOs. The Advisory Council repeatedly raised the issue of updating and optimizing legislation regarding the activities of NGOs in Uzbekistan. Until February 1, 2020, the Ministry of Justice, in conjunction with an expert group of NGO representatives, are developing the Code “On Non-Governmental Non-Profit Organizations”. Nevertheless, according to the preliminary draft Code on NGOs, nothing has changed in terms of simplifying the registration of NGOs, except for reducing the state fee and introducing electronic registration of NGOs. We hope that all the above-mentioned problems and proposals to simplify the process of registration and re-registration of NGOs will be reflected in the final version of the Code on NGOs and in this regard, we recommend to undertake the following measures:
- bring the legislation on NGOs in accordance with the “letter and spirit” of the presidential decree from May 2018 “On measures to radically increase the role of civil society institutions in the process of democratic renewal of the country”;
- conduct an inventory of legislation in the field of regulation of NGOs in order to avoid legal conflicts and imperfections of legislation;
- eliminate the practice of unwritten internal rules and regulations that are clearly contrary to national law and international treaties;
- make a proposal so that the justice authorities do not have the right to return documents more than once and in the first rejection letter indicate the entire list of comments regarding all shortcomings in the constituent documents;
- transfer the procedure for registration and re-registration of NGOs to “Single-Window” centers, as in the case of registration of business entities;
- provide free legal support for the registration and re-registration of NGOs as well as providing samples of charters of various forms of NGOs approved by the justice authorities;
- remove territorial restrictions on the activities of local NGOs so that they can carry out their activities throughout the country;
- create a register of translation service centers approved by the Ministry of Justice to translate the charter and other constituent documents into the Uzbek language.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project, implemented with financial support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.
 Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan dated May 4, 2018 No. UP-5430 “On measures to radically increase the role of civil society institutions in the process of democratic renewal of the country” // URL: http://lex.uz/docs/3721651
 According to the decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan dated October 4, 2019 “On additional measures to increase the effectiveness of public control over ongoing reforms in the socio-economic sphere, as well as the activity of citizens in the implementation of democratic transformations in the country” // URL: http://uza.uz/ru/documents/o-dopolnitelnykh-merakh-po-povysheniyu-effektivnosti-obshche-05-10-2019
 Press release of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan “How to register NGOs through the e-ngo.uz electronic services portal” // URL: https://www.minjust.uz/ru/press-center/news/98569/
 Analytical report “The State of the “Third Sector” in Uzbekistan: Realities and Prospects for Development, Independent Institute for Monitoring the Formation of Civil Society, Tashkent, 2018 // URL: http://nimfogo.uz/upload/iblock/2f6 /2f6d0eb9d2ac2bdbe40ecbbaf2a95174.docx
 Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan “On Public Associations in the Republic of Uzbekistan” dated February 15, 1991 // URL: https://lex.uz/docs/111827?query=%D0%B7%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BD
 Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan “On measures to implement the resolution of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan dated December 12, 2013 No. PP-2085 “On additional measures to assist the development of civil society institutions ”” // URL: https://www.lex.uz/acts/2356874#undefined
 See iv p. 9.
 Official site of the International Center for Non-Profit Law as of October 14, 2019 // URL: http://www.icnl.org/resources/civic-freedom-monitor/uzbekistan#glance
 See iv p. 9.
 News of May 15, 2019 on the official Amnesty International website for Eastern Europe and Central Asia // URL: http://eurasia.amnesty.org/2019/05/15/mezhdunarodnye-nko-potrebovali-prekr/
 Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan No. 741 dated September 6, 2019 “On measures to further improve the system of legal assistance and bringing legal information to the population” // URL: https://lex.uz/ru/docs/4500971
 World Bank Doing Business Regulatory Assessment // URL: https://russian.doingbusiness.org/ru/data/exploreeconomies/uzbekistan
 See iv pp. 44-45.
 See i.