This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net
Civil society in Uzbekistan continues to suffer from restrictions to freedom of speech and barriers to the legal registration of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Legislation that limits the right to peaceful assembly places excessive requirements on organisers of public meetings. Yet while the Uzbekistani state stifles civic space, the government boasts of the number of non-governmental organisations in the country and insists that it is implementing measures to “radically increase the role of civil society institutions in the process of democratic renewal of the country”. The reality is that many of these organisations are, in fact, in some sense controlled by the state.
How to massage statistics
According to official data, there are more than 10,000 NGOs in Uzbekistan. A closer look at the data, however, reveals that the majority are actually government-organised non-governmental organisations, or GONGOs.
As Uzbekistan’s Independent Institute for Formation of Civil Society reports, despite the rapid growth in the number of NGOs since 2014, 66% of them are government-established organisations, with almost half of them created by government decree.
As a result, the number of NGOs in Uzbekistan may be overstated more than twice. Whereas truly independent groups struggle to obtain official registration, the government establishes new GONGOs or opens branches of old ones as separate organisations, which explains the impressive presence of NGOs in the country – at least in numbers.
If the Uzbek government is to deliver on its promises of opening up and supporting the development of civil society, it needs real democratic reforms.
As of 2020, the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan publishes lists of registered NGOs for each region. Here, we can see that NGOs with the same name have been registered in different districts of the same region as separate organisations. For example, in the eastern Fergana region, there are 20 branches of the Mahalla Public Charitable Foundation for “good neighbourly relations”and targeted support to people in need of social protection; 20 branches of the Youth Union that supports the development of “a physically healthy, spiritually mature and intellectually advanced generation able to think independently”; and 20 branches of the Adolat Social Democratic Party.
This explains the huge number of supposedly independent NGOs in Uzbekistan. However, the Mahalla Public Charitable Foundation was established in 1992 by presidential decree – as was the Youth Union in 2017. In essence, most NGOs with branches in each region have been created by presidential decree or by other government agencies.
These GONGOs have access to resources beyond the reach of independent NGOs. For example, in 2016, the Nuroniy Foundation, which was established to support the elderly, was allocated 1.5bn som (around $140,000) from the reserve fund of the Cabinet of Ministers by presidential decree. In addition, the government allocates funds in the state budget every year to support the activities of these GONGOs – independent NGOs have no access to these funds.
Recently, the limit of money and property that NGOs can receive in one calendar year from foreign sources has been increased to approximately $2,300, although this is still a negligible amount for any organisation working on social issues such as forced labour or domestic violence. Any foreign funding above this threshold needs to be approved by the registering authority. As such, the state can restrict the flow of funds an NGO receives from foreign sources, and therefore many registered NGOs are afraid to criticise the authorities, to avoid losing crucial funding.
The total number of Uzbekistan’s NGOs includes organisations that no longer exist or exist only on paper, including some that were officially dissolved by presidential decree. Others continue to exist in name but do not function, as is the case with numerous centres for the rehabilitation of victims of violence and attempted suicide, which were intended to work as shelters.
For example, in 2018, a presidential decree set up centres to protect people who have suffered from violence, including domestic violence; to provide urgent medical, psychological, social, legal and other assistance to those in difficult social situations; and to prevent suicide.
While the state Commission on Gender Equality reported that 197 centres had been established in Uzbekistan, three NGO employees reported, on condition of anonymity, that most either did not exist or did not function in the way shelters are supposed to. In December 2020, it became known that the hotline of the Tashkent rehabilitation centre was not working because its only employee had not received a salary for several months. One woman had been answering the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Moreover, Uzbekistan’s Commission on Gender Equality announced that in March 2021, 782 requests for assistance had been received at centres across the country, with 154 people living in the shelters. Divided by 197, this means that each centre had received four requests per month on average and that not all centres were even accommodating people. This may indicate that the government has grossly exaggerated the number of shelters in existence, a theory given weight by the fact that 29 centres for women who have suffered from domestic violence were established by presidential decree on 19 May, replacing the 197 shelters registered as NGOs.
In any case, these statistics signal that the centres’ performance has been poor. After all, the number of complaints is growing: according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan, there has been an increase in the number of complaints related to gender-based violence, with 11,000 filed to law enforcement agencies in the first three months of 2021 alone, compared to 8,430 protection orders for victims of abuse issued between January and October 2020.
Under the control of the government
Perhaps the high number of GONGOs in Uzbekistan would not raise so many questions if independent NGOs created on the initiative of private citizens were freely registered in the country. But that isn’t the case.
For example, a group of students at the Faculty of Sociology of the National University of Uzbekistan has been trying for more than two years to register a youth volunteer centre. The Ministry of Justice has rejected the application more than 20 times. Instead of immediately pointing out all the inaccuracies in the initial submission, the registering authority highlighted only one error at each refusal. At the same time, the Association of Volunteers – a platform promoting volunteer groups in the country – was registered at the first attempt.
As Dilmurad Yusupov, a development studies doctoral student in the United Kingdom stated at the time, “It turned out that the association had several influential founding members… which confirms my suspicions that [it] is another GONGO. [But] how can we have a Volunteer Association if we still do not have a single volunteer organisation?”
As the UN Human Rights Committee noted in May 2020, there is a high percentage of refusals to register independent NGOs in Uzbekistan, a situation that hasn’t improved since the country’s election as a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2020.
In April 2021, the Ministry of Justice denied registration to Shukrat Ganiev, the head of the Humanitarian and Legal Center, for the ninth time, due to the alleged failure to pay the full registration fee and the apparent lack of clarity regarding the centre’s board members. This occurred despite the fact that an employee carefully checks that all necessary documents are submitted and fees paid at the time of application, and that the full names of board members were filled in on the relevant form.
“I tried to unite a group of young guys who had achieved the status of national experts on monitoring forced labour for this monitoring NGO. The team would monitor cotton picking, employment of people in cotton clusters, hired workers and working conditions at construction sites across the country,” Ganiev told the author.
“Unfortunately, the ‘do not register’ system [for NGOs] has survived, as have the notorious black lists. Despite the fact that we tried to talk about constructive dialogue, about partnership, this is not happening today. The practice of developing GONGOs remains, which replaces real NGOs, a real civil society.”
In mid-February 2021, Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov promised to publish a model charter for NGOs to follow, but nothing has been seen yet.
If the Uzbek government is to deliver on its promises of opening up and supporting the development of civil society, it needs real democratic reforms. So far, we’ve had statistics and promises that might look good on paper, but do not address the underlying problems of a heavily restricted public environment.
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