Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July 2014, 15:15 GMT

No Light on Horizon for Turkmen NGOs

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 11 August 2009
Citation / Document Symbol RCA No. 586
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, No Light on Horizon for Turkmen NGOs, 11 August 2009, RCA No. 586, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a85185ec.html [accessed 31 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Talk of reformist policies has not made it any easier for non-government groups to win legal status.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia (RCA No. 586, 11-Aug-09)

More than two years after incoming Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov promised to relax the rigid controls imposed by the state, non-government groups say their position has not changed for the better.

Berdymuhammedov's talk of reform and the steps he announced to reverse the detrimental policies of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov in areas like healthcare and education raised hopes that Turkmenistan would undergo a more general process of liberalisation, and that non-government organisations, NGOs, would be allowed to resume work.

That has not happened, according to local observers.

While human rights groups continue to be regarded as completely beyond the pale, even associations pursuing innocent aims like helping the elderly and beekeeping are still finding that their applications to register with the authorities are blocked at every turn. Not one has been registered since Berdymuhammedov came to power.

A new law on public organisations passed in 2003 was designed to give the government total control over the activities, funding and assets of non-government organisations, NGOs.

To operate legally, it is essential for an NGO to register with the justice ministry. Failure to do so leaves its members open to prosecution for "illegal activity".

On the face of it, Turkmenistan has a healthy civil society numbering several hundred groups. However, these are either government-sponsored institutions working on behalf of women, children and young people, and veterans of the Second World War; or semi-commercial ventures supporting the arts, sports and business.

All of them are sanctioned and controlled by government, so this select band faces no real problems registering.

Even so, according to one local analyst, only about 150 of the government-approved NGOs that exist on paper actually operate; the rest are defunct.

Other NGOs find their applications are turned down flat or else the process is dragged out for years with no resolution.

According to a justice ministry official who did not want to be named, in some instances groups are told their activities will overlap with the functions of government agencies or the approved NGOs.

Yet many local charities are trying to address issues in areas long neglected by the state, such as helping the unemployed, elderly people and other vulnerable groups.

An unemployed lecturer who wanted to set up a group that would provide business training courses for housewives and unemployed young people said he had been waiting for a response from the justice ministry for over two years.

"I have completely lost faith in seeing good and useful ideas being implemented," he said.

An activist in Ashgabat described how he and his colleagues had all but given up any hope they would be allowed to work with elderly people struggling to survive.

"These people who were ready to work with the elderly have lost hope, while elderly people in need are left with nothing," he said.

Others who have so far failed to make progress with their applications include a group of Ashgabat scientists who planned to use their knowledge to show farmers to grow organic produce; a group which wanted to arrange summer camps for children; and a farming expert who tried to set up a charity teaching school-leavers from poor families skills that would earn them an income, such as beekeeping, rabbit-breeding and making eco-friendly fertilisers.

This man, based in the northern province of Dashoguz, said, "I've realised I won't be able to afford to get registered - I don't have the energy, time or money to keep going to the [justice] ministry, so I'm working without registration, at my own risk."

He questions the authorities' motives for blocking groups like his.

"You have to ask who gains by it. How do the authorities benefit from doing this? They're unable to offer anything in its place," he said.

An Ashgabat-based analyst explained how justice ministry officials try to find errors in the supporting documentation in order to invalidate applications.

"Bureaucrats find various reasons for prolonging the process, and in the end they either say no to registration, or the NGO activists get tired of it and give up trying," said a media analyst in city of Dashoguz." "The list of formal excuses for not accepting documents is endless - the address doesn't count as legal, some certificate is missing, or they want a medical letter confirming that the NGO director is of sound mind."

The analyst said the policy of refusing registration reflected the authorities' profound fear of losing control over any aspect of public life.

"The main reason why the authorities don't want to give people an opportunity to assemble and engage in communal activity - even to set up an innocent interest group is that [it brings together] people who hold common ideas. That's already a sign of dissent," he said. "The Turkmen authorities cannot let this happen. The entire system has been built so as to prevent people from exchanging ideas and views, and from getting together to discuss things."

Apart from legal status, registration would allow independent NGOs to apply for funding from donors abroad.

An environmentalist in Ashgabat said donors generally had rules restricting their grants to properly registered NGOs, If funds go instead to the "pro-government NGOs", he warned, "In a country like Turkmenistan, it would mean the money is going to strengthen the authorities."

Prior to the 2003 legislation, unregistered NGOs had a little more freedom of action to work on grants from international donor organisations.

"Until the new law arrived, there were over 200 'initiative groups' operating with financial assistance from international organisations. Most had submitted documents for registration but did not obtain it," said an analyst who used to work for the government.

Although no independent NGOs are currently winning registration, there are some to which the authorities are particularly hostile. According to the analyst, this list includes human rights groups, those working on educational projects, and NGOs that want to help develop small and medium-sized businesses, and environmentalists.

As an activist involved in a failed bid to register a group organising summer camps for young people said, some organisations continued to work illicitly. "But the consequences can be grave," he added.

A journalist in Dashoguz said NGO activists had either left the country or were now operating covertly.

"Some have gone underground; they work with caution and pass on their knowledge, ideas and skills to those who are interested," he said. "I know these people but can't name them, as they are all under the scrutiny of the security services. They are being watched, their phones are tapped, emails are screened, and they are even followed. During events such as a visit by a foreign delegation in the country, some are placed under house arrest."

The risks of trying to engage even in the most innocent kinds of NGO activity, and the impossibility of registering, are having a stifling effect on civic society activity.

"Over the last few years, no one [i.e no new group] has even tried to register because it's a pointless, useless exercise," said the journalist. "It's even dangerous to say the word 'NGO' aloud as it attracts suspicions that you are trying to organise people, something which will mean unpleasant consequences with the security services."

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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