Uzbek authorities have boasted of opening up, of great reforms in progress, since 2016. But for many independent Uzbek NGOs, the barriers to registration remain high and almost unscalable, as Dilmurad Yusupov, a Ph.D. researcher at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, explains in the interview below with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz. Tashkent has bragged of 10,000 NGOs in the country, but Yusupov says the official statistic is inflated by government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) which are backed by considerable institutional support and lack the grassroot connections of genuine NGOs.
Yusupov, an advocate for disability inclusion and civil society development in Uzbekistan, stresses that truly independent NGOs are critical to Uzbekistan’s democratic development.
What are some of the current barriers to NGOs registering in Uzbekistan? Are there risks associated with operating as an unregistered NGO?
One of the biggest barriers for registration of independent NGOs in Uzbekistan is excessive bureaucratic requirements and red tape, which was also mentioned in the May 2018 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.” Although there have been some cosmetic changes like reducing the state fees for NGO registration, reducing the period for review of the application documents from two to one month, etc., the internal procedures have not considerably changed and are still regulated by a Karimov era decree adopted in March 2014.
One of the main obstacles is that the registration authority may send the NGO application documents to a third party for an “expert opinion.” But initiative groups are not informed about the names and decisions of such anonymous organizations. My own hypothesis is that these unnamed organizations can give a negative opinion on the NGO’s registration, thus derailing it. However, the refusal to register an NGO due to inexpediency is prohibited by law and therefore the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which is the responsible body for NGO registration, always tries to find an excuse to reject groups. By doing so the authorities may use various tactics like not indicating all mistakes in the NGO’s Charter and other application documents at once, finding fault in grammatical errors, and other deficiencies apparently to demotivate the applicants.
I know many groups who gave up after their third or fourth rejection in the NGO registration process because each application costs time and money as you need to prepare all the documents from scratch. The MoJ does not usually return the prior package of documents. Therefore, I think it would be better to calculate the costs and time of initiative groups spent on registering NGOs. Unlike government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) self-initiative grassroots groups struggle for years and spend enormous resources and energy to get registered. Another problem is that there is a lack of legal support to correctly prepare NGO Charters and other application documents. The MoJ says that to “counteract “the occurrence of a conflict of interest and corruption risks in the judicial authorities” it cannot provide such legal assistance.
According to government statistics, Uzbekistan has more than 10,000 registered NGOs. But that figure counts government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) alongside independent NGOs. Can you explain the differences between GONGOs and independent NGOs? In what ways are they treated differently by the state?
The 2018 report of the Independent Institute for Monitoring the Formation of Civil Society (NIMFOGO) (which was transformed into the Centre for the Development of Civil Society) distinguishes between so-called “systemic” (or system forming) and “self-initiative” NGOs. The first are NGOs usually established by government decrees, their staff members’ salaries are paid by the state budget, they have a large network of regional, district, and city branches and operate at a republican level. According to NIMFOGO, there were more than 6,000 systemic NGOs or GONGOs, almost half of which were created by separate government decisions.
Self-initiative NGOs in my opinion are true non-government organizations, which were created by civil society activists at the grassroots level. They usually operate locally without an extensive network of territorial subdivisions. According to the available data there are currently only about 3,000 self-initiative NGOs across Uzbekistan, which is a very low number in a country with a population of more than 34 million people. For comparison I counted that in 2018 for every 10,000 people in Kyrgyzstan there were more than 28 NGOs, in Kazakhstan more than 12, in Tajikistan more than three, and in Uzbekistan less than three NGOs (if we use the government figure of 10,000 NGOs in Uzbekistan). If we take the number of 3,000 NGOs, it is a very small number for the biggest nation in Central Asia.
The Ministry of Justice always boasts that the number of NGOs in Uzbekistan has been increasing rapidly in recent years and reached 10,000. But as people say there are lies, damn lies, and state statistics! The government counts the regional, district, and city branches of the same NGO as a separate NGOs. The secret of 10,000 is that each NGO branch should get registered with the local justice authority and is counted as a separate legal entity. As a result, we have a so-called “multiplier effect.” For instance, feminist and women’s rights activist Irina Matvienko analyzed the state register of NGOs published by the Ministry of Justice in the Khorezm region and concluded that [the figure of] 10,000 NGOs could be overstated by 10 times. But in reality, and according to international standards, an NGO branch is not counted as a separate NGO because it is the same organization.
In an article last year about the difficulties faced by NGOs in Uzbekistan, you highlighted the case of Oltin Qanot (Golden Wing), a youth volunteer group, noting that some of its difficulties could be because there is already a GONGO in the youth sphere, the Youth Union of Uzbekistan. Can you recount Oltin Qanot’s difficulties for our readers? Has it been able to register since?
Yes, it was my hypothesis as one cannot really explain why the group of young social work students at the National University of Uzbekistan has already received 21 rejections (!) to register their volunteer organization since November 2018. I made a chronology of rejection letters and the reasons provided by the Tashkent city Department of Justice. They received their latest rejection letter on March 18, 2021 due to the fact that their application form was not correct, and they did not provide a document proving the postal address of the NGO. The justice officials could have indicated these deficiencies in the first or at least second rejection letters but it seems that they kept them for “a dessert.” It is an obvious humiliation and violation of the right to establish public associations, which is enshrined in the Constitution of Uzbekistan.
Youth issues are very politically sensitive in Uzbekistan, therefore, I believe that this sphere is heavily regulated by the government through its proxy – the Youth Union of Uzbekistan. The problem with GONGOs is that they seemingly have a state monopoly for certain fields of activity, and it is difficult for self-initiative groups like Oltin Qanot to penetrate the field of youth and volunteer affairs.
I was personally very surprised when the Ministry of Justice registered the Association of Volunteers of Uzbekistan after the first submission of NGO registration documents last year. Why was the Association registered in one go and the Oltin Qanot initiative group should suffer for years?! It turned out that the Association has several powerful founding members including the GONGO Youth Union of Uzbekistan, the National Association of NGOs, and the Nationwide movement “Yuksalish,” which confirms my suspicions that the Association of Volunteers of Uzbekistan is another GONGO.
Moreover, how can we have the Association of Volunteers if we still have not a single volunteer organization? According to the Law “On volunteer activity” adopted in December 2019 a “volunteer organization is a non-governmental non-profit organization created and carrying out volunteer activities in accordance with the law.” However, my search in the state register of NGOs based on the keywords “volunteer” and “volunteer organization” did not provide any results, which means that there have not been any volunteer organizations registered yet. It seems that the government is trying to monopolize the realm of volunteer activity through the establishment of a GONGO Association of Volunteers of Uzbekistan. Therefore, there is an invisible ban on Oltin Qanot and the justice authorities are trying to find new excuses in order not to register this and other independent youth volunteer organizations. Unfortunately, I do not have any other explanations.
Why are independent NGOs important for Uzbekistan’s development? What kinds of roles can they play in society?
Self-initiative NGOs represent genuine civil society institutions, which are truly independent from the government. A developed and vibrant civil society is needed if we want to build a democratic society as this so-called “third sector” can become another form of power to assist in implementation and enforcement of legislation and hold to account judicial and executive powers. For instance, strong and independent civil society institutions could carry out public control of the duty bearers and empower the rights holders to apply the law and normative acts in practice. In addition, if NGOs have developed their organizational capacity and are sustainable they can also deliver social services to the citizens and substitute or complement the government bodies where needed.
In contrast, systemic NGOs or GONGOs are dependent on the government in terms of financial and other resources to sustain their heavy and inflexible bureaucratic machinery. They do not really represent genuine civil society institutions but are shams and prone to corruption risks. Their activities are not usually effective as their staff are not driven by inner motivation to do good for the society but are recruited on a top-down basis under strict control of the government. Compared to self-initiative NGOs they lack enthusiasm, knowledge, and skills to interact with their beneficiaries at the grassroots levels through a bottom-up approach. Therefore, it is vital to allow such initiatives to emerge and nurture them by lifting all the bureaucratic hurdles in their formalizing and regulating their activities.