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NGO Numbers Wane in Uzbekistan

A News Briefing Central Asia report

Uzbekistan is seeing a steady decline in the number of non-government organisations, NGOs, with a string of closures reported recently. Not only is the government hostile to any group with foreign links, it has blurred the lines with a semi-state umbrella body that manages the theoretically independent NGO sector

On June 26, the electronic news bulletin Civil Society of Uzbekistan reported that the list of closures included organisations as diverse as the Association of Psychiatrists and Narcologists, the Fencing Federation, the Semurg International Charitable Foundation, the Aikibudo Federation, the Child Vision center for vulnerable children, the International Creative Organisation and a number of homeowner’s associations. No reason for the closures was given.

A few days later, the local office of Pragma, a United States organisation working on business accounting projects for local firms, announced that it was winding up.

Under Uzbek law, the justice ministry can suspend an NGO’s operation on the grounds of late or poor accounting, failure to stick to the organisation’s own mandate, or health and safety.

The official statistics show more than 5,000 NGOs working on economic, cultural and social programmes in Uzbekistan. Some are funded by foreign donors, others by the National Association of Non-Government and Non-Commercial Organisations of Uzbekistan.

Many foreign-funded NGOs were closed down as the Uzbek government became increasingly hostile to the West following international demands for an independent investigation into the violence in Andijan in May 2005.

Analysts say the pressure on civil society has if anything increased recently.

“It seems the authorities have woken up after the 2007 presidential election and the cancellation of [European Union] sanctions] stemming from Andijan, and are once again applying tried-and-tested methods for dealing with human rights activists and civil society activists,” said an NBCentralAsia observer in Uzbekistan.

Many NGOs close their doors out of concerns for their own security once the government identifies them as some kind of threat to its own ideology. A human rights advocate from Samarkand said, “The fact that organisations like Pragma and Child Vision are funded by foreign governments or international organisations can be seen as a threat.”

Others on the list of closures, however, many simply be halting work for their own reasons, or suspending operations while they re-register under a new name. The latter applies particularly to groups joining the national NGO association, a quasi-government body in which, as the human rights advocate put it, membership is “voluntary but compulsary”.

The US Department of State’s report on human rights practices for 2007 noted that the Uzbek government forces most local NGOs to register with the association. Under Uzbek law, NGOs are not supposed to be controlled, still less funded, by government.

A senior official from the NGO association, who did not want to be named, said the umbrella body was marred by corrupt practices.

“Funds [for projects] are stolen, sometimes by shifting them over into other projects,” said the official. “Some of the senior staff at the association are prepared to take bribes in return for writing off the debt and never letting the matter go to court,” he said.

Once an NGO of this kind was closed down, it could simply start up again under a new name, he said.

Thus, some NGOs are genuinely non-government while others are financially dependent on the authorities. The lack of clarity leaves all of them vulnerable to arbitrary closure.

“Given the government’s increasing discontent with the more active NGOs, it is fairly certain that several more of the leading groups will be closed down over the next few months,” said a human right activist in Tashkent.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)