NGOs in Uzbekistan: Registration Impossible to Reject - Dilmurad Yusupov
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NGOs in Uzbekistan: Registration Impossible to Reject

Illustration by Eldos Fazylbekov / “Gazeta.uz” (The multiple stamps in green “Otkazano” in Russian mean “Refused”).

On 27 January together with Oybek Isakov the chairperson of the Association of Disabled People of Uzbekistan (un umbrella cross-disability organisation uniting 26 NGOs run for and by disabled people) wrote a joint op-ed on why registration of an NGO can be quite a lengthy and painful process. Our earlier analytical report “Why is it difficult to open an NGO in Uzbekistan?” appeared at CABAR.asia both in Russian and English.

When talking about NGO sector in Uzbekistan it is important to make a clear distinction between government organised non-government organisations (GONGOs) or systemic NGOs initiated from top-down and self-initiated NGOs which are being established at the grassroots level. Systemic NGOs are usually supported through subsidies by the state and have an extensive network of territorial branches throughout the country. But self-initiated NGOs usually operate at a local level without a considerable financial and other kinds of support from the government. I truly believe that particularly self-initiated NGOs form a genuine civil society in Uzbekistan which we really lack.

We criticised the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan which is a responsible state body for registering and regulating the activities of NGOs in Uzbekistan for creating excessive bureaucratic hurdles and red tape during NGO registration process. Immediately the next day an official reaction from the justice authorities followed. The Ministry reported that there were about 10 thousand NGOs registered in Uzbekistan as of today and “over the past few years, work has been carried out to radically improve, develop and simplify the activities of NGOs.” But the evidence suggests the opposite. Many initiative groups whom we interviewed are struggling for months and years with multiple unsuccessful registration applications. Because of the disappointment and frustration from the whole bureaucratic process many are abandoning their idea of establishing an NGO in Uzbekistan.

Do we have a lot of self-initiated NGOs?

To begin with, it is important to note that the figure provided by the Ministry – 10 thousand NGOs – requires clarification in order to get an idea of ​​the actual number of NGOs in our country. So, according to the analytical report of the Independent Institute for Monitoring the Formation of Civil Society (NIMFOGO) for 2018, this figure includes regional branches of republican NGOs, trade unions, movements, as well as branches of political parties, which in essence are organisations created on the initiative or with the participation of the state (GONGO), or in other words systemic NGOs.

For instance, based on the NIMFOGO data in 2018, 839 political parties were registered in Uzbekistan, which are also considered as NGOs. But we all are well aware that today only 5 political parties are registered in Uzbekistan, and the rest are their regional branches.  A similar situation is observed with the systemic NGOs. For example, the Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan has more than 200 regional, city and district branches, and each of them is considered a separate NGO. The total number of regional branches of such systemic NGOs as the Mahalla Foundation, the Youth Union, the Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan, and the Society of Disabled People can exceed 800 units throughout the republic.

In this regard, when calculating the number of NGOs, it is advisable to consider their regional branches as branches, and not separate NGOs. The laws of the Republic of Uzbekistan are the same for the entire territory of the country. In other words, the subdivisions and branches of NGOs operate under the same legal conditions that do not require them to adapt to the legislative requirements of the territory and make appropriate changes to the charter. On this basis, it would be more appropriate to consider all its regional divisions as a single NGO if their statutory goals and objectives are the same.

If we compare the number of non-governmental organisations in relation to the population in neighbouring countries, then we have the lowest rates. For example, in Kyrgyzstan there are more than 28 NGOs per 10 thousand people (we have this indicator 10 times less). Considering that in our country branches of NGOs are considered as separate NGOs, the real figure may be several times smaller. By the absolute number of non-governmental organisations in the region, Kazakhstan is the leader in the region, where in 2018 about 22 thousand civil society organisations were registered with a population of almost 2 times less than of Uzbekistan.

Despite the apparent positive dynamics in the quantitative growth of NGOs in Uzbekistan (their number has doubled over the past 5 years), a qualitative analysis by NIMFOGO showed that 66% of registered NGOs are systemic, almost half of which were created by relevant government decress. Only 34% (or about 3,000) are so-called “self-initiative” NGOs, which were initiated by civil society on a bottom-up basis and operate at the local level without territorial branches and extensive government support measures.

Is it possible to point out all errors at once?

In its response, the Ministry of Justice indicated that “the registering authority is not always given the opportunity to indicate the full list of deficiencies in the registration documents” due to the fact that the applicants do not provide a full list of documents and information on the legal form of NGOs. We presented a specific case study of a self-initiative group of young people trying to register the Oltin Qanot (Golden Wing) Volunteer Youth Center since October 2018. On December 28, 2019, they received the tenth refusal (!) to register the NGO at the Tashkent City Justice Department. We provided with a detailed chronology of refusals, as well as the reasons indicated by the registering authority. Is it possible to assert that in this case the registering body was not able to immediately indicate the entire list of the deficiencies in the constituent documents?

On December 2, 2019, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed the law “On Volunteering”, which spelled out the concept of a volunteer organisation — a non-governmental non-profit organisation created and carrying out volunteer activities in accordance with the law. However, as can be seen from the chronology of ten refusals received from the Tashkent City Department of Justice, opening a volunteer organisation in practice is extremely difficult in Uzbekistan.

“Unfortunately, in Uzbekistan there are no NGOs of volunteers that would officially carry out their activities. I may not be aware of other initiative groups. They tell us about supporting youth initiatives, but all of this remains on paper, and not the deed, they refuse to register a volunteer organisation for the tenth time,” said Sanatbek Muzaffarov, an undergraduate student at the National University of Uzbekistan studying Social Work, one of the initiators of the Volunteer Youth Center Oltin Qanot.

Our second case study is about the unsuccessful registration process of the Republican Public Association of Disabled People “Inklyuziv Hayot” (Inclusive Life). Since June 2019, a social activist with disability group II, Hilola Mirzarahimova, is trying to register an NGO together with other self-initiative citizens with various forms of impairments. In addition to artificial barriers and excessive bureaucratic obstacles, people with limited mobility are facing with physical barriers in the inaccessible buildings of the registration authorities. For example, the department responsible for registering NGOs of the Tashkent City Justice Department is located on the second floor of the building, which is not suitable for disabled people. There are no ramps at the entrance to the building, there is no elevator in the building to go up to the second floor and submit documents for NGO registration.

Due to the inaccessibility of public transport and the inconvenient location of the building of the registration authority, Hilola Mirzarahimova has had to resort to taxi services every time. She is incurring additional financial expenses during the registration of her NGO, given that she makes a living relying only on a disability pension. After several registration failures, on December 9, 2019, she turned to the virtual reception of the president. As a result, the Ministry of Justice gave her a very formal answer that she had been sent four substantiated refusals and, after eliminating the deficiencies, she can apply for registration again.

“On January 28, I went to the Justice Ministry once again to receive a refusal of my last application. I did not receive a full explanation of the reasons for the fifth refusal. Why in the first or even in the second statement they did not indicate all these comments? Moreover, justice officials hinted that the NGO “Inkyluziv Jamiyat” (Inclusive Society) has already been registered in Tashkent and why another organisation for the disabled “Inklyuziv Hayot” is needed. I explained to them that “Inkyluziv Jamiyat” is in the city, and our organisation will be at the national level,” said Hilola Mirzarakhimova.

It should be noted that the justice authorities do not have the right to indirectly hint to applicants about the inadvisability of opening a new self-initiative NGO based on the fact that an organisation with a similar name already exists. According to article 25 of the law on NGOs, “refusal of registration on the grounds of inexpediency of creating NGOs is not allowed.” Only if an NGO with the exact name was previously registered this can serve as a legal ground for refusal to register an NGO.

Another barrier to the registration of the NGO Inkyluziv Hayot is the difficulty in finding premises for the organisation to operate. Currently, the cheapest option for renting premises is co-working centres with 200,000 Uzbek sum (about $20) per month, but in order to receive a document confirming the right to use real estate, one must pay the rent in advance for 6 months. In addition, to receive a letter of guarantee in a business center, one need to show the documents and pay the corresponding guarantee value. Not everyone has that kind of money, and, moreover, NGOs do not have the initial capital, as individual or private entrepreneurs. How can an unofficial group of self-initiative citizens with disabilities living on a disability pension get their initial capital? Moreover, an NGO is a non-profit organisation and does not pursue its goals to profit from its activities.

In the article, we proposed that the mahalla committees temporarily provide the initiative group with their legal address for registration of NGOs. However, the Ministry of Justice in its response of February 3, pointing to article 9 of the Housing Code, noted that “the use, rental or rental of residential premises in apartment buildings for industrial needs is prohibited and for this it is necessary to transfer the residential premises to non-residential”.

They can’t provide legal support?

In addition, the Ministry of Justice drew our attention to the fact that “the justice authorities are not entitled to provide legal support in the preparation of constituent documents on the state registration of NGOs, and to verify the completeness of documents upon receipt”. The Ministry argued that, being the body responsible for registration and regulation of NGOs, non- provision of legal support by the justice authorities is to “counteract a conflict of interest and corruption risks”.

In turn, the failure of the Ministry of Justice to provide advice on correcting errors in registration documents contradicts the appeal of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan to civil servants that “state bodies should serve the citizens, and not the other way around.” Recently, a resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers “On measures to further improve the system of providing legal information and providing legal assistance to the population” was adopted. This decree established a new systemic NGO Madad (Help), which currently provides free legal assistance exclusively to individuals.

It should be noted that the representatives of self-initiative groups, before registering their NGOs, are also considered as individuals – full citizens of Uzbekistan who need to be provided with legal support. Unfortunately, in the response of the Ministry of Justice we did not feel the intention to provide legal support to self-initiative groups. In addition, the Ministry’s response did not address our recommendation to provide samples of charters in accordance with various organisational and legal forms of NGOs approved by the justice authorities. Even assuming that direct contact of justice officials with applicants could lead to corruption, what prevents them from developing of sample charters for various forms of NGOs? The Ministry of Justice has already developed standard forms of constituent documents for individual entrepreneurs, LLC, joint-stock company, farms, as well as samples of labor contracts and collective agreements.

Sample NGO charters can be developed to avoid mistakes from self-initiative groups and greatly facilitate the process of registering NGOs. Moreover, the Ministry can post a list of typical errors when registering NGOs either on its website or in the premises of justice authorities. If the Ministry of Justice is really interested in the development of civil society in Uzbekistan, then a number of measures could be taken to provide free and at least indirect legal assistance and support self-initiative groups in the process of registration and implementation of NGO activities.

In a written response dated February 3, the Ministry of Justice, by way of information, said that in accordance with article 5 of the Law “On the Lawyers,” in order to provide legal assistance to individuals and legal entities, lawyers can give advice and clarification on legal issues, oral and written information on the law, and also can draw up statements, complaints and other legal documents. However, in reality, not every self-initiative group is able to hire a professional lawyer or seek the services of commercial law firms. But even in this case – does the appeal to the services of lawyers guarantee a successful registration of the charter of NGOs

An open and transparent registration procedure?

The Ministry of Justice claims that the regulation approved by the Cabinet of Ministers Decree of March 10, 2014 No. 57 created “an open and transparent mechanism for the consideration of constituent documents by the justice authorities”. However, the decision-making procedure is absolutely not transparent. For example, Article 19 of this decree says: “The registering authority has the right, if necessary, to send the documents submitted for state registration of NGOs to the relevant organisations for examination. The organisation that received the documents is required to submit its opinion within twenty days.

If the conclusion contains an opinion on the advisability of refusing state registration of NGOs, then the organisation must justify its conclusion in the cases provided for in paragraphs two to ten of paragraph 24 of these Regulations. “Part two of Article 24 of the Regulation says: “State registration of NGOs may also be denied other cases when the constituent documents contain provisions that are contrary to the Constitution and legislative acts of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”

The International Center for Nonprofit Law (ICNL) identifies six major barriers to registering self-initiative groups in Uzbekistan. It is the examination by third organisations that makes the whole process closed and opaque because article 19 of the above decree does not specify exactly which organisations constituent documents can be sent to conduct this “examination”. The initiative groups themselves are also not aware of where their documents go and what conclusions on the feasibility of registering their NGOs are provided by third organisations.

In the case of the registration of the Oltin Qanot Youth Volunteer Center, their constituent documents could be sent, for example, to the Youth Union of Uzbekistan because this organisation is systemic GONGO and deals with youth issues throughout the republic. If the Ministry of Justice confirms this fact, then in this case we can talk about a real conflict of interest when one registered NGO gives a conclusion on the advisability of state registration of another self-initiated NGO.

In its response dated February 3, the Ministry of Justice noted that “constituent documents filed for registration of NGOs in each case by the registering authority, if necessary, can be sent to organisations with relevant knowledge in the field in accordance with the law. The choice of an expert institution is the responsibility of the registration authority.” It does not indicate whether these organisations can be non-governmental non-profit organisations.

“The Justice Department told us that they received opinions from eight organisations on the examination of our constituent documents. At the same time, they did not openly tell us which particular organisations and which conclusion they provided to the registration authority. On December 25, we were at a reception at the Office of Justice after we contacted the president’s virtual reception. However, they again wrote to us in a purely formal manner and did not provide any assistance at all,” said young social activist Sanatbek Muzaffarov.

The original article in Russian was published at Gazeta.uz on 12 February 2020. We will continue writing about all visible and invisible barriers for registering and carrying out activities of self-initiated grassroots NGOs in Uzbekistan. Stay tuned!

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