Regulation of NGOs in Uzbekistan: Control or Partnership? - Dilmurad Yusupov
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Regulation of NGOs in Uzbekistan: Control or Partnership?

Illustration by Eldos Fazylbekov / “Gazeta.uz”

Can we talk about the social partnership between NGOs and the state in Uzbekistan? Does strict control impede the development of civic initiatives? Together with Oybek Isakov, chairperson of the Association of Disabled People’s Organisations (an umbrella cross-disability organisation uniting 26 NGOs for/of disabled people in Uzbekistan), we wrote an article at Cabar.asia which was republished at Gazeta.uz.

We stressed that unnecessary regulation of the non-governmental non-profit sector, remaining bureaucratic hurdles and the prevalence of the control functions over building an equal social partnership with NGOs and civil society institutions – all together impede the development of genuine civil society in Uzbekistan.

In our previous paper, “Why is it difficult to open an NGO in Uzbekistan?” we addressed mainly the issues around the registration of self-initiated NGOs. However, the long process of registering NGOs is only the beginning of all troubles. After lengthy and burdensome administrative procedures and obtaining the long-awaited certificate of registration, many civil society activists are facing other barriers in the process of carrying out their statutory activities.

In a presidential decree dated May 4, 2018, it was noted that the legislative norms governing not only registration procedures, but also the activities of NGOs, “provide for excessive bureaucratic requirements and obstacles and are outdated and do not meet modern requirements.” Unfortunately, in practice, this decree is not being implemented properly. This is evidenced by the low level of involvement of civil society institutions in the reforms and socio-economic development of the republic. The President of Uzbekistan has repeatedly pointed out these problems in his annual addresses to Parliament (Oliy Majlis) in 2019 and 2020.

There is practically no work of NGOs under the law on Public Control. The Law on Social Partnership, adopted in September 2014, does not actually work, as it does not contain effective mechanisms for its implementation. Until now, a systematic dialogue between state bodies and NGOs has not been established, a national model for the development of civil society has not been developed, and local government officials have not been organising hearing on the development of NGOs, ensuring the protection of their rights and legitimate interests.

Based on the May presidential decree of 2018, a Consultative Council on the Development of Civil Society under the President was created, which had to develop a strategy for the development of civil society, but specific deadlines were not specified. Despite the fact that in May this council is already celebrating two years of its establishment, nothing has changed in relation to fundamental reforms in the third sector. As far as we know, 10–12 commissions were established within the council, including a separate commission responsible for developing the strategy. However, it is felt that the council is not providing the necessary protection and liberalisation of the NGO sector.

Despite the numerous regulations adopted to improve the efficiency of NGOs, the third sector in Uzbekistan is still underdeveloped. Self-initiated non-governmental organisations – unlike systemic or government-organised non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) – do not possess sufficient organisational capacity and resources to make a worthy contribution to the development of the country. We attribute this mainly to the excessive regulation of the sphere and the predominance of control functions on the part of the regulator of NGO activities (i.e. the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan) over the development of equal partnerships with civil society institutions.

Notification, coordination or gaining an approval?

It must be recognised that the financial assistance provided by the government of Uzbekistan to support the third sector is quite limited. Measures of state support and encouragement of the activities of self-initiative NGOs are not properly implemented. The Public Foundation for the Support of NGOs and other civil society institutions under the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) is one of the main donors of NGOs. However, grants and social service procurements issued by this fund cover only a small number of NGOs in the country. According to the data available to us, in 2016, about 2.7 trillion Uzbekistani som from various sources were attracted to the NGO sector.

As can be seen in the diagram, the inflow of financial revenues is dominated by membership, entrance and voluntary contributions and donations and other revenues within the country. Only 11% are inflows from foreign and international organisations, while the allocation of funds from state trust and special extrabudgetary funds is quite limited – at almost 10%.

Despite the fact that NGOs in Uzbekistan submit their annual reports to the State Statistics Committee before March 2, data on the financial indicators of NGOs are not so easily found in the public domain. Due to the lack of data for the last three years, we were forced to analyse the financial performance of the sector based on data for 2016 used in the report of the Independent Institute for Monitoring and the Formation of Civil Society (NIMFOGO) for 2018.

The May presidential decree also noted that “funds allocated by the state to support civil society institutions do not allow the implementation of medium-term and long-term large-scale and republic-wide projects and programs.” The decree provided a two-month period to create public funds to support NGOs and other civil society institutions by allocating the necessary funds from local state budgets starting in 2019.

At present, public funds supporting NGOs are registered in all regions of the country, however, almost none of them operate: funds have not yet been allocated and their staff have not been recruited. For example, the Ferghana regional branch of the Association of Disabled People of Uzbekistan for the second year in a row has not been able to submit documents to the regional public fund for supporting NGOs for grants and subsidies due to the lack of funding and the staff of this fund. A similar situation is observed in other regions.

In accordance with the laws “On NGOs” and “On Public Associations,” NGOs are entitled to receive grants and financial assistance from foreign donors. However, given the limited financial resources allocated by the state, many restrictions remain on foreign funding of NGOs. In a recent press release, the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan noted that “the use of funds and property received by NGOs from foreign states, international and foreign organisations is carried out without any obstacles after agreeing on their receipt with the registration authority.”

However, as before, receiving grants from NGOs requires going through bureaucratic procedures. This resembles the so-called “grant commission”, which did not exist on paper, but de facto it carried out its activities. If earlier the recipient (NGO) was to open a special account only at the branches of the National Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan or the state-owned joint-stock commercial bank Asaka, now, as the Justice Ministry notes, “grants are received on specially opened accounts of NGOs in any banking institutions”.

The recent resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of October 9, 2019, which approved the new regulation on the procedure for coordination of the money and property received by NGOs from international donors with the Ministry of Justice, went unnoticed. According to the adopted document, if the amount of cash and property within one calendar year does not exceed 20 basic calculation values ​​(4460000 Uzbekistani som as of February 1, 2020), then the documents are submitted to the Ministry of Justice for information. If the amount exceeds 20 BCV, documents are submitted for approval. Considering that 20 BCV during one calendar year is a small amount (a little more than 450 US dollars), for many NGOs wishing to receive grants from international donors, the coordination most often implies gaining an approval. Clause 12 of the resolution grants the right to the justice authority to refuse to agree on a grant indicating the reasons in writing or electronically.

Clause 13 of the resolution states that the registration authority may refuse if the receipt of foreign funds and property by NGOs is aimed at “forcibly changing the constitutional system, undermining the sovereignty, integrity and security of the Republic of Uzbekistan, infringing constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens, propaganda of war, social, national, racial and religious hatred, legalisation of proceeds of crime and the financing of terrorism, encroachment on the health and morality of citizens.” Interestingly, a similar clause contains in Article 25 of the Law “On NGOs” and may initially serve as the basis for refusal of state registration of NGOs.

If the judicial authorities have already carried out an examination of the constituent documents for compliance with the requirements of Article 25 of the Law “On NGOs” and have registered the charter of NGOs, then for what purposes is it necessary to reconcile and examine documents for receiving foreign grants and property on the same clause? The state registration of NGOs should already imply the approval of its statutory activities by the regulator and that the organisation already bears full responsibility according to the legislation.

In addition, according to clause 13, the regulator has the right not to agree on a grant if there is an infringement on the morality of citizens. However, this concept is not fixed by law and, given its vague nature, this clause can be used by the justice authorities to refuse foreign funding for NGOs. The resolution also lists all sorts of other reasons why the registering authority may refuse to approve – including if the documents contain false information, if the receipt of funds or property is contrary to the legislation and the charter of NGOs, if the application for approval was submitted without observing the established procedure and deadlines and if additional documents requested by the registering authority are not provided.

The same procedures took place with the so-called grant commission, which considered the documents, and only if it gave the go-ahead, then the funds went to the NGO account “without any obstacles”. What is the difference then between this regulatory innovation if NGOs still have to coordinate all their financial receipts with the registration authority? Many self-initiative NGOs claim that nothing has changed and, as before, the receipt of grants requires their coordination with the judiciary authorities. For example, on February 1, the NGO Center for the Development of Modern Journalism published a public appeal addressed to the Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov. The centre received a grant from IREX (Europe) to implement a project to increase youth media literacy, counter fake, misinformation and develop critical thinking in general. On January 13, 2020, the Center sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice with the necessary documents and received approval on February 28 – only a month and a half after a public appeal on social media.

“Our path as a self-initiated independent organisation was initially not easy – legislative confusion, a multi-layer system of notifications and coordination, and difficult communication. Plus, there is an absolutely wild prejudice in society that all NGOs only “eat” donor money. We can state that recently the Justice Ministry has begun to change – there is an opportunity to communicate with employees, to discuss, they began to listen to us and even ask for recommendations,” the recent statement of the Center for the Development of Modern Journalism on Facebook says.

Where are the promised “houses of NGOs”?

Until now, a systematic analysis of the needs of NGOs, provided for by a presidential decree in May, has not been carried out. Effective platforms for the exchange of views on critical issues of further state and public development have not been created. The main problem after registration of NGOs is renting of office space for the organisation. NGOs, unlike commercial entities, do not have the initial capital and cannot afford to pay rent. About 80% of NGOs do not have their premises, especially in the regions of the country. The situation is very deplorable as about 3 thousand self-initiated NGOs that do not receive direct financial and organisational support from the state unlike the systemic and government-organized NGOs (GONGOs).

The May presidential decree noted that “the state of material and technical support of non-governmental non-profit organisations is still unsatisfactory.” According to the presidential decree, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, hokimiyats (local government) of regions and the city of Tashkent, together with the State Committee for the Promotion of Privatised Enterprises and the Development of Competition had to create “houses of NGOs” (in Russian “doma NNO”)  on the basis of empty and inefficiently used state property in all regions of the country until 1 January 2019. However, according to reports, only three “NGO houses” were created throughout the republic – one in Urgench, where only 19 NGOs were provided with office space, one in Gulistan, where 12 NGOs were sheltered, and one in Nukus.

We have recently contacted the chairperson of the Namangan regional branch of the Association of Disabled People of Uzbekistan, who submitted an application to the regional department of justice and hokimiyat (local government) to allocate space for the organisation’s office in the newly opened “NGO house”. As our interviewee told us, the owner of the premises said that the “NGO house” was set up temporarily to show off to high-ranking guests from Tashkent, and after they left, all NGOs were asked to vacate the building, as it was in an emergency condition.

In Samarkand, local media wrote that the 4-storey dormitory of the Samarkand Automobile and Highway Professional College, located at 159 A, Spitamen Avenue, will be transferred to the balance of the city hokimiyat in order to create an “NGO House”. Nevertheless, according to a representative of one of the NGOs in Samarkand, they were provided with premises in a college dormitory in disrepair without any conditions. On February 12, the roof of the building of the “house of NGOs” was blown away by a hurricane.

“Last summer, we were provided with a zero balance room with the big name “NGO house”. In fact, it was a college dormitory. By August, students appeared in the neighborhood with us. There are no conditions, not to mention repairs. A representative of the authorities came, we told him everything, showed him everything. He said that they would give us a new building with repairs. It turned out that this is another college dormitory in disrepair. Recently we had a hurricane and the roof of the building was demolished. In general, we are still waiting for a miracle,” says an NGO representative in Samarkand.

The dormitory building of the Samarkand Automobile and Highway Professional College, which housed the “NGO house”. February 12, 2020. Source of the photo.

Most likely, a similar situation is observed in other supposedly existing “NGO houses”. In the city of Tashkent, there is still no “house of NGOs,” although according to unconfirmed reports, such a house will open in March this year. Of course, several “houses of NGOs” will not solve the problem of all existing NGOs, especially self-initiative and those without access to state support – there may simply not be enough space for everyone. In addition, the criteria by which premises in such “houses” will be allocated remain unclear. There are fears that systemic NGOs, or GONGOs, will be placed in them, and self-initiative ones will remain without office premises.

The May presidential decree mentioned that the premises in the “houses of NGOs” will be allocated primarily to newly created NGOs and to carry out their activities in socially significant areas using the “zero” rental rate. Will these criteria be met? Will places in the created “houses of NGOs” be provided primarily to self-initiative NGOs, and not established with the help of the state?

In this regard, along with the “houses of NGOs”, some NGOs offer to consider the idea of ​​creating co-working centres for NGOs. One “house of NGOs” will not be able to accommodate a large number of NGOs, and a cabinet system for placing offices of NGOs may not be practical. At the same time, in the coworking centres one can organise several rooms for training and negotiations, a library and a resource centre for NGOs, food zone, wireless Wi-Fi network and other amenities. The premises of coworking centres could be used as necessary, having previously agreed with their administration, as well as with the ability to use the address of the coworking centre as the legal address of NGOs.

Intervention in the activities of NGOs?

Section 4 of the Law “On NGOs” states that “interference by state bodies and their officials in the activities of a non-governmental non-profit organisations, as well as interference by a non-governmental non-profit organization in the activities of state bodies and their officials is not allowed.” However, in practice, there is excessive custody and interference in the activities of NGOs by the justice authorities, which, by order of the Minister of Justice of June 1, 2018, took over excessive control over the activities of NGOs.

The regulation on the procedures for notification of planned events requires NGOs to inform in advance about planned conferences, seminars, workshops, meetings, events, round tables, symposiums and other forms of events in Uzbekistan or abroad. Moreover, the requirements of this provision do not apply to events of political parties and religious organisations. If an NGO plans to hold an event on the territory of Uzbekistan without the participation of foreign citizens, it is necessary to notify the territorial justice authority at least 10 days before the event. If the event is planned to be held on the territory of Uzbekistan with the participation of foreign citizens or on the territory of a foreign state – at least 20 days before the event.

The notification form can now be sent online through the new NGO portal E-NGO.uz. It is necessary to provide information in advance about the theme and participants, the date and place of the venue, the basis for the holding and sources of funding, attach copies of handouts, print, audio-visual and other materials, as well as personal data of participating foreign citizens. It should be noted that in article 89 of the draft Code on NGOs, all these requirements remained, which practically characterise the direct intervention of the justice authorities in the activities of NGOs. In addition, according to the Regulation, NGOs must also notify about visits abroad or about visits of foreign guests. Is there any infringement of the constitutional right of a citizen representing an NGO for freedom of movement?

Based on all of the above, we can conclude that the Uzbek government, instead of liberalising the third sector, on the contrary, is on the path to tightening control functions. There is a mistrust of the regulator in registered NGOs. The low level of material and technical security and financing of self-initiated NGOs, bureaucratic requirements and obstacles for receiving international grants, and interference in the activities of NGOs in the form of the need for prior approval or notification of all planned activities in Uzbekistan and abroad add unnecessary red tape and workload on NGOs, and on the regulator of the sphere.

From control to social partnership

Our observations and those of representatives of civil society in Uzbekistan show that, with regard to approvals and notifications of everything related to the activities of NGOs, almost nothing has changed. Grants from international organizations, events, contacts with international partners, travel outside the country – all this must be agreed upon or at least notified to the territorial justice authorities.

There is an acute lack of trust of government agencies in representatives of NGOs, which leads to the predominance of control functions. If these tough measures are taken by the regulator of the sector to monitor the activities of NGOs, then why can not this be done through analysis and examination of the annual financial and operational reporting of NGOs?

On January 24, in his message to the Oliy Majlis, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev noted that “today we expect from non-governmental non-profit organizations and other civil society institutions that they more actively draw the attention of state bodies to problems of concern of citizens, as well as their informed proposals.” The President also pointed out the need to establish social partnerships with NGOs and increase the volume of grants and social orders.

Currently, much attention is paid to attracting foreign investment in the development of business and entrepreneurship throughout the republic. But we should not forget that international development assistance in the form of grants and free financial support for NGOs and other civil society institutions is also a kind of investment in the country’s social and economic development.

For the development of the third sector, as well as for the development of small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurship, freedom of activities and counteraction to any kind of interference by government agencies in their work are necessary.

To solve such problems, it would be more correct to develop and implement strategies for developing relations between the government and NGOs that are characteristic of developed countries. In these countries, the state, together with the third sector, forms a kind of social order, determines the amount of its financing, and then entrusts the fulfilment of this social order to almost completely non-profit organisations, facilitating the receipt of the necessary financing from both budget and grant funds. In developed democracies, government agencies usually reserve the right to only determine priorities for the development of the social sphere together with civil society, distribute budget funds on a competitive basis, and also monitor the execution of social orders.

The inaccessibility of statistics and data on the organisational and financial indicators of the third sector makes it difficult to study and analyse systemic problems and shortcomings of NGOs that impede their active participation in ongoing large-scale reforms. The lack of academic research in this area makes it difficult to develop and adopt the NGO Code, which provides a mechanism to increase the capacity of civil society institutions. The preliminary draft of the NGO Code does not meet the requirements of the May presidential decree.

The draft state program for 2020 provides for the development and adoption of a short-term and long-term development strategy for civil society by May 1, 2020. It would be logical to develop and adopt a draft NGO Code on the basis of the provisions and in accordance with the development strategy of civil society in Uzbekistan.

To summarize: there is no denying the presence of some positive changes in the field of regulation of NGOs, such as a reduction in the rates of fees for state registration of NGOs, a reduction in the time for consideration of constituent documents of NGOs from two to one month, etc. However, many changes are superficial with a number of internal bureaucratic barriers and obstacles for the registration and implementation of NGOs.

Sometimes it seems that this is a direct sabotage of the May presidential decree of 2018 “On measures to radically increase the role of civil society institutions in the process of democratic renewal of the country.” At a recent press conference with journalists and bloggers, Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov promised that the new NGO Code would make many procedures simpler and more transparent. We hope that this article will be perceived by the regulator of the NGO sector on a positive and constructive basis for the development of a genuine civil society in Uzbekistan.

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