NGOs Denied Legal Status
The number of registered Turkmen NGOs has dwindled to 89, many of which are pro-government bodies like the Youth Organisation, the Union of Women, the Union of Dog Breeders and the Union of Camel Breeders.
The government of Turkmenistan appears to be taking the easiest route to controlling the country’s non-government organisations, NGOs – denying them registration.
A member of the National Artisans’ Association is bemused that a group with absolutely no political connections – its function is to promote Turkmen traditional handicrafts and culture – is being denied registration.
In the eastern Lebap province, meanwhile, an ecological group is having similar problems. A leading member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that after submitting an application twice, he realised that the authorities simply did not want to register the group.
On the second occasion, they were asked to come up with a registration fee of about 300 US dollars, even though the law says this is payable only after an application has been successful. On his most recent visit to the ministry he had to wait in the lobby for an hour before a secretary told him the departmental head was not in the office. He believes they are procrastinating because they are under instructions not to grant registration, but don’t want to come out with a straight refusal.
Human rights organisations are even worse off. A member of one such group, Arkadag, said they have lost count of the number of times they have attempted to win legal status.
His group has files full of the most diverse explanations they have received about why they are being turned down – a misplaced comma here, a wrongly ordered paragraph there, or a demand for details of all rank-and-file members even though the law stipulates that only the board members need to be named. On one occasion the authorities said the group had failed to name its legal address, even though this was included in the documents it submitted.
Once the authorities ran out of excuses and told Arkadag it had not paid its registration fee, its members stopped going to the ministry, as they now knew there was no chance of getting registered.
Re-registration is also a problem for existing NGOs, in the wake of the Law on Public Associations passed in 2003. Local analysts say the law was designed to invalidate previous legislation which required NGOs not to register, but simply to make themselves known to the authorities and provide them with their founding documents.
When the United States organisation Counterpart Consortium set up its office in Turkmenistan in 1997, it began logging NGOs that sought its assistance, and built up a record of over 400 groups. The authorities clearly found it difficult to main control over such large numbers of groups seeking western assistance, and they took note of the list.
Today, the number of registered Turkmen NGOs has dwindled to 89, many of which are pro-government bodies like the Youth Organisation, the Union of Women, the Union of Dog Breeders and the Union of Camel Breeders. There are less than 10 independent NGOs, including the refugee group Keik Okara, Accountants of Turkmenistan, the UFOlogists Society, the Environmental Protection Society, the Agama Mountain Climbers Club and the Beekeepers’ Club.
Although the registration process is complicated, some NGOs have done their best – with little success. Catena, a longstanding ecological group, has been turned down, and the Union of Journalists has yet to be accorded legal status. As one of the union’s board members said, it is unable to submit an application because that would require a congress to discuss organisational matters, and board chairman Kakabay Ilyasov, who is also chief editor of the state newspaper Turkmenistan and head of the commission on parliamentary affairs, refuses to allow this.
Denied a chance to operate as NGOs, many human rights groups have acquired a different status, for example as businesses. Ecosodruzhestvo (Ecological Community) used to be an NGO but has registered as a commercial enterprise and acquired a license to do management consultancy work. Yet it is still involved in environmental matters and holds an annual competition for the best ecological journalism.
It is difficult to implement projects because this kind of activity also has to be registered with the authorities, although it does not require an NGO to exist.
For example, in the recent round of project tenders run by Counterpart’s Healthy Generation programme, the grants committee approved 12 projects from around the country. But as soon as the winners went to register their projects, they began receiving threats.
One young doctor from Balkanabad recalled how the provincial governor summoned him and yelled at him to take his application away. The doctor said he was questioned closely and then threatened with dismissal from his job. So in the end he had to turn the project down.