An IWPR report on independent Turkmen non-governmental organisations struggling to get official registration presents valuable information for international organisations and Turkmen dissident groups based abroad in their research work and advocacy campaigns, rights activists say.
In the article No Light on Horizon for Turkmen NGOs (RCA No. 586, 11-Aug-09), IWPR reported that nothing has changed for Turkmen civil society groups in more than two years since incoming Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov promised to relax rigid state controls.
While human rights groups continue to be regarded as completely unacceptable, even associations pursuing innocent aims like helping the elderly and beekeeping are still finding that their applications to register with the authorities are blocked at every turn. Not one has been registered since Berdymuhammedov came to power.
The problem is an important one, says Maria Lisitsyna, formerly Central Asia researcher with the New York-based group Human Rights Watch who recently moved to another job with an international organisation supporting civil society in former communist countries.
“This is exactly the information we are looking for to use in our reports and advocacy materials,” she said.
She also said the IWPR report helps to identify areas of concern, “We are trying to find additional material on this topic and your reporting is a good starting point to determine on what aspects of the problem we need to collect more detailed information.”
Lisitsyna also praised IWPR’s coverage of Turkmenistan in general, “They [IWPR reports] are useful to give an overall idea about how is the situation on the ground and to plan further investigations.”
Vyacheslav Mamedov, head of the émigré Civic Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, agreed saying that the IWPR report presents “a valuable source of information on the problem of registration for NGOs in Turkmenistan”.
“What’s important, the article reports about various civil society groups facing such problems and covers different parts of Turkmenistan,” she said.
“It is of a great interest not only for a foreign reader but also for the active part of Turkmen society that does not have the possibility to get reliable information about NGOs experiencing registration problems.”
IWPR’s publication opens up the debate on how unregistered Turkmen NGOs find it hard to be recognised by the international donor community and therefore miss out on funding, Mamedov said.
He said the issue presents international organisations supporting Turkmen NGOs with a dilemma, “They will have either to reconsider their statutory documents and take the risk of … funding unregistered civil groups or will end up financing various quasi-NGOs supported by the government.”
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights, based in Bulgaria, said that the report “is an eye-opener and gives international donor organisations the opportunity to check their work with the real situation on the ground”.
Begmedova said that information in the IWPR report could be useful to international organisations in helping countries such as Turkmenistan to bring their legislation up to international standards.
In this regard, said Begmedova, “It is important to pay serious attention to issues of helping local NGOs to get registration so that they can do their work.”
She said, “In 2007 when president Berdymuhamedov came to power people were expecting state control over civil society to be eased but [the pledges to solve] the problem were just words.
“In reality, the possibility of legalising an NGO in the country is virtually zero.”
Mamedov said that if nothing is done, independent civil society could cease to exist in Turkmenistan in a few years, leaving only government-backed organisations.
He said that IWPR’s reference to NGO activists either leaving the country or working underground reflects the real situation, “This is close to the tragic truth that civil society in Turkmenistan has been eradicated as a result of 20 years of politics of repression and intimidation against activists and as a result of preventing citizens from conducting peaceful activities in the interests of the public.”
Begmedova agreed that this kind of report gives an idea of the scope of the problem as it is difficult to get hold of such information in Turkmenistan, “The information about the estimated number of NGOs in Turkmenistan is useful for us. The article confirms data we received from our sources.”
She said that her organisation knows of at least three groups that are struggling to get registered, “Among them are a group of teacher-activists, women entrepreneurs and a youth group.”
Begmedova agreed with the view expressed in the IWPR report that local activists are caught in the dangerous situation of not being allowed to operate legally but if they nevertheless try to operate they expose themselves, “In creating various obstacles for legalising an NGO, authorities force them to risk operating illegally. This is of course a pretext to persecute rights activists.”