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Building the non-governmental sector

[Turkmenistan] Afghan and Tajik refugees celebrate on World Refugee Day. IRIN
Keik Okara NGO works with refugees, but has waited five years for registration
Working with the non-governmental (NGO) sector in Turkmenistan is not easy - because there isn't one to speak of, not officially at least. Trying to get information on registered NGOs in Turkmenistan is extremely difficult. When IRIN visited the Ministry of Justice in Ashgabat nobody was able to provide updated information on NGO activity. According to the Ashgabat office of the USAID-funded NGO Support Initiative for Central Asia, there are around 150 civic groups operating throughout the country but most do not enjoy official recognition. This compares very poorly with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where the NGO concept has been introduced and governments are gradually opening up to the benefits that such civic groups can bring. For example, there are over 1,400 foreign-funded NGOs operating in Tajikistan - a country with a similar population to Turkmenistan. In contrast to life under the Soviet regime, people in the other Central Asian republics have shown a growing willingness to work through NGOs to solve local problems that the government for various reasons is unable to address. But in Turkmenistan government bureaucracy and official suspicion are hampering the growth of such organisations. "The government doesn't like NGOs at all, because we are difficult to control," one activist running an unregistered organisation for widows in Ashgabat told IRIN. "There's lots of paranoia, we're just trying to help people." Lack of official recognition of NGOs is also related to government policy of talking up the good and ignoring the problematic. "The official line remains there are no problems here, hence no need for NGOs to address them," one foreign diplomat told IRIN. State-controlled media extol the virtues of the president-for-life but never mention the growing poverty, drug addiction and lack of human rights in the country. The work of the few NGOs that do operate legally rarely features on television, radio or in the press. According to a recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Turkmenistan, NGOs are discouraged by the government from fundraising, conducting awareness campaigns or interacting with similar organisations abroad. "We wanted to hold a sponsored walk to raise money for our activities but were told this was not allowed," an unpaid project worker running a youth club in the second city of Turkmenabad told IRIN. Yet despite these odds, Turkmenistan's grassroots movement has been showing signs of life. For the most part these are environmentalists, but several other organisations have been active, including a recently established women's group. Andrei Aranbaev, who heads Catena and the Ashgabat Ecological Club, has been one of the key activist leaders. Emphasising collaboration and networking, Aranbaev has supported and offered advice to other initiatives and groups. The Ecological Club shares space with four other groups and has a library with publications, literature, information about funding sources, newsletters from international organisations, and newspapers and magazines otherwise not available to the public in Turkmenistan. Keik Okara - Patient's Rights Protection Centre has been working with refugees in the capital for the past five years. Although it is a credible organisation that has worked alongside the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, and the Turkmenistan Red Crescent society, it has no legal status and an uncertain future. "Since we met the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] earlier this year we know the government spies on us, they could close us down," one worker said, referring to a meeting with an OSCE fact-finding team earlier this year. Many Turkmen NGOs are functioning without registration because though they have applied for licences their cases have stalled within the relevant ministry. One NGO assisting the capital's growing homeless population from the basement of a grimy apartment building in a suburb of Ashgabat, told IRIN it had been operating since 1999 and had applied for registration two years later. "We're still waiting," one staff member complained to IRIN. The lack of legal status for NGOs makes it difficult to lobby the legislative assembly and other government organs, as well as to be taken seriously by foreign organisations and donors. "This [NGO] sector requires much more international support and recognition. The real grassroots work in Turkmenistan is being done by civic groups that are in effect illegal. This must be recognised externally," a representative of an international organisation in the capital told IRIN. Participants at a recent UN-sponsored seminar on the NGO sector in Turkmenistan complained that laws relating to civic groups were not consistently applied, and that civil servants did not seem to know how to apply what legislation exists. The situation improved last year when the US ambassador to Turkmenistan started to promote NGO activity. President Saparmurad Niyazov responded by intimating that a new legal framework for the sector would be introduced, a partial acknowledgement of the growing importance of NGOs. But despite this progress, things do not look bright for NGOs. The alleged assassination attempt on President Niyazov last November has been the excuse, observers say, the government was looking for to further tighten its grip on Turkmen society. It blocks civil society activities, controls the media even more strictly, and tends to pay less regard to human and religious rights. And now the Committee for National Security has begun to actively restrict NGO activity, especially when the work of NGOs attracts the attention and presence of international organisations. "Anything 'non-governmental' is a real issue for the powers that be right now, but we'll survive, because the need is there," the head of an NGO helping schoolchildren with English told IRIN.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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