Prague, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Like any other foreign NGO working in Uzbekistan, the U.S.-based Open Society Institute (OSI) has until the end of February to provide the Uzbek Justice Ministry with the documents required for its re-registration.
Alisher Ilkhamov, executive director of OSI Uzbekistan, says it may prove impossible to meet the ministry's deadline. "We are preparing our documents. We are trying to do it in time. But we will probably not be able to submit them on time in order to get registration by 1 March," he said. "So the freezing of our activity after March 1, at least for a certain period, is inevitable."
"Some of those organizations have been the targets of smear campaigns in the Uzbek press -- for example, Human Rights Watch."
Uzbek authorities have required all foreign NGOs to register with the Justice Ministry by 1 March. The organizations previously received an annual accreditation from the Foreign Ministry, in a process Ilkhamov says was relatively simple. The new registration procedure, by contrast, requires the submission of a long list of documents to the Justice Ministry. Once registered, the NGOs will have to apply to the new ministry for their annual accreditation.
The reasons for the change are unclear. The Foreign Ministry says the law requiring NGOs to register with the Justice Ministry has actually been on the books since 1999, but is only being enforced now because of a rapid rise in the number of organizations. The ministry says there are now more than 100 foreign NGOs operating in Uzbekistan.
Talib Yakubov heads the local Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He says the move is part of a process to put increasing governmental pressure on foreign organizations. "It obviously shows that Uzbekistan is still committed to its previous policy. Again, it proves that [official] statements on improving democracy have no basis," he said. "They are continuing to restrict the organizations promoting democracy."
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group is not registered in Uzbekistan. David Lewis, who runs the group's Central Asia project from Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, says there has always been a lot of pressure placed on NGOs in Uzbekistan. The new requirement, he added, is just one additional step. "[The government] is trying to keep the activities of the organizations under some kind of control, and sets the limits to the kind of activities the government is prepared to allow them to conduct," he said. "[But] I think it's too early to say what the outcome is going to be."
Josh Machleder oversees a nongovernmental organization in Uzbekistan, but asked that the name of the group not be used. He agrees that it is difficult to say now whether the new registration process will make it more difficult to operate in the country. But he questions the wisdom of handing matters to the Justice Ministry -- which, unlike the Foreign Ministry, deals with local issues only.
Machleder says some foreign NGOs have already experienced problems working in Uzbekistan. "I would say, on the whole, these organizations are involved in taking information out of Uzbekistan and publishing them abroad," he said. "Some of those organizations have been the targets of smear campaigns in the Uzbek press -- for example, [New-York-based] Human Rights Watch. Two organizations involved in information, the International Crisis Group and the [London-based] Institute for War and Peace Reporting, were denied registration in the country."
In a speech last month, Uzbek President Islam Karimov criticized Human Rights Watch for a report it issued on human rights violations committed by neighborhood (mahalla) committees. At the same time, a commentary appeared in the daily "Halq Suzi" (People's Word) newspaper decrying the activity of groups seeking to force a Western lifestyle on the country.
Machleder says the new registration procedure might be meant as a warning to Uzbekistan's increasingly restive NGO community. "Foreign organizations in Uzbekistan have taken much more aggressive positions lately," he said. "You find that journalists are willing to report a little bit more strongly, opposition movements are trying to mobilize [and there is] the growth of more local human rights organizations. These things are new in Uzbekistan and maybe there's a discomfort with the appearance of this new phenomenon."
Machleder also stressed that the international community has been more active in working with local advocacy groups and opposition parties. Previously, assistance programs had focused more on education and training.
David Lewis of the International Crisis Group says the decision to change the registration procedure may be tied to Georgia's so-called "Rose Revolution" last November, in which opposition groups forced the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze. "It's partly connected to the events in Georgia -- or at least the perception of them, which may or [may] not be true, that international organizations were in some way supporting the opposition," Lewis said. "Certainly the events in Georgia did have an impact on the psychologies of several leaders in Central Asia."
International organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Open Society Institute have promoted pluralism in Georgian politics for nearly a decade, and are believed by many to have played a part in Georgia's Rose Revolution. Those groups also operate in Uzbekistan. But authorities in Tashkent have denied the new registration procedures are an attempt to prevent a Georgia-style coup. They say the Justice Ministry's registration program is strictly a procedural matter and will not prevent any NGOs from conducting their business.
(Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)