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East: OSCE Says NGOs Play Crucial Role In Fostering Democracy

Warsaw, 3 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- International organizations working to strengthen democracy in Central Asia and the Caucasus are looking at the role non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play in ensuring the fairness of elections.

The creation and potential influence of such independent NGOs was discussed at a meeting in Warsaw last week of international organizations assisting in various aspects of democracy-building in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Warsaw meeting was organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the electoral arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

NGOs have been described by many experts as being a so-called "people's watchdog" on the activities of governments, politicians, political parties and big business. Thousands of them exist in western countries, many of them monitoring human-rights abuses in their own countries, as well as abroad.

In Warsaw, international organizations discussed finding ways for independent NGOs to play a greater role in Central Asia and the Caucasus, particularly in monitoring the fairness of campaigns before the vote and the counting of ballots on election day. They believe such NGOs should be run by people with an interest in politics but with a capacity for making objective judgments.

Our correspondent says that thousands of NGOs already exist in Central Asia and the Caucasus but that many of them have no political interests, such as women's groups, business groups or church associations.

Official recognition of independent NGOs interested in election monitoring or democracy building differs from country to country. In some, the NGOs already enjoy a limited degree of recognition; in others, they are still treated with reserve by authorities. Experts say NGOs face the most difficulties in Turkmenistan, widely seen as one of the region's most repressive states.

The ODIHR's officer for NGO affairs -- Vibeke Greni -- said the ODIHR believes independent NGOs should be recognized as having an important role to play in strengthening democracy.

She said that ideally, the ODIHR wants to see a situation similar to that in western countries, where most independent NGOs are recognized by governments and local authorities and are accepted as legitimate commentators on public policies.

The ODIHR frequently promotes meetings between local NGOs and government representatives. For example, a discussion was held last August in Uzbekistan between government officials and NGOs about the role NGOs can play in developing a civil society. Both sides agreed to continue meeting on a regular basis.

In Kyrgyzstan, the ODIHR and other international organizations recently organized a series of meetings between NGOs and government officials focused on building a civil society, including election observation by domestic NGOs. A statement of principles adopted at the meeting included recognition by both sides that independent domestic election observation in Kyrgyzstan is essential if society is to place any confidence in the electoral process.

The ODIHR and other international organizations are working to have independent NGOs recognized as official observers at elections in Central Asia and the Caucasus. At the Warsaw meeting, it was pointed out that most foreign observer teams at elections are present for a few months at the most. Some are there only on polling day. Many international groups organize training programs and seminars on election issues, but most of these are also short-term operations.

Local NGOs, however, are composed of that country's citizens and are permanent fixtures in their localities. They are in a better position to know the specific problems and challenges of their communities.

The ODIHR says independent NGOs are characterized primarily by humanitarian or cooperative objectives, rather than commercial ones. They generally seek to promote human rights, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment and work in the "human dimension." They do not include trade unions, churches or political parties. Under the ODIHR's concept, they do not operate with the intention of making a profit.

The ODIHR has no definition, however, of what constitutes an NGO in regard to its structure or the number of its members. The only limitation in the eyes of the ODIHR is that an NGO must not be a terrorist organization.

While the ODIHR itself does not create NGOs, some international organizations do play a role in putting them together. Some of these organizations -- mostly in the U.S. -- provide financial assistance to NGOs and, in a few cases, finance brief study visits to political organizations in the U.S.

The legal requirements for creating an independent NGO differ from country to country. Some require that an NGO should have at least two to five people as founding members. Others require 10 founding members; a few insist on as many as 20. The ODIHR criticizes governments that require a high number of founding members. It says that, in some cases, this may contravene the internationally recognized right to freedom of association.

Some governments also make it difficult to form independent NGOs by imposing exceptionally high registration fees. In some cases, it is as low as one U.S. dollar. But in Tajikistan, for example, it may be as high as $500.

The ODIHR says that, in some regions, the registering authorities have broad discretion in interpreting which NGOs may be established. Some have required associations to change or modify their purpose in order to comply with written or unwritten laws. Other countries insist that independent NGOs cannot operate in the country unless they are registered with the authorities.

(This is the fourth and final feature by correspondent Roland Eggleston on international efforts to promote free and fair elections in Central and Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union.)