Accessibility links

Breaking News

(Un)Civil Societies Report: April 30, 2003

30 April 2003, Volume 4, Number 11
NGOS STRUGGLE FOR LEGITIMACY IN KAZAKHSTAN... Nongovernmental activists in Kazakhstan analyzing a new draft NGO law released this month fear the government is turning its attention to the nonprofit sector, now that it is has reined in the independent media and winnowed the number of political parties (see "(Un)Civil Societies," 23 April 2003). Kaisha Atakhanova, an environmentalist visiting the U.S. this month who spoke at a public briefing organized by RFE/RL, reported that the new NGO law has troublesome features that provide too much discretion to officialdom to curb their activities (see recommended news links below).

Trained as a biologist in the field of genetics, Atakhanova left her scientific career to help lead Kazakhstan's growing grassroots movement calling for better public control over nuclear-waste import and other issues. Assisted by U.S.-based international groups such as Counterparts and the Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia, Atakhanova and her colleagues have had some success in running public hearings and signature campaigns to gain the attention of local people to the threat posed by radiation and the long-term effects of Kazakhstan's Soviet-era aboveground nuclear-testing program in Semipalatinsk.

As others in Eurasia have discovered, Atakhanova has found that organizing local constituents around environmental issues is easier than for human rights and other seemingly more confrontational issues. Legislation is often better developed on ecological issues and there is at least some capacity for official response in the Environment Ministry. Civil liberties can seem abstract for a population coping with the adverse effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition to the market, whereas campaigns for health and the cleanliness of air and water are more tangible.

Even so, Kazakhstan's environmental activists are finding that efforts to stay "nonpoliticized," to cooperate with authorities, and avoid direct challenges to the regime are not enough to survive in the current climate. Increasingly, they are drawn to lobby for the very laws that can ensure their sustainability. While with one hand cracking down on the media and political rivals this year, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev seemed to be throwing a bone to civil society by mentioning nongovernmental organizations in a speech earlier this year about increasing democracy -- a gesture some opposition critics felt was a distraction from more insidious intents to place all of nascent civil society under harsh control. Still, when the government rolled out plans for a law on "social contracts," or government grants to NGOs to perform social services, NGOs greeted the move as a positive step that might ensure them wider and more long-term support, since most are dependent entirely on volunteer labor or foreign contributions. Previously, the constitution forbade government support of the nongovernmental sector, a post-Soviet measure which was supposed to prevent the proliferation of GONGOs, or government-organized NGOs completely dependent on the state.

"It's a plus that the government somehow wants to acknowledge that we exist after ignoring us for such a long time," Atakhanova told "(Un)Civil Societies." "Yet the draft law on NGOs is very weak and very poor," she said, since it would not guarantee a legal framework to protect Kazakhstan's budding grassroots efforts by stipulating that NGOs could not have political or religious purposes.

In a statement published on his website at devoted to analysis of the law, Vadim Nee of the Law and Environment Eurasia Partnership said the draft is "entirely problematic and can have serious consequences for NGOs and the nongovernmental sector." He believe is it connected to forthcoming local and parliamentary elections and is primarily designed to thwart any possible foreign assistance to NGOs that would become involved in elections.

Other aspects of the draft law alarming for both local and international NGOs include reporting demands that at first glance seem typical of those required in the West, but could be misused by overzealous bureaucrats in Kazakhstan to curb disliked activity. Foreign NGOs must register representative or branch offices and submit annual reports on all their activities. While the requirement may seem to involve the kind of annual reports such groups routinely prepare in any event for donors and the public, the International Center for Non-Profit Law (ICNL) is concerned that failure to publish the reports or "questions arising from the very information contained in these reports, might result in involuntary liquidation of a foreign representational office/branch, or even government intervention into the activities of these offices."

Local groups, already burdened with monthly tax reports to authorities, are wary of requirements to file such annual activity reports to government agencies because they believe the information will be used to unlawfully control them. If a group fails to submit the report, whether due to incapacity such as lack of staff or through negligence, they could be suspended. By contrast, the requirements for nonprofits in the U.S., for example, involves filing one- or two-page summary statements of activities along with audited financial reports to the Internal Revenue Service. A group that failed to file the necessary forms would find itself subjected to taxes and fines, and could eventually be listed as not recommended for charitable donations in some states, but the government would be unable to immediately force it to stop its activities per se if it could not demonstrate any violation of the law through lawful procedure. By contrast in Kazakhstan, the draft NGO law provides ample ground for political discretion and the development of a politicized list of "favorable" and "unfavorable" NGOs and grounds for immediately closing groups found in violation of the NGO law. International aid organizations unwilling to confront the regime will be forced to play along merely to have some show of activities in the country.

Also worrisome is a list included in the draft law of allowable groups with "human rights" obviously missing, along with a requirement that groups only provide legal defense for their own members, thus preventing civil rights activists from serving as public interest lawyers. In a further restriction of already-eroded media legislation, under the draft law, NGOs will be allowed to distribute information only about their own organization's activities.

...AS INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS BECOME INVOLVED. NGO activists are concerned that international organizations joined with Kazakh government officials in a legislative drafting commission may be playing a negative role in providing language drawn from Western models without due consideration to the "law of unintended consequences" in Kazakhstan. "You cannot replicate other concepts inappropriate to local conditions," Atakhanova said. A term in the draft law which has been a red flag for NGOs is the adjective known in Russian as "obshchestvenno-polezno," which can be translated as "socially useful" or "public-benefit." The former carries associations with Soviet-era communist interpretations of what citizens' work was valuable to the state or not, i.e. dissident poet Joseph Brodsky was jailed for "parasitism" when the government found his work not to be "socially useful."

Natasha Bourjaily, vice president of the International Center for Non-Profit Law (ICNL), a U.S.-funded organization active in Eurasia, said "obshchestvenno-polezno" could be translated more neutrally as "public- benefit," i.e. as in public-interest groups of benefit to society. Such usage is common in East and Central Europe and in West European countries like Italy. While retaining the more neutral interpretation for the term, Bourjaily told "(Un)Civil Societies" that it could not be shorn of the context in which it was intended by Western advisors -- a strict designation of tax privileges for nonprofits, rather than a subjective determination of the merits of a given group's activity. In an analysis of the draft Kazakh law, ICNL experts noted "government officials would have an opportunity to subjectively decide who shall be called an 'NGO,'" and thus determine government support.

The ICNL recommended not adopting the law, since previously existing legislation for noncommercial entities could serve to regulate NGOs. Bourjaily noted that the Ministry of Culture, Information, and Public Accord, the drafter of the current NGO law, had misrepresented the position of the joint government and NGO commission -- including international experts from UN Development Program, TACIS, and other bodies -- by claiming it had been involved in the preparation of the law on NGOs. In fact, the commission was involved only on the law on social contracts, and its recommendations were not accepted. If the NGOs continue to attempt to suggest amendments to the flawed NGO law, rather than rejecting it outright, they could wind up presiding over an exercise in bad faith where it will appear as if they supported it.

Both local and international advocates believe a special new NGO law is unnecessary, and the amount of eventual government tenders for social services so much lower than foreign donations as to beg the question of having a separate law beyond existing legislation. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, budgeted approximately $5 million for 2002 and 2003 for assistance in promoting democracy through a network of "civil-society support centers" serving some 500 NGOs. "If this year's sharp improvements in NGOs' organizational capacity, financial viability, and social partnership building continue, Kazakhstan's civic organizations may be able to push the envelope and open up the political space," USAID enthused in its 2002 report, even as the space was closing. Misleadingly, the report states that the country's first NGO law "represents a step forward in the legal recognition of NGOs, and was the first law to be drafted by and at the initiative of [Kazakh] senators." Subsequent events indicate that the restrictive new NGO law and the old law on noncommercial groups will clash and create confusion as to how to regulate NGOs.

Atakhanova and other activists believe international donors working with local groups and diplomats must now make a concerted effort to raise the issue of the troublesome new NGO legislation with officials and get the restrictions rolled back. As with the failed international effort to fix the flawed Azerbaijani NGO law (see "(Un)Civil Societies," 26 February 2003), some foreign observers are temporizing that merely bringing disparate NGOs together in a common legislative effort is beneficial in building up networks and negotiating skills, even if they cannot change the law.

As in other Eurasian countries, however, NGOs who have weathered more than a decade now of nonrecognition from their governments do not want merely to hone skills or decorate foreign democracy programs, they want to put down real grassroots and receive the legalization and legitimacy due them in order to truly participate in the decisions that affect people's lives.

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS ATTACKED. Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Baku-based Human Rights Center and a leading human rights activist in the region, suffered an attack this week believed by local observers and his colleagues abroad to be in retaliation for his conflict-resolution and human rights activities in the Caucasus. According to a statement released on 25 April by the New York-based International League for Human Rights (ILHR) on 24 April, after Zeynalov returned from a trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, his office was surrounded by several dozen assailants who pelted the windows with stones and eggs, shouting obscenities and threats, and, finally, burning Zeynalov in effigy. Witnesses reported that several attackers were known to be members of pro-governmental political parties.

Following this assault, Leader-TV, a local station, erroneously called Zeynalov an "Armenian" and demanded his arrest ostensibly for "treason." The press service of Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry called his trip "criminal" and vowed to hold Zeynalov "accountable." In recent years, authorities and state-controlled media and groups have resorted to calling activists "Armenians" regardless of their ethnic backgrounds as a means of discrediting their public positions on sensitive regional issues of peace, security, and human rights.

On 25 April, in a subsequent attack that appeared to be organized and sanctioned by the authorities, a group consisting mainly of members of the Yeni Azerbaycan ruling party staged a new protest outside Zeynalov's office, breaking windows and a padlock on the entrance door. Zeynalov left for Geneva this week to present an alternative report on torture in Azerbaijan to the UN Committee Against Torture, which is reviewing Azerbaijan's compliance with the Convention Against Torture this week.

The ILHR reported that Zeynalov's trip to Nagorno-Karabakh dealt exclusively with the issue of civil society in the Caucasus and peace in the region and involved a series of lectures as well as a training seminar on prison monitoring attended by several local and international organizations, and indicated that the charges of "criminal activity" were unfounded.

In a press release on 28 April, Russia's Memorial Society called for an end to harassment of human rights groups in Azerbaijan. They noted that the office of the Institute for War and Peace, directed by Lelya and Arif Yunus, was also attacked by a man who broke windows and tried to pry open doors as police stood by doing nothing. Bakhar Muradov of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party was quoted by Memorial Society as calling for an attack on the Institute for War and Peace in a speech in parliament on 25 April. Memorial Society also condemned the violent demonstrations directed against the Human Rights Center who held up signs "Get out of Azerbaijan!" aimed at the center's director, Zeynalov, and threatened physical reprisals. In addition to the pro-government parties, members of the Youth Council of the Karabakh Liberation Organization also took part. Memorial also reported that the attack on Zeynalov and his fellow activist Zaliha Tagirova was related to their trip 15-20 April to Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Regional NGOs have built a network throughout six regions of the North and South Caucasus aimed at strengthening civil society and engaging in conflict resolution. In their statement, Memorial Society also provided an indication of both direct and indirect government sanctioning of the attack on the Human Rights Center and the Institute for War and Peace. Chingiz Ganiev, former prosecutor for the city of Baku and now a leader of the opposition Musavat Party, announced the address and telephone numbers of human rights organizations on 22 April and called on viewers to "punish the enemies" and "make their lives miserable." The Azerbaijani State Security Ministry was also quoted by Memorial Society as making comments about the "antistate" positions of human rights activists. The attacks on NGOs publicly involved in human rights and peace activities comes at a time of uncertainty about the health of President Heidar Aliev, who collapsed recently while giving a public speech.

17TH ANNIVERSARY OF CHORNOBYL DISASTER. Marches to mark the 17th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster this year in Ukraine and Belarus were more muted than previous years, with turnouts far less than demonstrations in the region about current human rights and economic problems, such as the 16 September 2002 antigovernment marches in Ukraine and the 12 March and 25 March protests in Belarus.

In Kyiv, hundreds of Ukrainians laid flowers and lit candles at the Chornobyl victims' chapel, the "Kyiv Post" reported on 28 April, citing AP. They lifted glasses of vodka at 1:23 a.m., the time of the explosion at Reactor No. 4 at the Chornobyl nuclear-power plant.

Experts differ on the extent of the immediate and subsequent casualties of the disaster and its aftermath. Some 4,400 people in Ukraine alone were reportedly killed in the aftermath of the explosion and subsequent fire, succumbing to radiation-related diseases contracted after taking part in the cleanup effort, AP reported. In all, about 650,000 "liquidators" or members of cleanup crews came to Chornobyl from all over the Soviet Union to cope with the disaster. The diseases and deaths of these workers have not been systematically recorded, nor necessarily attributed to Chornobyl in some cases.

More than 2.45 million people have been hospitalized in Ukraine as of early 2002 with illnesses sparked by the disaster, including 473,400 children, according to the Health Ministry, AP reported. Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev warned recently that the "sarcophagus" built over the destroyed reactor could collapse and alleged that Ukrainian officials were negligent in monitoring the facility (see "Ukraine: Ecologists, Analysts Puzzled By Russian Concern Over Chornobyl Safety,", 23 April 2003).

In Belarus, where the fallout from the radioactive cloud is said to have caused much more extensive environmental and health damage, the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has suppressed follow-up research and even jailed one scientist on economic charges widely believed to be politically motivated in retaliation for his independent research.

On 26 April in Minsk, about 3,000 members of the opposition gathered for their traditional "Charnobylski shlyach," or Chornobyl Procession to commemorate the victims,, Belapan, and other new services reported. This year's march was organized by the Belarusian Popular Front Party, the United Civic Party, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada), the United Social-Democratic Party, and other civic groups. The organizing committee was chaired by Ivan Nikitchenko, a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences and chairman of the Popular Front. Organizers sought a permit to march from Yakub Kolas Square to a square near the Opera Theater but were denied, although police agreed not to hinder the assembly on Yakub Kolas Square.

In the event, the police did not keep to their word, blocking movement and forcing participants to cross the street in groups of 50. Nevertheless, marchers made their way to the Academy of Science, where Nikitchenko gave a speech noting that 2 million Belarusians, including half-a-million children, were said to be living on the contaminated territory, and 400,000 disabled persons were not getting the help they need.

Vintsuk Viachorka of the Popular Front Party said the opposition was accused by officials of "politicizing" Chornobyl, but the government's forced placement of people in contaminated areas was itself a political act, reported him as saying. Viachorka also spoke of the need to require compensation from Russia, which is believed to have induced clouds laden with radioactive materials to rain on Belarusian territory to spare other populated areas of the former Soviet Union. After the speeches, led by clergy carrying the portrait of the "Mother of God of Chornobyl" and ringing the "Chornobyl Bell," the Belarusians proceeded along Skaryna Avenue to pay their respects to the victims of the disaster.

Among those who took part in the procession were members of the Soj movement, with about 1,000 members primarily made up of people who worked to clear up the aftereffects of the nuclear disaster for seven months. These "liquidators" lost their special privileges of discounted or free medical care in 1995 by decision of Lukashenka, and two years ago, the Health Ministry reduced the list of medications available for free to "liquidators." Valery Yagur told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that the government was only providing them discounted aspirin, which was cheap in any event. "We know very well that a lot of humanitarian aid comes to Belarus," he was quoted as saying. "Where does it all go?!" He and his colleagues were particularly upset that the government had claimed in the press around the time of the date of the anniversary of the disaster that "liquidators" were receiving special privileges, when this was no longer the case.

INTERNATIONAL. "UN Rights Commission Ends Session Amid Much Criticism." The UN Human Rights Commission ended its annual session amid criticism it did too little for the victims of abuses worldwide. Rights groups say governments hostile to human rights blocked several important country initiatives, while the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the EU failed to exert positive leadership.

IRAQ. "The Pitfalls Of Building Democracy On Ethnic, Religious Lines." The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has outlined plans to transform the country from a dictatorship to a democracy. But the creation of democratic institutions in a country that has been governed for decades by military rule is a complicated process. One natural strategy is to organize constituencies along ethnic and religious lines. But this might be counterproductive in the end.

KAZAKHSTAN. Briefing: "How Grassroots Democracy Can Succeed in Kazakhstan." Kazakhstan's fledgling grassroots opposition movement, which succeeded earlier this year in blocking a government plan to import nuclear waste into the country, now faces a host of challenges and is calling for continued guidance from the West to help protect civil rights and promote democracy. Activist Kaisha Atakhanova told a recent RFE/RL briefing audience that "we are more aware of what is happening in our country, but have little experience protecting our rights."

RUSSIA. "Aid Group Says Chechens Too Scared To Come Home." The vast majority of refugees who have fled fighting in Russia's Chechnya province are too scared to return home, Doctors Without Borders said in a survey reported by Reuters on 27 April. The findings contradict officials in Moscow, who say Chechnya is returning to normal and that the decade-long military campaign against separatist rebels has worked. They have trumpeted the return of refugees as proof.

TURKMENISTAN. "Local Russians Pack Their Bags As Dual Citizenship Nears End." Thousands of Russian-speakers in Turkmenistan are leaving the country as a result of a Turkmen presidential decree abolishing dual citizenship with Russia. Russian-speakers say the decree -- issued only last week -- does not leave them enough time to properly dispose of their property. Human rights activists condemn the action, saying it is another step by the country toward complete isolation.