Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has apparently declined to sign controversial amendments to legislation covering grant making, according to a June 19 report in the Azadliq newspaper. International organizations had denounced the amendments, which would have effectively strengthened official oversight over non-governmental organization activity. Intense criticism by both local and international NGOs appeared to play a significant role in influencing Aliyev's decision.
Azadliq, citing unnamed sources, said a presidential aide, Ramiz Mehdiyev, told a local UN official on June 17 that Aliyev had not signed the amendments into law. As news of Aliyev's decision spread, local NGO activists were in a celebratory mood. "NGO solidarity yields fruit," proclaimed a statement issued by the NGO Forum in Baku.
The amendments to the law on grants would have required that all grants given to local organizations by international governments, NGOs and other funding organizations be registered. In addition, the amendments stipulated that only officially registered organizations could receive grants. In effect, the changes would have given the Azerbaijani government a veto over the dispersal of grant money to NGOs. [For further information see the EurasiaNet Civil Society archive].
After the Azerbaijani parliament approved the amendments in March, international and local groups mobilized to protest the potential changes. A group of Azerbaijani NGOs appealed to Aliyev to reject the amendments. The Council of Europe and the OSCE sent a letter to the Azerbaijani president pressing him to veto the proposed changes. American NGOs raised their objections both in Baku and with the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington.
Prior to Aliyev's decision, Kate Watters, Deputy Director of the Institute for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia (ISAR), expressed concern that the amendments endangered democratic development in Azerbaijan. "The potential harm to civil society is quite great," Watters said.
Gavin Half, Director of Grant Programs for the Eurasia Foundation, described the amendments as "a step in the wrong direction," adding that had they been approved by Aliyev, international organizations would probably have cut back on programs in Azerbaijan. "There's a limited amount of assistance that goes to the former Soviet Union, and if it's harder to expend these resources in Azerbaijan, naturally it's going to flow to other places where there's a better environment," Half said.
Leyla Yunus, the head of the Institute of Peace and Democracy in Baku, stated that "the only aim of this legislation [was] to destroy all NGOs that the government dislikes, or which it cannot control."
As it already stands, Yunus says, the government utilizes the registration process to exert pressure on NGOs. Groups with a civic or political agenda that authorities find objectionable have commonly waited years to register their organizations, or not been approved at all. If they do not receive formal status, they must to operate at great risk of government harassment. A lack of registration also prevents an NGO from opening a bank account legally, or raising funds publicly. As a result, unregistered organizations, human rights groups in particular, have depended upon foreign assistance to sustain their activities.
At the same time, many local NGOs have opted not to go through the official registration process, in some cases because they are responding to urgent, emergency situations, in others because they seek to evade the state bureaucracy and its inherent inefficiencies and graft. For the same reasons, donors have also defended the unregistered status of these groups.
Government officials explained that the amendments were an appropriate response to the post-September 11 security environment. Watters dismissed this explanation, pointing out that most of the organizations giving assistance to NGOs are international assistance and development organizations. "Much of the source of that funding comes from US government-funded and other European government and foundation donors." Critics suggested that the Azerbaijani government sought to use September 11-related security concerns as a pretext to suppress political opponents and to curtail the activity of independent citizens' groups.
Kenan Aliev is a journalist based in Washington, DC.