The recent publication of a law in Turkmenistan that decriminalizes the activity of unregistered non-governmental organizations may offer hope for the country's embattled civil society activists. Even so, those in the nascent NGO sector generally view the new law with skepticism.
NGO activists have been among those hardest hit by a government crackdown launched following the failed 2002 assassination attempt against Turkmenistan's mercurial leader Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The new legislation, published November 2, is formally called the "Law of Turkmenistan on Introducing Amendments to the Criminal Code of Turkmenistan." Specifically, it removes Article 223/1 from the Criminal Code. The original article mandated fines, "corrective labor" and imprisonment with confiscation of "illegally obtained resources (sredstva)" for those found guilty of engaging in public activities without explicit state approval. If implemented, the new law could potentially reverse, or at least slow the steady erosion of space in which civil society activists can operate in Turkmenistan.
The new legislation is an apparent attempt to override a draconian law adopted in October 2003 that criminalized all un-registered activities. Since most NGOs lacked official registration, the actions of a large number of civil society activists could be defined as crimes under the 2003 Turkmen law "On Public Associations," along with related amendments to the country's Criminal Code. One NGO activist inside Turkmenistan sardonically dubbed the legislation "the law on the death penalty for NGOs."
There are no known instances of the government prosecuting NGO activists under the October 2003 law. Nevertheless, the mere threat of prosecution succeeded in dramatically curtailing independent NGO activity over the past year. Unregistered groups -- the vast majority of NGOs in Turkmenistan either ceased or cut back their activities. Many quickly shed the dangerous label of "public association" and began to operate as a commercial venture or under the individual license of one of its members. Several groups chose to be co-opted into a governmental or government-controlled entity, trading their independence for the opportunity to function at all. Others opted to continue activities in an underground manner. The label "NGO" largely disappeared from the local lexicon, replaced by "initiative group" or other, safer terms.
The 2003 legislation created a dilemma for international donors. Several long-standing financial supporters of civil society in Turkmenistan -- including USAID and the US Embassy eventually decided to suspend their assistance programs to help protect their grantees from the risk of unintentionally violating the 2003 law.
In instances where the law could not be harnessed to suppress NGOs, Turkmen authorities did not hesitate to act arbitrarily. For instance, in early 2004 the government summarily stripped two of the country's most serious and long-standing NGOs of their legal registration, rendering them vulnerable to criminal prosecution for continued work. The Dashoguz Ecological Club and the Ecological Club Catena have both appealed the court rulings, so far unsuccessfully. Since the courts in Turkmenistan are generally viewed as subservient to Niyazov's personal will, political observers believe the chances of the decisions being overturned are virtually nil.
The government has also curtailed NGO activities by restricting activists' freedom of movement. In October, an Ashgabat-based civil leader, Natalia Shabunts, was temporarily prevented from traveling to other cities in Turkmenistan, and a sales representative for the state airline was threatened against selling Shabunts a plane ticket for Moscow. The ban on her international travel appears to have been rescinded.
"The harassment of civic actors is not surprising," declared a diplomat based in Turkmenistan who asked not to be identified. "To increase the areas under its direct control, the government has had to decrease the space available to NGOs."
Some NGO activists suspect the November 2 law decriminalizing unregistered NGO activity is designed more to blunt international criticism of Turkmenistan's human rights practices than it is to create more operational space for civil society activists. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The inclination among some civil society activists in Turkmenistan is to wait for additional indicators from Niyazov's government before testing the limits of the new law.
The international community's response to the new law so far has been cautious. For example, Paul W. Jones, a top US envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), "commended" Niyazov's government for promulgating the law. At the same time, Jones, speaking at an OSCE Permanent Council session shortly after the law's publication, noted that full compliance with OSCE obligations also required Ashgabat to "rescind all other legislation and halt all practices that hinder NGOs from contributing to a vibrant civil society."
Since November 25, 2002, Niyazov has tended to conflate NGO activity with efforts by the president's political opponents to force his ouster. On that day, loyalists of former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov allegedly tried to assassinate Niyazov as he drove himself to work. The failed attempt prompted massive retaliation by Niyazov. The state security apparatus rounded up not only those suspected of taking an active part in the assassination conspiracy, but also the family members of those implicated. Many suspects, along with some of their relatives, received lengthy prison terms. A significant number of those deemed guilty by association escaped prison, but nonetheless saw their lives ruined: the government forced them out of their homes; fired them from their jobs; and prohibited them from traveling abroad. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The experience of Farid Tukhbatullin, a civic activist and environmentalist, served as a cautionary tale for all NGO activists. Tukhbatullin was arrested in the city of Dashoguz in December 2002 and charged, among other things, with failing to notify authorities that members of the political opposition were plotting a coup d'etat. The authorities falsely presumed that this plot had been discussed at a conference that Tukhbatullin had attended in Moscow prior to his return to Dashoguz. The subsequent show trial and sentencing sent an intimidating message to others in the civic community that, for the moment, continues to outweigh the promise of the new legislation.
Erika Dailey is the Director of the Open Society Institutes Turkmenistan Project, which has operated since October 2002. She has an M.A. in Central Asian Studies, and has worked on human rights and development issues relating to the region since the late 1980s.