Uzbekistan registers US NGO in new breakthrough
American Councils was stripped of accreditation in 2006 amid a widespread NGO crackdown.
Uzbekistan has granted accreditation to a U.S. education-focused nongovernmental organization following a 12-year hiatus.
Deputy Justice Minister Akbar Tashkulov on August 29 handed over the paperwork to U.S. Ambassador Pamela Spratlen signaling approval for American Councils for Collaboration in Education and Language Study, or ACCELS, to resume operations in Uzbekistan.
The decision to accredit the NGO was greeted warmly by the U.S. State Department, which described it as further evidence of the improvement in relations between Uzbekistan and the United States.
An agreement to reopen the ACCELS representative office in Tashkent had been reached during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Washington in mid-May, when the Uzbek leader met with President Donald Trump.
Karim Bakhriyev, a former lawyer for media NGO Internews Network, told Eurasianet that this development may well presage the reappearance of other international organizations.
ACCELS, which deals predominantly in facilitating educational exchanges, was first registered in Uzbekistan in 1995. But it, like many other foreign NGOs, came under considerable pressure following the crackdown that began in the wake of a violently suppressed uprising in the city of Andijan in 2005.
ACCELS office in Tashkent was liquidated by a court ruling in 2006, joining a wide array of similarly affected NGOs and media organizations, including Internews, IREX, Eurasia Foundation, the Uzbek services of RFE/RL and the BBC.
Even if the door is cracked open to NGOs, advocacy groups caution that the legislation regulating this sector creates obstacles that are complicated to overcome.
“Uzbekistan still has one of the strictest regimes governing NGOs in the region. After the country expelled almost all foreign NGOs during the 2000s, independent civil society on the ground is practically nonexistent. There are strict rules for forming, operating, and funding NGOs or other forms of civil society, and huge administrative and criminal penalties exist for the slightest deviation from the regulations,” Freedom House noted in its most recent Nations in Transit report on Uzbekistan.
That this particular breakthrough was brokered at the highest level possible indicates this was a predominantly political development rather than one implying deep-rooted ideological shifts in Uzbek policy-making. Education is, broadly speaking, a safe and neutral area for cooperation, but the real test will come in granting similar accreditation to more problematic organizations that aggressively investigate shortcomings in governance and the state’s commitment to upholding human rights.
Things are no easier for domestic NGOs, as highlighted in a recent paper on political reforms in Uzbekistan published by the generally forgiving Washington-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.
“More than 9,000 NGOs are presently registered in Uzbekistan. In spite of recent improvements, many NGOs working in the political sector, or which previously received foreign funding, continue to experience difficulties in their day-to-day operations. NGOs working in the social and economic sectors have been quicker to feel the changes brought about by the Mirziyoyev administration, while human rights groups continue to experience problems with registration and the implementation of projects,” the report noted.