As the leader of a civil rights-related non-governmental organization, Dilrabo Samadova said she was used to getting hassled by authorities about her group’s activities. But recent government actions to put the clamps on civil society groups like hers in Tajikistan took her by surprise.
Despite the fact that Tajikistan is one of Central Asia’s poorest countries, Tajiks used to consider themselves as better off than their neighbors because they had comparatively more room to operate and pursue their ambitions, Samadova explained. “We used to be … more free than in neighboring countries,” said Samadova, the chair of the young lawyers association, Amparo, which was shut down following a late October Tajik court ruling. “Now we’re going backwards.”
A few weeks before Amparo’s closure, instructions were sent to university heads by the Education Ministry, informing them that “conducting any kind of conferences, seminars, other gatherings, or meetings with students through international organizations is against the law.” In short, students can no longer participate in events sponsored by international NGOs, according to a copy of the order obtained by EurasiaNet.org. It is unclear what law the directive is in accordance with.
The head of the Education Ministry’s international relations department refused to discuss the matter, instead passing the phone to education finance specialist Tagoymurod Davlatov. “It’s not true, there is no document,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”
But in a follow-up email Davlatov altered his tone. “The decision of the ministry is to work closely with NGOs. The main thing is [for students] to attend lessons on time,” he wrote.
The Education Ministry directive already has had a significant ripple-effect. Since the announcement, some NGOs, including London-based International Alert, have been pressured to cancel youth camps, while the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) saw upcoming language testing for international student exchanges nixed. “It’s really useful for students to participate in this kind of training,” said Samadova of Amparo, which also operated youth camps. “But the government wants to be so bureaucratic and control everything.”
Tajikistan’s government — which relies heavily on donor assistance in a variety of areas, everything from electrical transformer repairs to food security and land mine clearance — is rankling the very international constituency that it needs to have on its side. Western diplomats say they are keeping a close eye on Dushanbe’s actions.
“We and other donor countries will continue to look to support projects that help Tajikistan in economic terms, as well as spread ideas, expertise and knowledge,” said a senior Western diplomat from a major donor nation. “But if this proves to be a concerted effort to shut down NGOs, it will certainly have an impact on international funding.”
It’s unclear who’s behind the recent crackdown, added the diplomat. “It could be someone at the top saying, ‘NGOs are problematic with their Western ideas.’ The sad thing for Tajikistan, as they try to become more developed, is that they need greater access, not less, to international ideas and to organizations, like NGOs that can bring in expertise and help train youth,” he said.
The government ruling will force NGOs to alter their goals and objectives in Tajikistan, said the director of an international NGO that has been working on economic development, health and infrastructure in the country for more than a decade.
“It’s pretty shocking,” he said. “And it makes our work almost impossible.” Students are the main target audience for most NGOs, said the director, who asked not to be named for fear of government reprisals. “We want to expand young peoples’ capacity both economically and socially, so they can lead their communities into the future.”
Tajikistan’s substandard education system, which is rife with corruption, sees students and parents pay for everything from test results to university degrees. “It would be better if the Ministry of Education actually stuck to its core role and focused on mending an education system that is fundamentally broken and certainly worse than it was under the Soviets,” added the Western diplomat.
The education system has “a lot of problems,” said a law professor who spoke on condition of anonymity. The ruling stopping students from participating in NGO-sponsored initiatives and that “is a problem for students,” the academic added.
Samadova of Amparo suspects the presidential election next year has a lot to do with the recent ruling. The government sees NGOs as conduits for the dissemination of information on issues in which official policy has glaring shortcomings, including public health, the environment and education. “And with the election next year the government is trying to stop this activity,” she said. Tajikistan has never held an election deemed free and fair by outside observers. Young people are “easier to control if they don’t know anything,” she added.
Others believe President Imomali Rahmon’s administration is merely trying to emulate Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has steadily tightened the screws on civil society groups since protests against his rule erupted last winter.
The government’s attempt to control civil society during the run-up to the 2013 election “is something we will have to pay close attention to,” said the Western diplomat. “Especially post-Khorog, there has been a general lack of freedom of information,” he said, referring to violence this summer between government troops and local warlords.
Adding to concerns, plans surfaced early in November for a new government project to monitor all Internet providers operating in Tajikistan. This comes after months of on-again, off-again blocks of critical news sites. Once again, the head of the government communications service – which reportedly sent out a letter describing the functions of the new center to relevant government agencies – publicly denied his office was seeking expansive snooping powers. But other government officials told local media that just such a plan, which they say is in the interests of security, is in the works.
It’s all part of the reelection game, said the Western NGO director. “In this country it’s not about transparency and accountability, it’s about the oppression of everything,” the NGO representative added.