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Democratization from Below: Civil Society in Tajikistan

That said, a majority of the 14,000 CSOs of all kinds in the country remain inactive. Only 2886 intermediary NGOs are officially registered by the Ministry of Justice. Despite work with beneficiaries, “a majority…do not create a social base for their activities and most are concentrated in Dushanbe and Khujand.” Many are service providers supporting government projects and are less likely to partner with GROs (Bertelsman, 2020).

Human rights have, however, provided an organizing principle for national/local connections.  In 2016, according to Halimova, “an inclusive moment…was responsible for Tajikistan’s adoption of the UN’s human rights convention, and some of the resulting policy coalitions have continued…NGOs  publicly say they will not tolerate  suppression  and mobilize their  global contacts against it.” Democratization NGOs sponsor human rights classes online, “which are very popular, even at the local level.” Whether related or not to this, freedom of speech has also increased at the local level.

Women continue to lead many democratization NGOs in Tajikistan. The League of Women Lawyers, responsible for Tajikistan’s law on human trafficking is “still hard at work on this issue.” In 2018 a coalition of 39 NGOs, including many working in rural areas, produced an impressive, scholarly report on discrimination against women covering a wide range of topics, full of specific policy proposals. One NGO signatory, Ghamkhori, has a history of promoting legislation on violence against women with the cooperation of GROs, and their lawyers have won many cases (Freizer, 2015). A majority of the newer GROs such as 2600 savings groups supported by the AKF and by GRSOs have women’s committees that work on cooperative labor projects and the number of women members of Mahallahs continues to increase.

How or whether this will influence government policy remains to be seen. As Mullajanov observed, “Some human rights NGOs are used by the government to provide cover for their dealings with international actors.” On the other hand, national-level projects such as The Tajikistan National NGO Association’s sponsorship of workshops with political parties could support local democratization (Karimov, 2019).

Other national movements include individual participants from rural areas, and, according to Halimova:

“One of these focuses on children with disabilities and their parents, including many poor people. Labor migrants in Russia, while exploited by the authorities, are organized and make demands for civic space. Some of them have funded grassroots networks that include retired people.” 

More recently, the Pandemic has had a positive impact on strengthening ties within civil society. An NGO called Peshraft delivered 14,000 kits of humanitarian aid through GROs by mobilizing its online “subscribers” (including Tajik pop stars) through Telegram, to support poorer Tajiks with help from both the Yovar retail chain and taxi drivers. Fourteen other NGOs and foundations raised 1 million somoni  (approximately $100,000),  doubled by Peshraft’s corporate partners to cover the entire country (Buriev, 2020).

The Pandemic also pushed an NGO called the Office of Civil Freedoms to launch a fundraising and information campaign on elderly rights. The Public Council for Civil Society Assistance to Police Reform Initiatives unites human rights activists and a coalition of NGOs. The Civil Society Coalition Against Torture and Lawlessness focuses on public awareness about legal issues and the Pandemic (Buriev, 2020).

A second, relatively recent factor is the continuing independence of intermediary NGOs. “Fines imposed by the government for false information are now widely denounced”, according to Karimov. He also pointed to open discussions between the NGO Association of Tajikistan, parliamentarians, and the Ministry of Justice. “We are in transition because the legal environment has improved and NGOs are very active. The internet makes it possible to speak freely. My own organization [the NGO Association of Tajikistan] has 200 members working on agriculture, human rights, and youth. A major reason for this is increased professionalization and knowledge of the community level.” In other words, intermediary NGOs, although they face major challenges, are tied, not just to each other, but also to GROs.

Although less than half of intermediary NGOs are major national players, NGOs have become more active as the fears generated by the Tajik Civil War recede into the past.  Increasing cooperation among all kinds of CSOs has also increased relationships with the private sector and the government.

In addition to GRSOs, professional associations such as the League of Women Lawyers, the Lawyers Union, the Business Union, and the Consumer’s Union are politically active and sometimes connect with GROs (Zharkevich, 2010, p. 44). They do not confront the regime directly, but rather focus on the laws, practices, and policies that underlie these connections.

Even though there is always a risk that elites will capture the benefits of local organizing by outside CSOs, this is less likely in areas most affected by the civil war such as Khatlon, where people learned to support themselves (Zharkevich. 2010,p. 24).

The degree of local civil society empowerment also depends on  a “pro-poor [government] bureaucracy.” (Wood and Mamani Vargas, 2016) This seems highly unlikely in Tajikistan, although civil society partnerships continue and they can gain power when they include international NGOS.

International NGOs

A major challenge faced by Tajik civil society is the decline in financial support from the European Commission, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), and even from some INGOs.  Overall, foreign funding for civil society declined by about 10% in 2018, while Tajik government support actually increased to 17% of the total. The United Nations provides 39% of CSO grants and  US AID 24%. Although there are only a few INGO supporters of civil society in Tajikistan, they have a disproportionate impact.

Despite complaints about corruption in international NGOs, the 2006 study respondents commented on the strength of INGO training programs on democratic political culture, including legal education (Fisher 2013).

This has continued. New GROs emerging from INGO support include six Policy Dialogue Platforms and legal aid centers set up by Helvetas for community activists and GRO representatives to speak up about local legal issues and learn to address them. (Third Shadow Report, 2018).

These INGO-GRO connections, plus official international actors such as the EU, have become, if anything, increasingly important,  and are described as “glocalism” by Anja Mihr (2022).

“…the majority of countries…particularly here in Central Asia, are already governed de facto glocally…where governments don’t deliver” on healthcare, education, work, or security…The EU, for example, supports mayoral elections in Central Asia…Governments even failed to intervene in a water dispute in 2021 in the Ferghana Valley between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, so local leaders turned to international actors.

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