Tajikistan Sours to NGOs

NGOs in Tajikistan face a significantly less friendly environment since the late October announcement that human rights organization Amparo was shut down by the Tajik government.  According to Human Rights Watch,

“Amparo, whose members include more than 40 rights activists, journalists, and educators, was founded in 2005 by a group of young lawyers who sought to empower youth with human rights education. Amparo actively investigates and monitors the rights of Tajik army recruits, the poor, orphans, and the disabled, among other vulnerable social groups.

For several years the group has been an active member of the Coalition against Torture, which brings together several leading Tajik civil society organizations that collect and report on torture allegations from across the country and jointly encourage the government to meet its international commitments to end the practice.”

Eurasianet nicely captures the details of the Education Ministry’s order and its crucial pronouncement that “conducting any kind of conferences, seminars, other gatherings, or meetings with students through international organizations is against the law.”

Even the Tajik government doesn’t seem to fully understand the order.  Its Education Ministry’s de facto spokesman, Tagoymurod Davlatov who was unfortunately passed the phone by a likely just as clueless bureaucrat, first said “It’s not true, there is no document… Nothing has changed.” When asked about the laws being violated by Amparo.  When contacted later Mr. Davlatov said “The decision of the ministry is to work closely with NGOs. The main thing is [for students] to attend lessons on time”.  These statements seem to both refute the abovementioned law and actually encourage cooperative punctual cohesion between NGOs and Tajik students. 

Explanations for the xenophobic and sudden (Tajikistan has historically been quite welcoming to NGOs) enforcement include a fear of Western ideals and a follow-the-leader sentiment echoing Russia’s recent crackdown on US NGOs.  The Institute for War and Peace Reporting makes the particularly salient point that “In some cases, university administrators appear to be so keen to be following ministry orders that they have imposed their own, more rigorous rules.”  This explanation could be positive in that administrators may simply need to relax their criticality of NGOs.  It could, however, signal a deeper problem that may lead to popular support for antagonizing outside, and especially Western, assistance. 

Since the majority of international aid flowing to Tajikistan, one of Central Asia’s poorest countries, travels from governments to NGOs and finally on to recipients, the anti-NGO movement could seriously undermine important projects riding entirely on the ability of NGOs to work closely with students. 

The group Front Line Defenders has pledged to challenge the ruling against Amparo, but the damage may already be done if faculty and students have already internalized the message that interaction with foreign NGOs can get them in trouble. Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson similarly stated that “The Tajik judicial and other authorities should immediately reinstate Amparo’s license to operate and urgently reconsider this decision in line with Amparo’s members’ internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of association.”

The edict went so far as to cause teachers to cancel a language testing session for the German Foreign Exchange Service, DAAD.  Regardless of the motives behind this latest xenophobic stumble, Tajikistan and cannot afford to turn away international aid and support, especially for its motivated, impressionable and curious youth, so haphazardly.

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