How do you assess the current situation with civil society organizations (CSOs) in Tajikistan? How many are functioning today and what is their legal status?

Azimjon Sayfiddinov. Photo: from A. Saifiddinov’s Facebook account

Civil society includes all non-state institutions that are located in Tajikistan. For example, under Tajik law, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public foundations constitute a civil society. In addition, there are numerous non-profit organizations (NPOs) and associations that unite and operate in the country. There are also trade unions, industry associations, political parties, which are a major part of civil society.

If we compare it with the previous figures, most recently there has been a decline and a regression of the CSOs activity, because at some point, in Tajikistan there were over 3,700 public organizations. There were reasons for the reduction of civil society actors:

The first reason is – inadequate legislation;

The second reason is – a reduction in funding from the donor community;

The third reason is – the low potential of CSOs at the local level;

The fourth reason is – the requirements for CSOs functioning and maintenance in accordance with the legislation, which I consider to be quite tough. For example, the payment of electricity for public organizations is considered as for a commercial organization, although CSOs should not and do not do business and do not receive profits from their activities.

Did the recent massive outcry in civil sector against the price hike on mobile Internet demonstrate the civic engagement? Do you think it is necessary for civil society to be exposed to such stressful policy-making cases to be active?

Widespread image in social networks, as part of a flash-mob against rising prices for mobile Internet. Photo: screenshot from Facebook

Bloggers and IT associations are now actively functioning as part of civil society in Tajikistan. Of course, the increase in payment for the mobile Internet is a sore subject for Tajikistan.

Since mobile companies that provide Internet services depend on the Communications Office and the anti-monopoly committee, they were forced to introduce, execute and comply with the requirements of the state agency. I, as a lawyer, believe that this decision was illegal. Because, in accordance with the requirements of the statutory and regulatory enactments of Tajikistan, if new rules are established for everyone, the state decision-making body is obliged to comply with the requirements of the above mentioned acts. That is, it was necessary to register the decision as a normative act – as a document compulsory for everyone, in the Ministry of Justice of Tajikistan. Unfortunately, this procedure didn’t take place.

The law envisages permission to protest and appeal.

There were several appeals from activists, civil society organizations and IT associations to the relevant government agencies, – the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice of Tajikistan. While these organizations provided an official response, the news about dissatisfaction of citizens reached the President of the country, and he reversed this decision. Now, there is a previous tariff payment for the mobile Internet set. However, there are restrictions to access some social networks and certain informational websites.

The Internet is an instrument of communication and a very important resource nowadays. The importance of the Internet is growing in the context of Tajikistan, the majority of whose working population is in migration. In addition to communication role, the Internet is also a platform for raising citizens’ awareness of the situation in the country, in the region and in the world.

Can the “informal authorities” in Khorog or CSOs of Badakhshan, who oppose human rights abuses and pressure on the opposition in GBAO, be considered as part of the civil society?

Certainly. It is not only in the GBAO or in Khorog, but there are informal leaders everywhere in Tajikistan. These are imam-hotibs (Muslim cleric – author’s note), bibi-otuns (women engaged in religious activities – author’s note), women’s councils at the mahalla level (public initiative bodies – author’s note), at the level of jamoats (local governments, former village councils – author’s note), and at the district level. These are the authorities for local population. They can express their opinion on some issues and are considered as leaders and consultants of public trust. Their voices are being heard, because they have experience, authority and status, albeit non-governmental. For example, on clergy issues, people turn to imam-hotibs; on the issue of domestic violence, they turn to elderly — aksakals and bibi-otuns. The topic of domestic violence is now a very pressing problem in Tajikistan.

Are there any other recent examples of civic engagement in Tajikistan?

There were cases of cutting down the trees, willingness to tear down a theater in the center of Dushanbe or a music school. Activists quickly responded to this. Or now the old houses are being demolished and new ones are built in their place.

At the moment, there are few initiatives and confrontations of such kind, because people understand that the buildings are expedient. If there were only 12 to 15 families placed in low-rise or old houses in the center of the city, more families can fit in high-rise buildings. There should be a certain infrastructure, corporate governance, but residents should manage it themselves.

What impact has your Foundation had on the capacity building and operation of a CSO?

In 2019, our foundation is implementing several large projects related to the development of civil society organizations and interaction with government bodies. The other direction is youth, that is, positive development of young people in order to protect them from radicalization and extremism. We also deal with the prevention of domestic violence and training of young people in the use of innovative technologies.

For example, in one of the jamoats (municipality – author’s note) of Tajikistan, we created the principle of a single window – e-government. To get one reference, one will spend no more than a minute, whereas before creating this system, people lost a whole day, even two or three, because they had to scroll through the spreadsheets from the archives. We have developed a program, entered the database, and this database is located in the jamoat, at the local level. We also established a rapport with the city mayor, so that he could see what was going on in the corresponding jamoat. This approach implements, first of all, the state program on e-government of Tajikistan, and secondly, facilitates the provision of public services.

According to the Asian Development Bank report, on overview of civil society in Tajikistan, women organizations hold the biggest share (28%) in the amount of CSO in the country, while human rights CSOs constitute only 5%. 1. Why do you think this is the case? Does it depend on grants, if so, how would you explain ‘preferred sectors’ of funding?

The bigger the problem, the more funding is needed.

I cannot say for sure. I mean, when the donor announces a grant to protect the rights of women, on violence, we suspect that women are being subjected to violence, their rights and freedoms are infringed. Therefore, probably, the bigger the problem, the more funding is needed.

Meeting of civil society organizations (CSOs), against torture and impunity in Tajikistan. CSOs in Tajikistan are involved in a wide range of activities, including the protection of marginalized and vulnerable people’s rights. Photo:

I can tell that more than 60-70% of staff in the non-governmental organizations in Tajikistan are women. There are very few men in these organizations.

What role does the youth of Tajikistan play in decision making? What is the situation with youth organizations?

There are a large number of youth organizations in Tajikistan. For example, the “Association of Youth Organizations of Tajikistan”, which includes 146 youth organizations that deal with the issues of young people. They can express their opinion, influence some issues through these organizations, but I have not observed any independent, spontaneous activity among the youth.  

There are also business associations, youth startups, which also require attention of the government. In addition, there is a Committee on Youth Affairs and Sports under the Government of Republic of Tajikistan, which actively cooperates with these public organizations. They promote and carry out a lot of projects at the local level.

What prevents youth from being more than just ‘netizens’ (online citizens)?

 Probably, this segment of activists believes that online queries are more accessible, will attract supporters and affect something more quickly. Wherever they are, with the help of the Internet, they can express their existing requirements.

And to apply independently to any state body is their right, but I don’t know why “online citizens” do not visit state bodies with appeals and statements. The country has a law on appeals, that they can easily appeal a statement and get an answer. I do not think that there is a fear, most likely there is not enough potential for appeals. After all, young people use Internet resources more than they read something. This is probably their choice – the Internet platform for civic engagement.

What measures must be taken in order to improve the situation with CSOs in the country?

The measures, I believe, should be very constructive. First, for the sustainability of the civil society development, it is necessary to provide access to information. Second, there is a need for financial support of organizations. Third, it is necessary to give an incentive, relief through legislation. Fourth, it is necessary to encourage the projects that are implemented by civil society organizations, in particular – public organizations. And last, it is necessary to assign some state functions to civil society organizations. Outsourcing is already required for certain things, for example, in the social sphere, when people work in nursing homes. Civil society is able to conduct such activities not of governmental importance, not of a governmental nature, not to engage in politics, but to provide social services, minor social services.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.