I received a notice today from the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) in Azerbaijan about proposed changes to the law in Azerbaijan regarding non-governmental organizations in the country. The IRFS interprets the proposed changes as effectively leading to the closure independent NGOs. The changes in the law will be discussed in the Milli Mejlis on June 19.
The situation for independent NGOs has been quite difficult for some time in Azerbaijan. I was fortunate that the government interfered minimally in my activities - but my organization was comparatively small and operated for the most part "under the radar." For larger organizations, the government can be quite troublesome. For example, when I was in Ganca, the director of the local branch of Open Society related how the office would likely close soon. Perhaps it has already closed at this point. I haven't spoken with him in months.
The government maintains a facade of "civil society" by allowing non-governmental organizations - as long as they are sponsored by the government. (Yes, you read that right. It's just one of many absurdities in the country.) Of course, one of the largest organizations is the Heydar Aliyev Fund, which sponsors all sorts of charitable activities. This "non-governmental organization" is also able to dispense cash in all sorts of ways that might be more awkward for the YAP (the ruling party) or the government itself to do.
Here are the troublesome aspects of the new legislation highlighted by the IRFS (verbatim from the press release).
- the proposed change to outlaw the activities of NGOs that have more than 50% of their resources from foreign sources (Article 24.2)
- the proposed ban on the activity of NGOs until they receive state registration (Article 16.4) – a process that can take months or even years
- the proposed prohibition against people who are not permanent residents of Azerbaijan and people without citizenship acting as founders of non-governmental organizations (Article 9.4)
- the proposed new criteria for classification NGOs that will require “nationwide” Azeri NGOs to have branches and/or representations in 1/3 of Azerbaijan’s 59 administrative-territorial regions
- the five year ban on founding a new NGO that can be placed on founders of non-governmental organizations that are closed on the basis of a court decision for law violations
A cursory reading of the changes makes it clear that these changes would effectively close all or nearly all NGOs. Just read the first item. Maybe there are foreign NGOs that receive only 50 percent of their funding from foreign sources - but I don't know of any. The foreign NGOs depend on foreign support. They aren't being supported by the Azerbaijani government or by fundraising within the country.
The second item also would be quite effective to close all NGOs. Anyone who has tried to operate in this sphere in Azerbaijan knows the absurdities of registration process. It can take years if you are not a favored organization. Years of filed paperwork that then must be re-filed when it is lost or perhaps a bureaucrat decides that the documents are incorrect. The details are irrelevant. Registration is a fool's errand - but provides substantial income to the lawyers who supposedly "assist" in this process.
In short, the changes are so extreme that they would effectively shut-down the foreign NGO community if they are implemented. Perhaps an optimist might say - "well, the government would never do anything so silly and draconian." Unfortunately, recent history shows that the trend is toward increasingly harsh measures in an authoritarian country that is dismantling one by one its meager elements of democracy.