Vladimir Putin’s flagrant abuse of Russian laws governing the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGO) has led to the demonization and even closure of many of them. Such policies have, not surprisingly, made rights activists worldwide deeply suspicious of any legislation in other post-Soviet states that could be similarly abused to limit the emergence of civil society and thus challenge the power of the ruling regimes.
Three major factors explain such concerns: First, most of the former Soviet republics have long copied both Russian legislation and even Russian practice in overseeing the NGO sector. Second, the NGO sector in all of these countries includes not only NGOs but two other kinds of structures: Donor-organized NGOs or “DONGOs” and government-organized NGOs or “GONGOs,” which are funded and controlled by the regimes. The latter two exist because of a weak or even non-existent tradition of private support for NGO activity. And third, there is an absence of the network of laws as well as limited societal understanding about what NGOs do—which together tend to create domestic nervousness about such groups.
But while these aforementioned apprehensions are understandable, they need to be put in the context of and balanced against the often difficult security and development conditions in the post-Soviet region. One such special condition stands out in particular: Moscow’s increasing use of the NGO sector as part of its “hybrid” efforts to weaken and destabilize these countries in order to force them to follow Russia’s lead. Many of the post-Soviet states are confronted by well-funded Russian operations in this area. Therefore, these Russian neighbors’ requirements for tighter reporting about where NGOs receive their funding from reflect a natural desire to protect their independence and national security. In short, they face a real threat from Russia and not the imaginary threat from the West that animates Putin.
The latest country to face such a challenge has been Kazakhstan, which is currently preparing a new NGO law. The legislation (Zakon.kz, accessed November 16) passed the lower house of the parliament in October and is now awaiting action by the upper house. But already the reaction to the law has been negative. At the beginning of October, for example, 50 Kazakhstani NGO leaders appealed to the country’s leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and asked him to veto the measure, if it reaches his desk, lest it be used in the same way as Putin has used the NGO laws in Russia (Azattyq.org, October 5).
Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have also been sharply critical. In particular, Dunja Mijatovic, who follows media freedom, has argued that the draft measure “introduces possibilities for the [Kazakhstani] government to limit the priorities of the NGOs and exclude freedom of the media from their area of work” (Osce.org, October 19). The Institute for War and Peace Reporting likewise has voiced similar concerns saying that this law could allow Kazakhstan to retain the veneer of civil society while in fact suppressing its free operation (Iwpr.net, December 22, 2014).
Kazakhstani officials have responded that the draft law, in fact, would “streamline and modernize” the country’s legislation governing the more than 30,000 independent NGOs in the country by simplifying registration and organizing the distribution of government funds and money from abroad to NGOs without imposing restrictions on their activity. These officials do concede that such reporting might lead Astana to change its funding and, in that way, affect decisions in the sector (Zakon.kz, November 6; Kazakhembus.com, accessed November 16).
Usen Suleiman, a senior official at the Kazakhstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has noted, “Fears have been raised that the intention is to muzzle the work of the NGOs within our country or to prevent them [from continuing] to receive support from international bodies or partners. This is simply not the case. The new law does not change the legal framework for NGOs, increase their requirements to register officially, change their tax-free status or allow the government to interfere in their work. It will continue to be NGOs themselves [that] decide how their money should be spent.” Moreover, “there is no intention of preventing civil society groups from receiving financial support from private donations or outside our national borders,” he continues. The European Union, the United States, “as well as international NGOs have played an essential role in helping increase the capacity, vibrancy and robustness of our civil society… We want to see this continue—and to increase the funding from non-government sources within our country—not prevent it. So unlike some neighboring states, for example, we are not banning foreign donors” (The Diplomat, November 15).
Suleiman significantly does not openly mention Russia in this context, because it is clear that Astana does not see Moscow’s involvement in Kazakhstan’s NGO sector as positive, especially since Russian agents long have been active among the 23 percent of the Central Asian republic’s population that consists of ethnic Russians (see EDM, April 21, 2006; December 16, 2014). The key Russian institution in this area is the Federal Agency for the Affairs of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation—or Rossotrudnichestvo as it is more familiarly known.
That group has a large representation in Kazakhstan and is in contact with many ethnic-Russian groups there. Just how much it is spending and for what goals is not clear, but even a glance at its website—Kaz.rs.gov.ru—shows why the Kazakhstani government would be concerned. Obviously, there is a risk Kazakhstan’s new law NGO could be abused; but it is clear than the absence of such a law is already being abused by at least one foreign power. And that is something outside observers should factor in to their analyses of the situation.