Controversial amendments that would impose new restrictions on non-governmental organizations could force numerous local and international NGOs in Azerbaijan to cease operations. Some activists go so far as to say the amendments, if passed, would throttle civil society development in the country.
Azerbaijan's parliament, the Milli Mejlis, is expected to consider the bill on June 19, just 10 days after the proposed amendments were announced. According to local NGO activists, President Ilham Aliyev's office submitted the proposed amendments to parliament on June 8, and they received the speedy approval of the legislature's Committee on Legal Policy the next day.
"It's expected that the parliament, which is totally controlled by [the] executive power, will gladly accept the amendments, which are similar to those that passed in Belarus and Uzbekistan," according to an appeal circulated by NGO activists on June 16.
The proposed change that has garnered the most attention both in and outside of Azerbaijan is a requirement that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) limit their foreign funding to 50 percent. This would create overnight a situation in which almost every foreign-funded NGO would be in non-compliance with the law, experts say.
"This is an unusual situation because the law applies retroactively to NGOs that are already registered," said Hafiz Hasanov, head of the Legal and Development Union, a Baku-based NGO.
Other controversial measures include prohibiting foreigners from creating NGOs, imposing a five-year ban on NGO activity for those who violate the law, and restricting the geographic scope of where NGOs may operate. To be considered "nationwide," an NGO must have branch offices in at least one-third of Azerbaijan's 69 administrative regions.
Experts fear that the "nationwide" definition will all but eliminate programs outside of the capital city. "We are not commercial entities and don't have resources to open offices [outside of Baku]," Gubad Ibadoglu, chief of the Center of Economic Research, a Baku-based NGO, told a June 12 news conference. Ibadoglu and scores of other NGO activists have formed a coalition, the Committee to Protect Civil Society, to oppose the draft law.
The cumulative effect of the changes will allow Baku to keep close tabs on NGO activity. With little or no local philanthropy, NGOs could also be forced to look to the Azerbaijani government to fulfill the 50-percent-local-funding requirement. Dependence on the government would, of course, give officials leverage to influence NGO activity.
These provisions are "all aimed at punishing existing independent organizations. . . . Everything will be put under control," said Ilgar Mammedov, a member of the coalition and co-founder of the Republican Alternative Union, a group that promotes a republican form of government. [Editor's note: Ilgar Mammedov sits on the board of the Open Society Institute-Assistance Foundation Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute in New York].
The government is dismissive of NGO activist criticism. "Frankly speaking, I cannot understand the concern of NGOs," Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's Policy Analysis and Information Department, told the APA news service. "[T]he amendments to the law will not create problems for existing NGOs. They have already been registered and continue their activity in line with the legislation."
"[This] is a blatant lie," charged Mammedov, who believes Hasanov is purposefully misleading the public. The government "feels confident that international community pressure won't be sufficient" to disrupt its plans, he added.
The text of the legislation does contain an explicit retroactivity language. It also includes a vaguely worded provision that appears to provide a separate track for internationally registered NGOs. According to the draft law, foreign NGOs may operate in Azerbaijan under signed "relevant international agreement[s]."
Suggesting that bilateral agreements will supersede local law, Hasanov tried to reassure the international community. "Before foreign NGOs had operated in Azerbaijan as they liked. [F]rom now on, they will operate basing on the contract signed between the countries[.] [T]his is normal. The proposed amendments meet modern world standards," Hasanov told APA.
In a legal analysis of the draft law, the Washington, DC-based International Center for Not-for-Profit-Law noted that this "agreement provision" raises as many questions as it answers. The draft law fails to state "what kind of international agreement . . . must exist," the organization said.
It is also unclear how NGOs will meet "foreign" criteria. Many "local" NGOs receive the majority, if not all, of their funding from foreign donors. "There is no international practice of classifying NGOs as local and international. It is a shame the government is doing it here," commented the Legal and Development Union's Hafiz Hasanov.
The US government is one of the largest international donors in Azerbaijan. Over $10 million of this year's $25 million budget request for assistance to Azerbaijan was allocated to civil society programs, including rule-of-law initiatives and anti-corruption programs.
The 50-percent-local-funding requirement could be a serious setback for US-funded civil society programs. "We, of course, monitor the situation with interest as we believe that NGOs, particularly independent NGOs, are an integral and important part of a civil society," US embassy spokesperson Dmitri Tarakhovsky told EurasiaNet.
In a statement issued June 17, US Ambassador Anne Derse cautioned that the proposed legislation "would contravene international standards, result in further restrictions on freedom of speech and association, and put development of civil society in Azerbaijan at risk."
The Council of Europe has urged the Milli Mejlis, or parliament, to delay the vote. "[The amendments] may create serious obstacles for the freedom of expression and normal functioning of the civil society in Azerbaijan," the organization said in a June 16 statement.
In 2002, the parliament passed a bill that greatly expanded government oversight over NGOs. The legislation was widely criticized by local and international organizations and, ultimately, then-president Heidar Aliyev, Ilham's father, did not sign the bill into law.
The Committee to Protect Civil Society is hoping similar pressure can frustrate the presidential administration's plans this time too. Mammedov, however, is pessimistic. Unlike in 2002, today "we have a government with an authoritarian, dictatorial style, full of money and important in energy, gas and regional security," he said. The upshot is the government feels its energy wealth "will make it immune from international pressure."
Non-governmental organizations operating in Azerbaijan already face a myriad of opaque registration requirements. Delays in the registration process have resulted in several decisions against Azerbaijan in the European Court of Human Rights. To opponents, the June 19 vote on the NGO amendments appears the culmination of that process.
"If this law is passed, it will be the end of Azerbaijan[i] civil society," said the Legal and Development Union's Hafiz Hasanov.
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.