Interview: Civil society in Gagauzia developing but "culture of association" still needed

Association

GROW – 2017: an enabling environment for regional civil society in Moldova

On 26th September, Piligrim-Demo, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Gagauzia, an autonomous region in the south of Moldova, organised the GROW-2017 conference to encourage public debate with local authorities on the situation of NGOs in the region. A recent study by the Institute of Public Policy in Moldova indicated that civil society in Gagauzia remains in a precarious situation, with organisations facing major issues including a lack of project and financial management skills, knowledge of foreign languages, and little experience in communicating with international donors.

A CIVICUS Monitor research partner recently spoke with Mihail Sirkeli, Executive Director of Piligrim-Demo, to learn more about the situation for civil society in Gagauzia. The following is a transcript of the interview that has been edited for length. 

CIVICUS Monitor: What are the most pressing problems facing by civil society in Gagauzia? Does the sector have favourable conditions to develop?

Sirkeli: The problem for civil society in Gagauzia is that there is little organisation in terms of people mobilising to promote or protect different types of rights: civic, political, economic, or to promote common interest. There is a large number of registered NGOs in Gagauzia (more than 500), which are predominantly "one-man shows". In general, I think, in the Republic of Moldova, and in Gagauzia in particular, we do have necessary conditions for developing civil society, at least the legal conditions. The main problem, however, is that there is no culture of association. In the Republic of Moldova (people in Gagauzia have the same civic culture) we do not have a culture of common responsibility for community and country, which I guess is a legacy of the soviet system, where people were punished for initiative and any kind of association which was out[side] of the state control. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people developed the skills of self-responsibility and responsibility for their families, but not yet skills of collective responsibility. Without the skills of collective responsibility, and without ownership for public institutions and public property among people it is hard to talk about civil society. 

CIVICUS Monitor: In your opinion, what has been the impact of Gagauz civil society's activities on the local level? What have been the main successes?

Sirkeli:There are few success stories I am familiar with. We do have local NGOs in villages, one of them in Congaz for example, which succeeded in getting financial support from the municipality for a rehabilitation center for children with disabilities. A group of teachers lobbied at the local level and created the rehabilitation centre «Лучик Солнца». Another advocacy initiative [was] Piligrim-Demo's efforts to promote the transparency law in Gagauzia. The draft law on transparency was elaborated by a group of experts created by Piligrim-Demo. The draft law was included in the agenda of the plenary session of the Gagauz People's Assembly, and hopefully will get enough votes to be passed.

CIVICUS Monitor: How do value civil society's relationship with local public authorities? Are they open for cooperation?

Sirkeli: Public authorities do not consider CSOs serious counterparts whose opinion should be taken into consideration, because CSOs so far cannot demonstrate power and support from the public. With its last advocacy campaign, Piligrim-Demo tried to mobilise people by collecting signatures for a petition in support of a transparency law. Hopefully, such initiatives will demonstrate public support of CSOs' initiatives in the society and CSOs will then be perceived differently by public authorities. So far public authorities consider CSOs rivals in terms of beneficiaries of foreign support from the international partners for development. Thus public authorities in Gagauzia create their GONGOs and through them receive grants from international donors.

CIVICUS Monitor: How well do foreign donors understand what the priorities of civil society are in Gagauzia?

Sirkeli: It seems that donors know the problems for CSOs in Gagauzia and this is a real problem for international donors as there are very few organisations capable of implementing good projects, providing results and making an impact. The main priority is to be present in the region through different programmes and projects. The global priority is to keep Moldova and Gagauzia in particular on the EU integration path.

Law on public association - not a priority for the government

On 12th September, Jurnal TV announced that the law on public associations will no longer be changed. According to Jurnal TV, the leader of the Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc, has declared that the law on the activities of non-governmental organisations will remain the same, despite civil society's requests to improve the legal framework. In addition, the Minister of Justice declared that law is not a priority for the Republic of Moldova, despite the fact that the representatives of the civil society sector have prioritised it.

In the beginning of September 2017, the working group on the law on public associations was dissolved by the authorities. Since 2016, the working group had originally developed several proposals to improve the law. Representatives of civil society in Moldova believe that it may have been a smokescreen on the part of authorities to appease international donors.

Peaceful Assembly

On 17th September, several opposition parties, including Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and Truth Platform, organised a protest against the mixed electoral system the government had voted on over the summer. According to the organisers, the protest aimed to raise awareness that there is a critical mass of people in the Republic of Moldova who will call on the government for greater freedom, prosperity, equality and improved living conditions. During the protest, several altercations reportedly occurred between some representatives of the law enforcement and protesters. The organisers claim that the authorities tried to disrupt the peaceful protest by provoking physical violence.

Expression

Moldovan journalist sues the Presidential Administration

As reported previously on the Monitor, Moldovan journalist Constantin Grigorita was prohibited from participating in the events involving President Igor Dodon after reportedly asking the president questions deemed "uncomfortable" at previous press conferences. The Association of Independent Press petitioned the authorities to explain the reasons for banning Grigorita from such events. In response, the Presidential Administration referred to the Journalists' Code of Ethics, claiming that Grigorita had violated protocol. Media Azi reported on 6th October that Grigorita had submitted a lawsuit over the authorities' actions to prevent him from doing his journalistic work. 

Independent media make public appeal to foreign embassies

In October 2017,the  independent press sent a letter to diplomatic representatives in Chisinau, reporting on increasing interference and abuses faced by the sector. The letter reads:

"At present, we note that the independent media community in the Republic of Moldova has to make its journalistic job under increasingly bad conditions and in the context of the general decline of democratic freedoms, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. This is due, in particular, to repeated abuse committed or tolerated by the authorities as well as to the restrictive application of the existing legal framework. At the same time, we see an increasing political interference in the rights and freedoms of journalists. Apparently, the Moldovan authorities ignore the very essence of journalism, which is to inform the public". (Translated from Romanian)

In addition, on 12th October 2017 independent media NGOs published another public appeal relating to the case of two journalists from Ziarul de Gardă who were prohibited from filming in a public space, where the Global Business Center is located and which is known to belong to the leader of the Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc. API called on the authorities to respect the rights of journalists to work in public spaces.