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Russian NGO Bill Moves Closer to Approval

The Washington Post

December 21, 2005

By Peter Finn

The lower house of the Russian parliament passed a second version of a controversial bill governing grass-roots activity in the country Wednesday, but despite a few welcome amendments foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) remain deeply concerned. They fear the new law will open their sector to strict government supervision and the punitive closing of some groups whose work the state disapproves of.

An earlier version of the bill set off a barrage of international and domestic criticism because of fears that it could shutter the Moscow offices of foreign NGOs and foundations, such as Human Rights Watch, by forcing them to register as Russian organizations. That provision has been dropped.

The new version of the bill restricts foreign funding of political activity but does not define what constitutes political activity, and whether it could, for instance, include human rights work or the training of election monitors. The bill also will force both foreign and domestic NGOs to re-register with a state body that will examine their work before deciding on what critics charge are vague or poorly defined grounds if they can continue operations.

There are more than 400,000 NGOs in Russia involved in charitable, medical and educational work as well as the kind of political and human rights activity that the bill seems designed to rein in.

The U.S. Congress passed resolutions calling on Russia to withdraw or radically modify the legislation and the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights group, also called for major revisions. The Public Chamber, a new civic forum set up by the Kremlin, called for consideration of the bill to be suspended to allow time for further revisions. And critics of the legislation hoped that because Russia is about to assume the presidency of the G8, the group of leading industrialized nations, the Kremlin would be loath to tarnish its year-long stint at the head of the group.

But the federal parliament, or Duma, rejected a motion by a Communist Party deputy to postpone Wednesday's second reading and later voted 376 to 10 to pass the legislation, Reuters reported. The bill requires a third reading and must be signed by Putin before it becomes law, but both legislators and critics said Wednesday's decision was the critical hurdle.

Russian legislators, backed by Putin, have argued that the bill is necessary to prevent the foreign funding of political activity in the country and bring financial transparency to a sector where, they charge, some groups were using the pretext of charitable activity to push a subversive agenda or even promote terrorism. They argued that more than 70 amendments to the first version brought the measure into line with international standards on NGOs.

"I believe the bill creates the foundation for law enforcement agencies to carry out the main tasks, namely the severing of channels of finance for terrorist and extremist activity and the prevention of any possible interruption in Russia's political life by various foreign structures," said Vladimir Pligin, head of the parliamentary committee on constitutional laws just before debate on the bill began.

But critics charge that the legislation will bring one of the last areas of independent activism in Russian life under the control of the Kremlin, which already dominates parliament and much of the country's broadcast media. And they said that narrower, more specific legislation could have targeted terrorist actions and illegal political activity.

The law "is aimed at establishing sweeping control over all organization of civil society, interfering in the activities of independent organizations," said Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, at a press conference in Moscow this week. "It will harm not only these organizations. It will harm Russia."

Lawmakers have expressed the fear that foreign money could be used to promote the kind of popular revolt in Russia that toppled governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Foreign funders here argue that they only support the promotion of democracy, human rights and an open political process. But some Russians fear that groups such as the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute, private organizations that are financed by the U.S. Congress, are Trojan horses whose real goal is to usher in a new government.

The law allows the Federal Registration Service, part of the Justice Ministry, to prevent the funding of certain activities to safeguard the "constitutional order" by simply sending NGOs a letter telling them to stop. But there is no definition of what kind of activity would threaten the constitutional order. Moreover, foreign NGOs can be closed if they threaten "Russia's sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and national interests," according to a copy of the bill. The definition of what would constitute a violation is not specified and appears to be left largely to the discretion of bureaucrats in the Ministry of Justice.

"My worry is that it provides the authorities with such a broad range of justifications for intervening in the work of foreign NGOs that it may be difficult for us to understand how to remain in compliance with the law despite our best efforts," said Steven Solnick, Moscow representative of the Ford Foundation.

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