A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Muzzling Russia's Independent Voices

San Francisco Chronicle

January 04, 2006

By David Gordon

Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt to tighten regulations on the country's estimated 450,000 public-interest groups has been interpreted by many to be a sinister, Soviet-like crackdown on democracy. After an outcry from Russian and international organizations, Putin ordered modest changes to the law. These changes removed some of the worst provisions, such as forcing all Russia's public-interest groups to re-register.

Yet the new version, which was just adopted by the Duma and was rubber-stamped by the Putin-controlled Federation Council and is expected to be signed by Putin, threatens to muzzle political discourse in the country.

Ostensibly, the new regulations forbid nongovernmental organizations from engaging in political activity. If interpreted narrowly -- that NGOs financially should not support political candidates or campaign on their behalf -- then this restriction is no different from restrictions on lobbying that apply to charitable organizations in the United States. But some interpret the restriction broadly -- that NGOs should not make statements in the press about political issues.

Unfortunately, the new law does not define political activity, and this is where the danger lies: How will these new directives be interpreted at the local level? Putin's statements last summer about NGOs and political activity led to a spike in harassment by local officials throughout Russia's far-flung regions in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

It is clear that despite what the law says, local bureaucrats are taking advantage of the current atmosphere to crack down on groups they see as dissenters. Some of Russia's brightest lights -- people who are truly working toward sustainable and positive change in the society -- will end up without support.

Among the many activists that this would hurt is Dmitry Lisitsyn and his organization, Sakhalin Environment Watch. Lisitsyn lives on Sakhalin, a remote island off Russia's Pacific Coast where Shell, Mitsubishi, ExxonMobil and others are aggressively drilling for oil and gas. Despite being outspent and outgunned by these big oil companies, Lisitsyn and his colleagues have been effective in mitigating the environmental impacts from the Sakhalin projects. They have forced Shell to reroute an underwater pipeline around the habitat of the critically endangered western gray whale. They have represented the concerns of the island's indigenous people, who have seen their subsistence fishing economy take a downturn since the arrival of the companies. Also, their advocacy has changed the behavior of international finance institutions, which have learned the importance of listening to local concerns before putting their money behind huge projects in places like Sakhalin.

You might think that someone such as Lisitsyn would be considered a thorn in the side of the government. On the contrary, the head environmental regulator on Sakhalin, Sergei Kotelnikov, says he relies on the information that Lisitsyn supplies. Without adequate funding from Russia's government, Kotelnikov and his few regulators can't monitor the oil projects. Last month, Sakhalin Environment Watch uncovered an oil spill in northern Sakhalin from a pipeline owned by Russia's state-owned Rosneft. Without NGO activists such as Lisitsyn having gone to visit the site, the spill may have remained hidden for months.

But Russia's proposed NGO law opens the door for harassment of groups such as Sakhalin Environment Watch. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union exploded and inadvertently set in motion a vibrant environmental movement there. This growing public cause began by asking the government questions, suspicious a cover-up might occur: How safe are Soviet-made power plants? Where is the radioactive waste stored? These were questions that the authorities had no tolerance for before Chernobyl, yet couldn't avoid afterward. These same questions contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of a new environmental awareness reflected in some of the toughest environmental laws in the world. Since then, despite the challenges, Russia supports a robust grassroots environmental movement.

Putin should reconsider changing the law regulating public-interest groups. He should ensure that this law is clearly designed to prevent harassment of NGO activists in Russia and encourage a healthy discourse about public policy. Given the immense pressure for Russia to plunder its minerals, oil, fish and timber, this is not the time to take power from the people who can ensure it is done responsibly.

David Gordon is executive director of Pacific Environment (www.pacificenvironment.org), a San Francisco nonprofit that supports grassroots environmental groups throughout Russia.

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