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How Russia's NGO Law Stacks Up

The Moscow Times

February 15, 2006

By Nabi Abdullaev

Despite sizzling criticism from leading human rights groups, the new law on nongovernmental organizations is not as restrictive as similar legislation adopted by France, Finland and other developed democracies.

What makes it potentially dangerous, however, is a lack of clarity over how it will be enforced at a time when the Kremlin is methodically tightening its grip on every area of public life and courts are not generally viewed as independent.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed to laws governing NGOs in France, Finland and Israel when he defended Russia's legislation in an open letter last month. He said worries raised by Russian human rights organizations were "inspired by an incomplete understanding of the situation in the given field of the legislation of leading Western democratic countries."

A review of legislation in France, Israel and Finland shows that they indeed are more restrictive. In France, an NGO must report all donations and bequests and can collect the money only with authorization from the head of the local administration, who first must examine the group's activities. Russian NGOs, in contrast, will have to report only donations from abroad.

President Vladimir Putin quietly signed the NGO law in January, and it will go into effect in April.

Also, a French NGO is required to submit on request its accounting records to both the local administration and the Interior Ministry. In Russia, authorities will be permitted to carry out a financial check on an NGO only once a year.

Russia's law empowers authorities to examine whether an NGO is spending money on its declared program, while the French law only allows authorities to review whether an NGO's economic activities are unfairly competing with the commercial sector.

Israeli authorities do not interfere with how NGOs spend their money -- as long as the groups are not engaged in activities deemed criminal.

"In Israel, an NGO's financial activities should be approved by a convention of its members, and they are not a matter of official concern," said Andrei Kharazov, a spokesman for the Tel Aviv-based Committee in Defense of Democracy and Human Rights.

Russian NGOs have complained that the law uses vague language to describe the reasons a Russian branch of a foreign NGO can be denied registration. The list reads "threats to sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and the national interests of the Russian Federation." Most of those terms are left unexplained, opening the door for arbitrary interpretation on the part of bureaucrats.

But the French, Finnish and Israeli laws are nearly identical in their language. In France, an NGO can be denied registration or shut down if it is found to operate "contrary to the law, morals or integrity of the territory or the republic." Finland's law says almost the same thing.

In Israel, an NGO's purpose must not contradict the law, morality or public order. Public associations there are also prohibited from undermining Israeli democracy or serving as a screen for illegal activities.

Kharazov said that many NGOs in Israel were "quite extremist" in their rhetoric and were not afraid to insult officials and the government. "No one tries to shut them down," he said.

Russian NGOs believe the new law is aimed, in part, at shutting down those critical of Putin, the government and the military.

Lavrov acknowledged in the open letter that parts of the law were open to interpretation by bureaucrats and courts. "But this does not cause any special problems for anyone," he wrote.

"Of course," he added, "a lot depends on the enforcement of the law."

One way to measure how well NGO laws are enforced in the European countries is to count how many times NGOs have complained of arbitrary behavior by the authorities.

Gunter Schirmer, the secretary of the committee on legal affairs and human rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said no Finnish NGO had ever filed a complaint to his committee. The Council of Europe is the continent's leading human rights watchdog.

"Finland has a strict NGO law, but it is not applied for repressions, and we never receive complaints from there," Schirmer said by telephone from Strasbourg, France.

Several small religious groups in France have complained, Schirmer said, adding that his committee investigated the complaints to see whether they were justified. He said no prominent French NGOs had complained.

Council of Europe experts are now scrutinizing the Russian law, and they have already found it to be much less restrictive than the initial version approved by the State Duma in November, Schirmer said. "Still, very much depends not on the wording but on how the law is applied," he said.

The Kremlin has cast a concerned eye on NGOs after peaceful uprisings overthrew entrenched governments in Ukraine in 2004 and Georgia in 2003. NGOs played a key role in the protests. Russia has parliamentary elections in 2007 and a presidential vote in 2008.

Some NGOs said they had every reason to believe that the NGO law would be used to repress them.

"The state has used other laws to intimidate the NGO community, and it just got another big truncheon with the adoption of the NGO law," said Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Moscow-based Demos rights group.

She cited as an example the recent conviction of Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, the head of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a Nizhny Novgorod-based NGO. Dmitriyevsky was handed a two-year suspended sentence this month for publishing statements from Chechen separatist leaders in the NGO's newspaper. The charges, of inciting ethnic hatred, were based on the law on countering extremism, which was fiercely debated before being adopted in July 2002.

Although free, Dmitriyevsky will be unable to keep his post as the organization's leader under the NGO law, which bars anyone convicted of a crime from founding or heading an NGO.

"The government is cultivating a presumption of guilt for the NGOs, especially those that are engaged in human rights, and they have to prove their own innocence in court instead of the state proving their guilt," Lokshina said.

Since Putin's ascension to power in 2000, the Kremlin has effectively taken control over alternative centers of political influence in the country. The authorities have accused several NGOs of having ties to foreign intelligence. The NGOs deny the claim.

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