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Rights Groups Watch Implementation Of Russia's New NGO Law

Agence France Presse

March 3, 2006

By Jocelyne Zablit

Rights groups are warily eyeing a new law that limits the activities of non-governmental organizations in Russia, with some urging leaders to use the upcoming G8 summit to warn Moscow against crossing a red line.

The new bill on NGOs was signed into law in January by Russian President Vladimir Putin, much to the dismay of rights defenders and experts, some of whom see the measure as a return to totalitarianism.

The legislation, which goes into effect on April 18, limits the possibility for international NGOs to operate in the country, toughens the registration requirements for local NGOs and boosts the ability of authorities to interfere in the activities of these NGOs.

Natalia Bourjaily, an expert on NGO law and vice president of the Newly Independent States (NIS) at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) in Washington, said she is mainly concerned about provisions in the law that leave the door open for abuse by authorities.

"The reporting requirements and extended government authority to control the activities of NGOs are provisions which in the past have been abused in other countries and that's my concern," Bourjaily told AFP. "It does not mean that these provisions are going to be implemented in the same abusive way in Russia but we will have to see."

Bourjaily said that with the government allowed to keep tabs on how NGOs spend their money and who benefits, people needing aid could be wary about coming forward.

"How many abused women are going to seek the services of an NGO if they know that their names are going to be reported to a government body?" she said.

Maureen Greenwood, of Amnesty International, said the legislation clearly undermines the authority of NGOs in Russia and stifles independent civil society.

There are also concerns of a spillover effect in neighboring countries that could be encouraged by the Russian example to adopt copycat legislation.

"This is a particularly gloomy moment for those of us involved in civil society," Greenwood told a panel discussion in Washington this week. "We are waiting for the implementing regulations and it is true that the Russian government has said that they will aim to prevent abuse."

Greenwood said hurdles encountered by her organization in trying to register in one Central Asian country reflected suspicion in the region toward foreign organizations often accused of being infiltrated by spies.

"They (the authorities) thought that our name -- amnesty -- meant that we favoured amnesty for all prisoners," she said.

Greenwood and others said Russia's partners in the Group of Eight (G8) most-industrialized countries should meet ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg in July to formulate a common stand and draw up a joint statement on the issue.

"In principle, we have to clarify for the Russian government where the red lines are and there have to be consequences if those are crossed," said Andrew Kuchins, until recently director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "And the consequences must be credible for Moscow to take us seriously."

Kuchins stressed that continued vigilance on the part of the United States and its European allies was essential once the law is implemented on April 18.

"The issue of implementation is going to be more important than the content of the law," he said. "That is generally the case in Russia."

Moscow argues that the new legislation is needed on grounds that foreign NGOs are infiltrated by spies and that similar restrictions are placed on NGOs in other countries.

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