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'Worst Fears' Of NGOs Realized

The Moscow Times

April 17, 2006

Human rights, social services and aid to those hurt by the Nazis and Soviets would be further compromised by a proposal on enforcing a controversial law on nongovernmental organizations, NGO representatives said.

The April 7 proposal on how to enforce the law was expected to be approved by government officials before Monday, when the law comes into force, Alexei Zhafyarov, head of the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service's NGO department, indicated.

NGO representatives said the proposal would make the legislation, which was criticized by Western governments for squashing civil liberties after it was signed into law in January by President Vladimir Putin, even more burdensome by requiring annual reports on finances and activities.

NGOs would be expected to provide information on how much money they spent, for instance, on stationery and telephone services. The annual reports would be due by April 15. NGOs say they would need to hire more accountants or risk being shut down.

Foreign NGOs, which the Kremlin believes played a role in fomenting uprisings in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, would face even more onerous requirements, NGO officials say.

"Why are they demanding such an insane amount of details?" asked Yelena Topoleva, director of the Agency for Social Information, a group that managed PR-campaigns for civil-society projects. "Why they need all this is completely incomprehensible."

Prominent human rights activists Oleg Orlov and Svetlana Gannushkina said in a statement that the proposal confirmed their worst fears. "Instead of the on-the-ground work we're here to do, we are doomed to be consumed by a nightmare" of filing reports, Orlov, a leader of the group Memorial, said in an interview.

The proposal would require that NGOs file so much paperwork that it is unlikely anyone would actually read everything. Zhafyarov, of the Federal Registration Service, conceded at an April 11 meeting with NGO leaders that it would be impossible to study all the reports from the country's more than 500,000 NGOs.

NGO leaders have voiced confusion about how to distinguish between "main" events, which will have to be included in their annual reports, and other events, which would not have to be included. Zhafyarov told NGO officials at the April 11 meeting that the government would issue recommendations about filling out the reports.

"If we had to report about every small event or meeting over tea, we would have to shut down," said Jens Siegert, director of the Moscow office of the Heinrich Boll Foundation. The foundation's web site says the German group is affiliated with the Green Party and seeks greater human rights, women's rights and environmental protections.

The proposal further stipulates that NGOs detail the number of participants at events and the times those events begin and end.

Zhafyarov indicated in an interview Friday that the Federal Registration Service would investigate any questions raised by NGOs' reports. The registration service would also look into any questions raised by prosecutors, he said.

In anticipation of the new law, the registration service has created special departments outside Moscow to handle investigations, Zhafyarov said.

Foreign NGOs, in addition to filing the reports expected of domestic NGOs, would have to submit detailed reports every fiscal quarter about where their money was coming from and how they planned to spend it. Foreign NGOs would also be required to submit information each Oct. 31 about their plans for the upcoming year.

The requirement of quarterly reports puzzled Siegert, who said the Federal Tax Service already collected that information from foreign NGOs.

The Heinrich Boll Foundation, Siegert said, spends about 450,000 euros annually on projects in Russia; it spends an additional 200,000 euros on overhead, he said. That figure is likely to jump under the new NGO law.

Chris Cavanaugh, Moscow office director of the U.S.-based International Research and Exchanges Board, or IREX, said he might have to hire a full-time staff member or two part-time consultants to meet the new accounting demands. IREX's Russia office, which has an annual budget of $4 million to $5 million, could see its operating expenses grow from 5 to 7 percent of total expenditures to 10 to 14 percent, he said.

Yelizaveta Dzhirikova, general director of the group Sostradaniye, which distributes $300,000 each year from foreign donors to victims of Stalin's gulag and the Nazi concentration camps, was a bit more philosophical about the impending law. "Things get difficult only when they come to arrest you," Dzhirikova said.

But she acknowledged that small groups, including many that her organization works with, would be hurt by the new law, as precious resources were diverted from charitable work to filling out government forms.

"I don't know how they are going to survive," Dzhirikova said.

Galina Bychkova, the head of the Moscow Society of Former Underage Prisoners of Fascism and the Disabled, said she had no idea how her group will continue. Soon, she said, members will get together to discuss the future.

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