A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

NGOs Call G8 Summit an Opportunity Lost

The Moscow Times

July 19, 2006

U.S. President George W. Bush met the heads of leading nongovernmental organizations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel singled out NGOs as an issue that worried her. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife offered legal aid.

Western leaders took turns at the G8 summit showing support for Russian civil society. Yet NGO leaders expressed skepticism Tuesday that the high-profile gestures of support would convince the Kremlin to ease tough new rules regulating their activities.

"I have no hope in the West's ability to reverse the Kremlin-led crackdown on NGOs," said Irina Yasina, deputy head of Open Russia, the philanthropic foundation set up by jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Moreover, given authorities' nervousness about any perceived outside pressure, the outpouring of support might only further harm NGOs, said Yasina, one of 15 NGO leaders who met with Bush in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Group of Eight summit on Friday.

On Monday, the last day of the summit, Cherie Blair, a human rights lawyer, met with NGO representatives in St. Petersburg and told them that British lawyers could offer assistance in any appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

"She said the British lawyers might help us if the government denied NGOs accreditation or attempted to block their activities," said Alexander Petrov, deputy director of the Russia office of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, who attended the meeting of 20 people.

A contentious NGO law, which went into force in April, requires organizations to re-register with the authorities, imposes onerous regulations and places restrictions on foreign grants.

The legislation drew stinging criticism from rights activists at home and abroad for giving officials broad authority to decide which NGOs would be allowed to register and what activities they would be allowed to engage in.

Merkel made a point of telling journalists Monday that she had no intention of lecturing President Vladimir Putin about democratic values but that she was determined to bring up the issue of NGOs in Russia.

At a news conference closing the summit, Putin said he had no problem with Bush's NGO meeting and noted that he had met with a group of NGOs in Moscow last week. "The more we work with civil society, the better," he said.

A Kremlin spokesman on Tuesday declined to comment about the Western leaders' support of NGOs. The office of national ombudsman Vladimir Lukin also declined to comment.

The NGO law was passed amid Kremlin concern about the role that NGOs played in peaceful uprisings that overthrew long-serving governments in Ukraine in 2004 and Georgia in 2003. Duma elections are set for next year, followed by a presidential vote in 2008.

The Western leaders who fretted about Russian NGOS and even discussed their concerns with Putin missed a chance to bring about meaningful change, said Tatyana Lokshina, head of rights group Center Demos, who met with Bush. "If the Western leaders were really concerned with the challenges facing Russian NGOs they would have consolidated their support behind them. But this did not happen," she said.

She said several NGOs had urged the seven visiting world leaders to sit down with them for a joint meeting, but no meeting had been held.

Looking ahead, the main thing Western leaders can do now to assist NGOs is to "explain to Russian authorities that blocking free speech on Russian television is unacceptable," Yasina said. "We should not put too much hope in the West to build a democratic society in Russia, but NGOs can't do anything while the government maintains a monopoly on broadcast media," she said. The main national television channels are controlled by the state or state-owned companies.

Whether the West's support will ease pressure on NGOs depends on two things: how high a priority the Kremlin will place on suppressing independent groups and how far the West is willing to go in confronting the Kremlin over civil liberties, said Oleg Orlov, head of rights group Memorial. "If the Kremlin firmly decides to squash independent groups, the West would not be able to change things," he said. He and Petrov said NGOs would probably only start to feel the full impact of the new law later this year, once international attention shifts away from Russia after the G8 summit.

Putin's top aide on human rights, meanwhile, announced Monday in St. Petersburg that the NGO law would soon be amended to take into account the concerns of several NGOs. The aide, Ella Pamfilova, did not name the NGOs but said their concerns would be compiled and presented to Putin.

Orlov dismissed the announcement as an attempt to make a good impression on the visiting world leaders. "If they wanted a better law, they would have called on NGOs to participate in drafting it in the first place," he said.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. NGOWatch is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of NGO accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.