updated 12/23/2005 4:34:25 AM ET 2005-12-23T09:34:25

Russia’s lower house of parliament approved a much-criticized bill Friday that imposes strict curbs on non-governmental organizations, a measure that could threaten the survival of rights groups and others considered disloyal to the Kremlin.

The State Duma voted 357-20 in favor of the bill with seven abstentions in the third of three required readings. The legislation, which has been rushed through parliament, is expected to be approved early next week by the equally compliant upper house before being signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

After vocal protests from Russian and foreign NGOs as well as from Western governments, Putin ordered lawmakers to water down the measure slightly, in particular dropping the requirement for foreign groups to reregister their branches in Russia as local entities, subject to much stricter controls.

That measure was included among dozens of amendments that were adopted Wednesday on the bill’s second reading.

But nonprofit groups such as the country’s leading human rights body, Memorial, warn that the law remains draconian and could threaten their survival.

'Destruction of civil society'
“This will mean the destruction of civil society in Russia,” Tatyana Kasatkina, executive director of the group, told The Associated Press.

Sponsors of the legislation said it was necessary to stem terrorism and extremism.

But critics say the bill has grown out of the Kremlin’s increasing displeasure with NGOs that criticize the government, advocate democracy and promote human rights.

Such groups, many financed by Western institutions, played significant roles in the mass demonstrations that brought opposition leaders to power in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and sparked alarm in Moscow and other governments in the region.

The bill provides for a new agency to oversee the registration, financing and activities of Russia’s hundreds of thousands of NGOs. The new agency, not the courts, would determine whether an NGO should be dissolved. It would require stringent, continual accounting before the government, which NGOs say would draw too many staff and resources away from their real work.

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