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Is Russia tightening the noose on NGOs?

A new Russian law is expected to be voted on later this week that could make it much more difficult for foreign and foreign funded non governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate freely in Russia. NBC News' Yonatan Pomrenze reports from Moscow. 
/ Source: NBC News

MOSCOW — Most Russians look forward to the New Year’s holiday with anticipation. Fireworks, exchanging of gifts, strolling through snowy streets until dawn, and the kickoff of the nine-day winter vacation season are reason enough to do so.

But for the Forum of Migrants Organizations, an umbrella NGO (non governmental organization) which advances the rights of immigrants within Russia, this New Year’s Day will ring hollow.

“Starting in January, we will have no funding,” said Lydia Grafova, head of the executive committee of the Forum. “Potential sponsors … went silent,” she said, due to a new Russian law that will make it more difficult for NGOs to freely operate in Russia.

The NGO bill is scheduled to be adopted this week by the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in the first step necessary for it to become a law.

Crackdown on foreign and foreign-funded NGOs
Russia currently has approximately 450,000 NGOs (or non-commercial organizations, as they are known in Russia), which include civil society organizations, professional unions and religious groups.

NGOs operating in the country range from international groups, such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, to Russia-specific organizations, like Grafova’s Forum of Migrants.

Last summer, President Putin signaled that action would be forthcoming in declaring that he would not permit foreign-funded NGOs to support political activity in Russia. 

The Kremlin does not want to see a repeat of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” and Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” — especially with the Russian parliamentary election coming up in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008.

On Nov. 23, the proposed law sailed through its first reading in the Duma by a vote of 370-18.

In its original version, the law would have prohibited all foreign NGOs from having offices in Russia and significantly diminish the ability for a Russian NGO to receive foreign funding.

“If this bill passed as is, we probably will have to leave the country,” said Alexander Petrov, deputy director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in Russia. “We would hardly be able to work in Russia as a Russian public association.”

After the initial bill met strong criticism from international NGOs, the Council of Europe, and the U.S., Putin appeared to soften his stance ahead of further debate on the bills over the next week.

Putin recommended amendments to the law that include allowing foreign NGOs to operate in Russia.

Softened stance? Or creating a watchdog?
Critics of the bill, however, say the changes are cosmetic and that the critical feature of the bill — the creation of a government watchdog to oversee NGO activity — remains in effect.

The bill’s defenders say fears of government crackdown are groundless.

Andrey Makarov, one of the authors of the bill and a deputy of the dominant United Russia party (which is regarded as loyal to Putin and a rubber stamp for his legislative proposals), insisted that “the government does not plan on regulating these organizations.”

Instead, Makarov echoed the Russian government’s position in saying that the law is necessary to address the “problems of the war on terror, the war against extremism…and the problem of money laundering.”

The government claims that the law will make it harder for criminals, terrorists, and foreign influence to use an NGO as a cover for illicit activities, in the same way that other countries have applied stricter standards to civil society and charity organizations.

Grafova, however, sees the bill as overly burdensome. “We are working for the future of Russia,” she said. “For 12 years, we have been working thanks to resources provided by Western funds," she said. "No one ever dictated to us what we have to do, [we have] absolutely no political aims.”

The U.S. Congress agrees. Last Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution 405-15 highly critical of the NGO bill.

In the resolution, it predicted that the Russian legislation will “impose disabling restraints on the establishment, operations, and activities of non-governmental organizations” and urged Russia “to withdraw the proposed legislation.”

Latest in series restrictive measures
Many see the NGO bill as the latest manifestation of a series of actions taken by Putin’s Kremlin to assert government control over Russian public life.

The government now has outright ownership or controlling stakes in the country’s three largest television networks.

Just over one year ago, Putin scrapped the direct election of Russian regional governors, replacing it with presidential appointees.

By asserting control over NGOs, the Kremlin could potentially silence those organizations overly critical of areas sensitive to the Russian government’s self-image, such as alleged abuse of authority in Chechnya or the censorship of state media.

“The last bastion [of the] independent sector in the country is civil society, and the authorities are very eager to put full control over independent organizations,” said Petrov. “The more restrictive regulations introduced by the government, the less freedom will remain in the country.”

Future still undecided
Of course, everything depends on what the final version of the bill looks like. More important than what is in the bill, however, is what is left out.

Without clearly defining what would constitute grounds for rejection of an organization, the bill could result in the kinds of arbitrary decisions by the authorities that Makarov claims the legislation intends to prevent.

“There is still a lot of gray area over the power that the law will give government authorities to prohibit political activity,” said Steven Solnick, representative in Russia for the Ford Foundation, an NGO that works to strengthen democratic values and promote international cooperation.

It is this uncertainty that has stopped the funding to the Forum of Migrants Organizations, whose staffers can only hope that the traditional Russian New Year greeting, “With the New Year comes new luck,” will come true for them.