By William Fisher
Virtually all human rights groups have condemned Russia’s new law governing non-governmental organizations, but the leader of one major NGO disagrees.
“Although the parliament has softened somewhat its original draconian bill,
the legislation still obliges offices of foreign NGOs to inform the government registration office about their projects for the upcoming year, and about the money allotted for every specific project. Russian government officials would have an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia's national interests, as required by the bill,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a major U.S.-based advocacy group.
The organization says, “Officials from the registration office could prohibit foreign NGOs from implementing projects without "the aim of defending the constitutional system, morals, public health, rights and lawful interest of other people, guaranteeing defense capacity and security of the state. If a foreign NGO implements a banned project, the registration office could close its offices in Russia.”
But Sharon Tennison, the American head of a Moscow-based NGO, the Center for Citizen Initiatives, calls such comments “alarmist”, and adds that the new legislation “could cut either way, and it won't become obvious until implementation begins. Heated TV debates are occurring, with (President Vladimir) Putin's harshest critics participating.”
Tennison told me, “There are good and bad NGOs in Russia - both domestic and foreign. Regrettably, some have supported activities that would be illegal in America today.”
Tennison acknowledged that the law was presented, amended and signed by President Putin “with few explanations for its need.” But she contends that “Russia's not-for-profit sector is in serious need of regulation. It still hasn't developed legal underpinnings to assure transparency of expenditures, operations or funder information - all of which are crucial for societal trust and civil society development.”
Tennison’s organization conducts programs to assist Russians in securing economic and political reforms and fosters partnerships and relations between the United States and Russia.
She says, “Putin and many Russians harbor deep concerns that foreign and domestic NGOs may be fomenting a "color revolution" in Russia, as they suspect happened recently in the republics of Ukraine and Georgia.”
“The Kremlin is further challenged by Russia's wealthy oligarchs, who have funneled a great deal of money through NGOs in the past three years to destabilize the Putin government. Foreign and oligarch support in Russia has led in some instances to NGOs' pursuing objectives contrary to those of the average citizen and to the stability of the fragile government. This wouldn't go down well in any country."
Tennison recommends that “to align NGO activities with citizens' interests, the Putin administration needs to legislate tax incentives to encourage support for Russia's NGOs, thereby creating a base for in-country private donations, not foreign or oligarch funding.”
She says that Russia “is inching toward a democratic society, but isn’t close yet. The country's long history and harsh conditioning can’t be radically transformed in two short decades. Pushing Russian society and the Putin government faster than they can go at this juncture, will incur consequences that serve neither Russia nor the west.”
The NGO legislation requires Russia's 450,000 civic clubs to re-register with a state authority in order to remain active. Foreign NGOs will be required to notify the Justice Ministry of the location of any offices. Both foreign and national NGOs will also have to provide detailed reports to authorities of any foreign funding and how such funds are spent. Furthermore, the legislation will give officials the power to close any non-profit organization involved in ‘political activity’, a concept that lacks any clarification or definition in the bill.
Tennison concludes, “I'm head of a NGO in Russia and I'm happy to reregister in order to get some decent laws governing Russia's NGO sector. I have nothing to be concerned about since our work helps Russian citizens - we don't do direct ‘political activity’. Nor do I think that out-of-country NGOs should do political activity when there is a freely elected president and government that still enjoys the goodwill and support of the majority of the country.”
But Tennison’ represents a minority view. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, have seen the new law as another Russian move away from democratic governance and a further effort by President Putin to consolidate power in the Kremlin.
HRW says, “The government is entitled to regulate non-governmental organizations, (but) the broad and ambiguous scope of the law poses a serious threat to the rights to freedom of association and expression, in violation of Russia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on states to respect the rights of human rights defenders through legislation and administration.”
“President Putin has claimed that the law's limitations on NGOs are necessary ‘to prevent financing political activities from abroad’. But the bill gives no definition of ‘political activism’, raising serious concerns that the term could be interpreted very broadly by government officials,” HRW declared.
The organization also called on leaders of the G8 countries (to) put this issue at the top of their agenda with President Putin."
Several senior officials of the Russian government have recently made statements that appear intended to undermine without basis the legitimacy of foreign NGOs. On December 8, Sergei Lebedev, head of the Russian intelligence service, charged that foreign "NGOs are very attractive for intelligence services.... as covers, masks, screens." On December 1, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko claimed that "Russia's foreign policy is perceived inadequately abroad.... because Russian and foreign media quote opinions and comments of NGOs financed by western money."
Tennison also takes exception to the findings of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The group contends that “When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, Russia under President Boris Yeltsin began to move toward a democratic society…Since Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000, however, there has been serious regression in democratic governance. The Russian president and government have become increasingly authoritarian, freedom of the press no longer exists, government authority has been increasingly centralized in the Kremlin, and democracy has been declared a luxury not suited for Russia. One of the most disturbing trends has been the government's effort to eliminate or strictly control NGOs and other institutions that make up civil society.”
Tennison told IPS that the caucus report “is the traditional hype by those who see Russia from only one lens”. It's myopic and dangerous. It’s another smoke screen to divert attention from Iraq.”
She added, “Yeltsin's period wasn't democracy, it was oligarchy. The press was oligarch-owned and an article on any topic, whether untruthful or vengeful, could be placed on front pages for several thousand dollars. This isn't what we call freedom of the press. There was no such thing as real investigative journalism. When journalists wrote anything against the oligarchy they got bumped off. Young, brilliant communist leaders raped the country of its wealthiest enterprises and left Russia bankrupt with nothing to rebuild the country. Is this democracy?”