Russia ponders limits on aid

Foreign nonprofits would be subject to major increase in oversight


MOSCOW -- In the latest sign of Russia's backslide on democracy, its lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval yesterday to severe restrictions that critics say could force nongovernmental organizations to scale back or even abandon their work here.

If the bill becomes law, foreign NGOs would be prohibited from operating branch offices in Russia and forced to re-register as local organizations, subjecting them to drastically increased government oversight. The legislation would also bar anyone who is not a permanent resident of Russia from working at an NGO here, activists say.

"In any form, it's an odious law that imposes restrictions on the nonprofit sector that are intrusive and restrictive and largely unnecessary for what the government claims it wants to do," said Steven Solnick, Moscow representative for the Ford Foundation, which has its headquarters in New York. The government "should be encouraging greater cooperation and transparency with the sector and not reacting to the sector with a lot of fear and distrust," he said.

Russia has an estimated 400,000 domestic and foreign NGOs -- including humanitarian groups, foundations and social service providers working on such varied issues as human rights and poverty, and HIV-AIDS prevention.

Analysts say the bill is part of the Kremlin's systematic attempt to consolidate control over every segment of Russian society. Russia's lower house, the Duma, is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and is devoid of serious opposition. Leaders of the nation's 89 regions, previously installed in direct popular elections, are appointed by the president. The nation's main television networks, which were once operated independently of the government, are now owned by it.

The latest move, critics say, is aimed at cracking down on one of the last remaining sectors of society that provide a much-needed check on government power: the civil sector.

"The government has chosen a rather subtle way, through this bill, to actually stop the development of civil society," Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, said at a news conference this week.

`Orange paranoia'

The bill is also thought to be a result of what some here have dubbed "orange paranoia," or fear of the type of pro-democratic grass-roots activism that led to the Orange Revolution a year ago in neighboring Ukraine. Georgia had its own Rose Revolution in 2003.

In remarks before the Duma in May, Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service, the successor organization to the KGB, said foreign organizations in Russia were providing cover to spies and trying to incite popular uprisings across the independent countries of the former Soviet Union.

Patrushev said at the time that the legislation governing the way NGOs work in Russia created a "fertile ground for conducting intelligence operations under the guise of charity and other activities."

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has also stressed his objections to foreign organizations attempting to influence domestic politics.

"We are against overseas funding for the political activities of NGOs in Russia. I categorically object," he told human rights activists at a July meeting at the Kremlin. "Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won't allow it either."

NGOs working on human rights issues, particularly those related to the war in Chechnya, have been under attack by the Russian government in recent years. Officials have refused to register them, tried to shut them down and hauled them to court on allegations of tax violations, activists say.

Social issues

Dzhibladze said the vast majority of Russia's NGOs -- about 80 percent -- are not involved in human rights work at all but in social issues that involve children, veterans and the disabled.

"We are talking about millions of people who are helped by the NGOs," he said. "The whole country will be stricken by the law, and the whole country will suffer from it."

The bill was introduced this month with support not just from United Russia, but from all of the factions in the Duma.

Those who support it have offered varying reasons, including a need to provide better financial oversight and close loopholes -- which the bill's backers say would protect NGOs, not harm them. Others have said the legislation is necessary to help fight terrorism and extremism.

Solnick, of the Ford Foundation -- which supplies grants and funding to Russian organizations for a variety of uses, including promoting the arts and fighting AIDS -- noted that a number of politicians have said publicly and privately that the intent of the legislation is not to drive out foreign NGOs.

But, he said, "This law, as it's currently written, has the potential to do that."

The bill passed with nominal opposition during its first reading.

The Duma's required second and third readings of the bill -- in which any amendments will be reflected -- are scheduled for next month. If the legislation passes, it will go to the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, then on to the president.

"I still have some hopes [that it will be defeated] but not very much, really," said Aleksandr Petrov, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "I do know this country. It sounds like we're not far away from the Soviet system."

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