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Russia: Putin 'Foreign Funding' Remarks Draw Civil Society Concerns

Russian President Vladimir Putin Human rights activists are expressing concerns about Russian civil society after President Vladimir Putin spoke out yesterday against foreign funding for political organizations. Representatives of groups involved in human rights work in Russia said they are worried that Putin might further restrict dialogue aimed at improving rights and governance. Putin offered state support for nonprofit groups, but some experts say such backing would have to be channeled through independent bodies to ensure independence.

Washington, 21 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Putin raised concern about outside political interference at a Kremlin meeting of the Council for Promoting the Development of Civil Society Institutions and for Human Rights, a body his office oversees.

The president told the group that he had received reports of money sent from abroad for "specific political activities." Without providing examples, he expressed concern that foreign actors were seeking to manipulate Russia's domestic scene.

"I object categorically to foreign funding of political activity in the Russian Federation," Putin said yesterday. "I object to it categorically. Not a single self-respecting country allows that and neither will we."

Putin's comments echoed similar remarks by leaders in other former Soviet countries, who accuse Western-funded civil society groups of fomenting popular revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has also increased pressure on such groups, following criticism of his government's bloody crackdown on protesters in Andijon in mid-May.

As for Russia, Eliza Moussaeva, a consultant with the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, said conditions for civil society groups have been getting worse. But Moussaeva, traveling in the United States, said Putin's latest remarks signal an intention to further clamp down on activists.
"I think it's just another step [to further clamp down on activists], because actually Putin has already gotten used to such things because he has been allowed by the international community to make such statements."

"I think it's just another step [to clamp down on activists], because actually Putin has already gotten used to such things because he has been allowed by the international community to make such statements," Moussaeva said.

Putin offered the Kremlin's financial support for nongovernmental organizations. He stressed there should be no concern about government attempts to "bribe" civil society groups.

The director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Aaron Rhodes, told RFE/RL that Putin's government so far has a record of obstructing and pressuring civil society groups. But he said Putin's offer of financial support should be given consideration.

"He's got a point. The funding for civil society organizations should come from their own society. That's the only way that it really makes any sense and that it's really sustainable," Rhodes said. "Russian organizations should be supporting human rights organizations in Russia. The Russian government could even do so if it channeled the funding first through an independent foundation."

The use of a rights-promoting foundation distinct from the government could be a solution to the funding problem, but it could prove difficult to find local support for any Russian group monitoring human rights in war-ravaged Chechnya.

That's the view of Oksana Chelysheva, who works as an editor for the Nizhny Novgorod-based Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a rights monitor. Chelysheva told RFE/RL her group relies on funding from the European Commission, the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy and Norway's Foreign Ministry.

"Being involved in the Chechen issue, it's impossible to hope that we will be able to find some internal source of funding because it's just impossible," Chelysheva said. "Thus, we totally depend on our foreign donors."

Chris Walker, the director of studies at U.S.-based rights monitor Freedom House, said the group has noted a deterioration in conditions for civil society since Putin's state of the nation address in May 2004. In the speech, Putin warned nongovernmental organizations against serving "dubious group and commercial interests."

"The atmosphere has become less hospitable and more chilled for independent groups that are working in Russia," Walker said. "That's been communicated to us by a number of groups that we've spoken with and it seems to be the prevailing sentiment in the NGO community there."

In its annual ratings of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House downgraded Russia last year from "partly free" to "not free."

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