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Russia: Will Putin Follow In Nazarbaev's Footsteps?

Russian President Putin (file photo) Last week --> /featuresarticle/2005/7/681C29CC-5E17-4411-9976-2E3A041ECCB2.html , Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke out strongly against the foreign funding of Russian nongovernmental organizations that engage in political activities. The presidential press service has not issued any follow-up statements explaining what Putin meant by "political activities," nor has Vladimir Lukin, the presidential ombudsman for human rights, offered an explanation.

In the absence of any official clarifications, Russian NGOs have been left to parse the president's words for deeper meaning. During a call-in show with RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau, Pavel Slapak of the Ivanovo Oblast branch of Memorial suggested that what really matters is not what Putin said but how his loyal followers will interpret his words. Yurii Vdovin of Citizens' Control agreed, stating that he is "afraid that the bureaucrats will want to be more Catholic than the pope in their efforts to fulfill Putin's orders."
"If we speak out against this, will this be considered political activity?" he asked. "All this is leading to a situation where only [the pro-Kremlin youth group] Nashi will remain."

If Putin's followers are looking for a model of what to do, they need look no further than Kazakhstan. In what has widely been interpreted as a reaction to the "colored revolutions" in countries in the former Soviet Union, Kazakh legislators loyal to President Nursultan Nazarbaev drafted legislation that would severely hobble the work of the republic's tiny NGOs community if enacted. One of the authors of the bills, lower parliament member Valerii Kotovich, told his colleagues that he was suggesting increasing control over the finances of NGOs in the interest of strengthening national security, "Ekpress K" reported on 9 June. In his remarks on the legislation, Communist lawmaker Yarosyl Abylkasymov sounded a similar theme: "We do not hide the fact that these bills are being adopted for the upcoming [presidential] election and for the defense [of Kazakhstan] against pseudo-revolutions," according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 10 June.

One opponent of the legislation, Senator Svetlana Dzhalmagambetova, asked Kotovich whether he had any data showing how many foreign NGOs over a certain period engaged in activities directed at overthrowing constitutional order and weakening the defense of the nation, "Ekpress K" reported on 29 June. Kotovich admitted that he and his fellow authors didn't have any statistics; however, he said that they know various examples of how this or that international organization operates.

The bills passed Kazakhstan's upper chamber last month with some modification of its harsher features. Originally the bills called for NGOs to report at least 10 days in advance to local executive organs about any new measures that they were preparing. NGOs were also originally required to send a detailed report to local executive organs about any financial transaction with a foreign donor; under the current version they only need to alert local authorities about the direction of the financial flows, "Ekspress K" reported on 29 June. An additional requirement that the NGOs publish information in official sources about their financing was kept despite one senator's objection that this stipulation "would cost an NGO more than a $1,000, the cost of two wheelchairs for handicapped people."

The NGOs themselves have been watching the bills' progress through Kazakhstan's lower and upper chamber with great concern. Zhemis Turmagambetova, deputy director for the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Observance of the Law, told "Ekspress K" on 9 June that the lawmakers "are trying to regulate everything. They [want to] put NGOs [in the situation] of justifying everything in advance, they want to make us guilty in advance. What about the presumption of innocence? We should report every time that we are planning on doing something. This is so that they can find out what we are doing, but the government [already] has many resources, specialized agencies, which can uncover crimes, in particular the Committee for National Security [KNB] and law-enforcement agencies." Turmagambetova predicted that if the laws are adopted in their present form, international foundations will no longer consider applications from Kazakstan.

The NGO community is hoping that President Nazarbaev will veto the legislation, "Ekspert-Kazakhstan" reported on 18 July, commenting that Nazarbaev has sent the bills to the Constitutional Council. Some observers hope that the legislation will experience the same fate as similarly controversial draft media law did last year. In April 2004, the council ruled that draft media law unconstitutional and, since then, no new media bills have so far been put forth.

In the meantime, Russian NGOs like Memorial's Ivanovo branch are left to question their next move. Slapak reported that Ivanovo Oblast Governor Vlaidmir Tikhonov announced on television on 20 July that all local government organs should not under any circumstances criticize the activities of federal government organs. "If we speak out against this, will this be considered political activity?" he asked. "All this is leading to a situation where only [the pro-Kremlin youth group] Nashi will remain." (see New Youth Movement To Foil U.S. Plot To Take Over Russia.)

This week President Putin met with Nashi members in his Tver Oblast residence. During a televised meeting with several dozen well-groomed Nashi youth clad in white short-sleeved shirts on 27 June, Putin was asked what he thought about the crisis in education and the problem of "more and more less-educated" people appearing in Russian universities. He replied that "the problem is in you thinking that you are smarter than those people." He smiled indulgently, patting the knee of the young woman who asked the question as the youths, all paying rapt attention, laughed and applauded.