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Russia: NGOs Say New Bill Threatens Civil Freedom

Protesters outside the Duma building are dragged away by police today (RFE/RL) A controversial draft law aimed at tightening state control over NGOs in Russia sailed through its first reading at the State Duma on 23 November. The bill particularly targets foreign-funded NGOs, which would become barred from operating directly in Russia. NGO leaders fear the bill may be used to curb, or even shut down, organizations that the authorities disapprove of, and have appealed to parliament to reject it.

Moscow, 23 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The bill received 370 votes for and 18 against in its first reading at the Duma. If passed in its present form, it would force all NGOs currently operating in Russia to re-register with a special state commission within a year.

The bill, initiated by a group of lawmakers, would also allow the state to control the funding and expenses of NGOs. It would affect all NGOs, from human rights and environmental groups to cultural associations, and sports clubs.

The proposed legislation has been a subject of heated debate ever since it was introduced into the State Duma two weeks ago. Supporters say it will help Russia fight extremism and terrorism by curbing money-laundering through NGOs. Andrei Makarov, a Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and one of the bill's authors, says it will provide a better overview of NGOs in Russia: "The main goal of the law at present is to state in detail all issues related to the organization, registration, control [of non-profit organizations]."

The bill, however, has sparked strong concern both in Russia and abroad.

Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has said it violates the Russian Constitution and international legislation. Half of the Public Chamber, a newly formed extra-parliamentary body tasked with representing the general public, have asked the Duma to delay voting on the legislation until its consequences can be studied in more detail.

White House officials reportedly said U.S. President George W. Bush raised the issue of the draft bill during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in South Korea last week.

NGOs in Russia have expressed outrage at the proposed restrictions, which they fear might be a pretext to crack down on organizations that are critical of the authorities.

Lev Levinson, an expert at the Institute for Human Rights, told reporters on Tuesday that the bill would unlawfully seize control over public life:

"The initiators of this law mix up public and government [life]," Levinson said. "We are entitled to demand transparency from them, but they cannot demand transparency from us -- it equates to demanding transparency from my private life, to demand that I don't hang curtains at my window or present bills for food I bought in the shop to the housing administration. The same thing is being asked from NGOs, who would have to show their activities to yet another police organ."

NGO leaders called on the parliament on 22 November to reject the bill in a collective appeal signed by some 1,300 people. They branded the proposed legislation "the most odious decision in the past 15 years" and criticized the initiators for failing to consult them before drafting the changes.

Most affected by the restrictions are foreign-funded NGOs. Under the new legislation, they would be barred from working in Russia through representative offices, as most of them currently do. They would be required to re-register as a financially independent structure -- a status many NGOs fear they might struggle to obtain.

Alexandr Petrov, Human Rights Watch's regional deputy director, says the bill would force many foreign-funded NGOs to close down:

"We, human rights activists, do not like this draft law for two reasons," Petrov said. "Firstly, it effectively closes down branches and representative offices of foreign NGOs. Secondly, it creates conditions for a much tougher control of existing social, non-profit organizations."

The proposed legislation would also severely limit the ability of Russian organizations to receive foreign funding or employ non-Russian workers.

The bill comes on the heels of a vote in the Duma on 18 November to allocate some 500 million rubles ($17.4 million) to promote civil society in Russia and defend the rights of Russians in the Baltic states. Observers see the move as a response to a recent decision by the U.S. Congress to earmark $4 million for the development of political parties in Russia.

Many observers say the new NGO bill reflects state fears that foreign-funded NGOs spearheaded popular protests that overthrew governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Those observers say the government is worried that NGOs could be planning a similar revolution in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin in July said he would not allow foreign-funded NGOs to carry out what he said were political activities.

The bill still needs to pass two more readings and be approved by the upper house of parliament before the president can sign it into law. But with the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party holding a large majority in the Duma and the upper house of parliament largely seen as playing a rubber-stamp role, the bill has real chances of becoming law.

Attempts to hamper the bill's progress have so far proved unsuccessful. A dozen environmental activists were arrested by police on 23 November for staging an unsanctioned demonstration outside the parliament. Police officials dragged the protesters away by the legs and arms.

According to the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Russia has over 400,000 active NGOs, 2,000 of which are exclusively devoted to human rights advocacy and 15,000 of which deal with human rights among other issues.

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RFE/RL Russia Report

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