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Russia: Rights Group Suspends Operations Over Tough NGO Bill

(RFE/RL) The Forum of Migrants Organizations, a leading umbrella NGO that promotes the rights of migrants across Russia, has announced it is suspending its operations. The organization says its foreign sponsors have retracted after a controversial bill that would place NGOs under strict state control passed its first reading on 23 November. The bill's authors say the changes would help the government curtail the financing of terrorist groups in Russia, but NGOs have cautioned that the bill may be used by the government to crack down on organizations its deems unwelcome.

Moscow, 12 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- When the draft law was introduced into the State Duma in early November, many NGOs warned the proposed restrictions would force them to close down.

And although the bill still has a long way to go before being signed into law, it seems to be already taking its toll on NGOs.

Lydia Grafova, the head of the Forum of Migrants' Organizations executive committee, says the draft law has scared off the group's foreign sponsors. As a result, she tells RFE/RL her organization will have to close down as soon as 1 January 2006.

"From the beginning of next year, we have no funding whatsoever -- we don't have a single kopeck, for example, to pay the rent. When we started discussing this law on nongovernmental organizations, and when doubt fell on absolutely all sponsors working in Russia, our potential sponsors fell mysteriously silent. We have indeed been forced to close down, we have no other option," Grafova said.

The Forum of Migrants' Organizations was founded in 1996 and supervises almost 200 migrant rights groups in 47 Russian regions. It was instrumental in lobbying for a softer immigration policy, including the government's recent decision to amnesty large numbers of migrants working illegally in Russia.

Grafova says growing xenophobic sentiments in Russia make the forum's closure particularly tragic.

"The Federal Migration Service, which consists largely of people in epaulettes, will not be able to implement this migration amnesty without the participation of civil organizations. It is very tragic that we have to leave, when the phobia of migrants is being used by the darkest of forces of our society. It is very, very worrying," Grafova said.

The bill follows a series of declarations by top-ranking officials that foreign-funded NGOs had allegedly played a key role in the popular protests that overthrew the governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in July said he would not allow foreign-funded NGOs to carry out what he said were "political activities."

If passed into law, the bill would force all NGOs in Russia to re-register with a state commission and would allow authorities to closely scrutinize their finances.

The initiative, however, has drawn stinging criticism both in Russia and abroad, leading Putin on 5 December to order his administration to work out amendments.

So far, the Forum of Migrants' Organizations is the first leading NGO to announce its closure since the new bill passed its first reading. Grafova predicts many more NGOs will meet the same fate as her organization.

But not all other rights activists are as pessimistic.

Tatyana Kasatkina, the executive director of Russia's prominent human rights group Memorial, says the controversial bill has so far failed to dent her group's funding.

Kasatkina is even hopeful that the outrage caused by the bill will compel authorities to ditch it.

"In fact, Putin has now introduced a few changes. It is clear that the draft will not be considered right now because precise amendments have not yet been introduced into this law, and it will probably be a little postponed," Kasatkina said. "It will probably be considered next year, and, as many hope, they may even forget about this project for good, because it has had great repercussions both abroad and in Russia."

White House officials said U.S. President George W. Bush had expressed concern over the bill during a meeting with Putin in South Korea on 18 November.

On 22 November, NGO leaders called on parliament to reject the bill in a collective appeal signed by some 1,300 people, branding it "the most odious decision in the past 15 years."