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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Threat To The Growth Of Civil Society

Washington, 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian government program to re-register the country's non-governmental organizations appears likely to deprive many of them of the legal standing they need to continue to operate and to weaken one of the main institutional supports for the development of civil society there.

In an interview carried by the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on Friday, Russian Federation Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov said that his country now has approximately 100,000 NGOs. But he noted that only 25 percent of them had re-registered with the authorities and that only 25 percent more were likely to do so by the July 1 deadline.

Without such registration, these groups will not be able to participate in elections. They will not be able to own property or maintain a bank account. And they will not be able to act as legal persons for purposes of contracts or in court cases. In the justice minister's own words, those that do not register will simply "fall out" of the civil and legal order.

Krasheninnikov attempted to portray this in the best possible light. He said that a higher percentage of the 3500 such groups which operate on a country-wide basis would in fact re-register. He suggested that many of the 100,000 are currently more or less inactive and that their names might be misused by others. And he claimed that the re-registration process would give Moscow greater control over those with extremist agendas.

Even if all of Krashenninikov's arguments are correct, both this process and the outcomes he suggests inevitably cast a chilling shadow over the development of this key element of civil society, of a space between individuals and the state that serves to maximize the power of individuals and to limit the power of governments in modern democracies.

For many democratic and human rights activists, the emergence of NGOs in the Russian Federation and other post-communist countries was a major reason to expect that these countries to be able to escape their authoritarian pasts.

Until the Gorbachev era, public organizations were invariably controlled by the Communist Party and the Soviet state and were often dismissed by both Soviet-era activists and Western organizations as oxymoronic GONGOs -- that is, Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations. And even under Gorbachev, only a few groups successfully escaped state tutelage and control.

After 1991, the number of genuinely non-governmental organizations grew rapidly. Some of them flourished; some did not. Some advocated democratic positions; others, anti-democratic ones. But virtually all of them provided an opportunity for Russians and others to act without constant supervision from the authorities. And that in turn contributed to the kind of individual self-confidence on which democracy depends.

But over the last several years, the pendulum has begun to swing in a very different direction, with the state insisting on having an ever larger say over the activities of these and other groups and thus reducing their effectiveness as schools of democracy.

Like Krasheninnikov, Russian officials often insist that they are doing nothing more than regularizing the situation and that a requirement for registering in order to rent property or have a checking account is neither onerous not dangerous.

But there are three reasons to be skeptical about such arguments. First, recent experience suggests, Russian officials carrying out this program are unlikely to register all those who apply, thus opening the door to blatant favoritism for those the officials approve as well as discrimination against those they dislike. And that in turn opens the way for various kinds of corruption.

Second, the re-registration process is almost certain to create two classes of NGOs: those who continue to operate with the government's blessing and those who continue without it or who are forced to go out of business as a result. Not only does that undermine the purposes of such groups, it may lead to the radicalization of those who believe they have been excluded.

And third, this process suggests that at least some Russian officials are anything but committed to the principles of democracy that are proclaimed even by the December 1993 Russian constitution. And consequently, democrats -- Russian and otherwise -- are likely to see this re-registration process as portending even more restrictions against public activism in the future.

Such people will certainly not be reassured by the title "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" gave to its interview with Krasheninnikov: "The Justice Ministry is Involved in a Cleansing of the Political Field."