A controversial draft law aimed at tightening state control over non-governmental organizations in Russia has passed its first reading in the Russian lower house of parliament, the Duma. The bill orders state registration of more than 400,000 Russian and foreign NGOs currently operating in the country. Human rights activists in Moscow say they are worried that if the bill becomes law, it will be used to curb the activities of some organizations the authorities do not care for.
The authors of the new bill say its main goal is to re-register all NGOs currently operating in the country -- and strengthen control over their funding and expenses -- in order to provide a better overview of NGOs in Russia and curb money-laundering.
But it also states that foreign organizations would be barred from working in Russia through representative offices, which most of them currently operate. They would also be required to re-register as financially independent structures.
NGO representatives in Moscow, such as Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch, say they're concerned that the new bill is designed to hamper the work of many foreign and Russian NGOs
“This law falls perfectly with the policy that has been implemented by the president and the government in the last three to four years, aimed at placing maximum limitations on political and social activities,” he told us. “The goal is to limit or completely dismiss foreign NGOs from the Russian scene and apply strong limitations to the work of Russian NGOs. In case this law is signed by the president, it will lead to a situation where many NGOs, including ours, might have to leave the country.”
But backers of the new legislation, like Alexei Ostrovsky of the ultra-nationalist political party, the LDPR, say it is the NGOs, not the legislation, that are at fault.
“In Moscow, there are many offices of international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and others, and their activity has nothing to do with the protection of human rights. It's just a cover for performing their missions ordered by CIA and U.S. presidential administration,” said the Duma Deputy.
Observers also say the new NGO bill reflects Russian government fears that foreign-funded NGOs support popular protests that overthrew governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. They say the Kremlin is worried that they might be planning the same in Russia.
In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not allow foreign-funded NGOs to carry out what he said were political activities.
Mr. Ostrovsky told us, “We all witnessed how American taxpayers money were spent on supporting human rights organizations in Georgia and Ukraine. Their final goal was to change the regime, which is anti-constitutional, and we don't want the Russian Federation to fall into chaos because of their actions, the chaos that normally follows revolutions."
But by tackling their political fears, the creators of the bill might be doing more harm than good. Of over 400,000 Russian NGOs, only 2,000 are exclusively devoted to human rights advocacy – others concentrate on solving social problems.
Sergei Nikitin is the director of Moscow office of Amnesty International. He says, “This bill will damage the work of little organizations that do not wish to be registered. Aside from human rights organizations, there are thousands of social groups, for instance, women who suffered from home violence. Now they will have to get all legal paperwork done and it creates an additional bureaucratic problem for them.”
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, there are few doubts that the bill will eventually become law.