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Human Rights Watch Says NGOs Face Tough Time in Russia


Opening and maintaining a non-governmental organization in Russia is not easy, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch in Moscow. Mounds of paperwork, ineffective laws and even threats of violence face those who want to perform what they see as their civic duty.

Working in Russia can be full of bureaucratic red tape for the average citizen. There are lots of rules to follow, forms to fill out, licenses to obtain, job descriptions to be approved. But, the situation can be even more complicated for those who work for non-governmental organizations that the government sees as a threat. That is according to Matthew Schaaf, an NGO liaison for Human Rights watch here in Moscow.

"Organizations that work on controversial issues or that are affiliated with political opposition have more trouble with the authorities," he said.

One such organization is Golos Samara, a voters rights group situated in Samara, on the Volga River, in the south of the country. It was the site of the 2007 summit between the European Union and Russia.

Schaaf says, before the meeting, the government cracked down on NGOs throughout the area. It did not matter what the organization specialized in.

"A voters rights NGO came to their office one day to find that the whole building was locked because of fire safety violations," he said. "They were also accused of using illegal software. The director of the organization was forced to take a psychiatric examination."

Schaaf says the government has been using a 2006 law, that allows for unnecessary audits and demands that NGOs maintain cumbersome and unnecessary paperwork; just to make it more difficult for them to operate.

Shaaf also says that the government has been using whatever laws it can to shut down organizations dedicated to civic activism.

"Anti-extremism legislation has been used to pressure an environmental NGO to stop work on environmental issues," he added.

In 2006, the Russian parliament passed anti-extremism legislation that expanded the definition of extremism to include the slandering of a public official, hindering the work of authorities and involvement in hooliganism or vandalism for ideological, religious or ethnic reasons.

Russian officials claim the legislation will stop hate crimes. Oppositionists say the law is just one of many that the Kremlin uses to force NGOs out of Russia.

Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the Sova Center for Information and Analysis in Moscow, an organization dedicated to researching nationalism and xenophobia in Russia.

He says it is ironic that the Russian government is using anti-extremism legislation to prosecute NGOs, when he has received death threats from skinheads, because of the work he does.

"Some Neo-Nazi groups, they sent us death threats by e-mail or by phone," he said. "Some even came to my house. They even sent me a video. It explained that I am an enemy of Russian people, that I support terrorists. My house was exposed, my address, my photo."

Verkhovsky says, despite the fact that most of his personal information was posted on the Web for all to see, police have done nothing to get the information removed or identify suspects. And, he says the worst thing is that he does not even know if the investigation is active.

"Officially, I was never called to the police station," he said. "They never called me on the phone. From an official point of view, I know nothing. I know my local police station. They are not interested in this type of investigation and really are not involved."

Despite Verkhovsky's skepticism about the Russian government's willingness to help NGOs, the State Duma is debating a bill that would ease some of the tighter regulations governing NGOs.

The amendments are meant to decrease the number of documents NGOs are required to provide and ease the registration process.

Matthew Schaaf, with Human Rights Watch, points out that the new law only affects one third of the NGOs in Russia. And, he says it does not address some of the bigger issues NGOs face, like violence.

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