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Foreign NGOs in Russia Face Controversial New Restrictions

Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, has passed a controversial bill, on first reading, that would put new restrictions on foreign charities and human rights groups operating in Russia. Human Rights Watch and other independent rights monitors say the bill aims to totally destroy civil society development in Russia in favor of stronger Kremlin control.

The bill reportedly fast-tracked for consideration by all four factions in the Duma would forbid Russian charities and not-for-profit organizations (or NGOs) from accepting foreign funding for political activities. It would also bar international organizations from having representative or branch offices in Russia or hiring non-Russian workers. Additionally, it would grant the government-wide oversight over such organizations, which presently number around 450,000 in Russia.

Reacting to the proposals in a written statement this week, Human Rights Watch said the proposed law would, in its words, "eviscerate civil society in Russia." The group adds that the measures are especially alarming, given that it says the Kremlin has neutralized other key checks and balances by eliminating most independent media, installing a pliant parliament, and undermining the independence of the Russian judiciary.

The Director of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch, Alexander Petrov, told a recent news conference his organization will fight the proposed changes from becoming law in every way possible. Still, Mr. Petrov says he fears the moves will mean a retreat to Soviet-style repression of the last independent voices capable of criticizing the Russian government.

Mr. Petrov vows that if the bill is passed, rights activists will simply return to methods used during Soviet days. Namely, he says they will be forced to pose as tourists or relatives in order to meet with Russian dissidents and provide mostly informational support, rather than direct project assistance. He characterizes the potential change as "sad," but asks what else is there to do in Russia's ever-changing reality where he says nothing is sacred.

Earlier this year, President Putin told human rights experts in a Kremlin meeting that Russia would no longer allow foreign organizations to finance political activities, believing them to be exerting undue influence in Russia's internal affairs. Some observers say the move reflects the Kremlin's suspicion of such bodies, following the political revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan - traditional zones of Soviet influence.

Duma Deputy Igor Igoshin stands by the proposals and denies that anything untoward is being rushed through Russia's parliament.

Mr. Igoshin says the essence of the new law is not about interference, but restricting convicted criminals, suspected terrorists, and foreigners who have lived less than one year in Russia from founding any such organizations.

The proposed changes are triggering heated debate, and not just among the Russian and foreign human rights community. President Bush also raised concerns about the proposal in confidence during his recent talks with President Putin in South Asia. The bill still has to go through further readings and requires President Putin's signature before it becomes law.

Yegeniy Yasin, a research manager at an Economic Institute, told Russian radio (Echo Moscow) that the new law is so vaguely worded in his view that, if passed, almost any reason could be found to close a foreign non-governmental organization.

Mr. Yasin says the key question for him, and countless others, is just what exactly will be considered to be political activities. Is promoting democracy a political activity, he asks, or is it just people who work with traditional civil society issues like elections, free media, and free speech?

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