The NGO Bill - What A Mistake

Posted in Russia | 24-Nov-05 | Author: Jules Evans

Bill Bowring
Bill Bowring
Professor Bill Bowring is one of Europe’s leading experts on judicial reform in Russia. The professor, who is also a British barrister, has advised the Council of Europe and the European Commission on the Russian legal system, has worked on Russian law for 12 years, and has a Russian wife.

Nonetheless, this distinguished legal expert was refused entry to the country two weeks ago. “I was kept waiting for six hours at the airport, then the officials cancelled my multi-entry visa, and said I was being deported and that the order ‘came from above’.”

Bowring was flying to Nizhny Novgorod to defend an NGO called the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which has come under sustained legal assault over the past few months. The NGO publishes a newsletter, which earlier this year printed interviews with Akhmed Zakayev and Aslan Maskhadov. The editor was then accused by the authorities of “inciting ethnic hatred”, a charge which carries a prison sentence of five years.

In addition, the Ministry of Finance ruled that two grants the NGO had received, from the EU and the US government, should be accounted for as profit, therefore the NGO owned around $30,000 in back-taxes. It was thus accused of tax evasion.

This week, the NGO is fighting these and other charges in a Nizhny Novgorod court to try and stay open. The good news is, Bowring tells me the NGO this week beat the Ministry of Justice’s latest attempt to close it down in court.

The bad news is, this state attack on an NGO is not an isolated incident. It is part of a general campaign to make NGOs dependent on the state.

This campaign took a major step forward yesterday, when a proposed amendment passed its first reading in the Duma. The amendment, as most of you know, will force all of Russia’s NGOs, of which there are between 300,000 and 600,000, to re-register with the Ministry of Justice in 2006.

That in itself will be a major shock – it is far from clear if the Ministry of Justice has the resources to cope with applications from as many as 600,000 organizations in 12 months, but if NGOs fail to register, they will have to close.

In addition, the amendment will severely curtail civil society’s access to funding from foreign organizations such as USAID, DFID and TACIS. Donations from Russian businesses to organizations involved in anything remotely political – such as media, human rights, ecology, health, advocacy etc – are very slim, so these organizations rely to a great extent on foreign funding. If the amendment passes as planned, many of these organizations could be forced to close.

Moreover, Russian branches of foreign NGOs and think-tanks will have to close and re-register as Russian branches funded with Russian money. In several cases, this will go against the NGOs’ charter, and force them to close.

Considering what a devastating impact this amendment would have on Russia’s quite vibrant civil society, on hundreds of thousands of NGOs and all the accumulated expertise that has built up in them, it is shocking to see how quickly this bill is going through the Duma, and how little genuine scrutiny of the bill there has been.

Yesterday, after about half an hour of discussion, the bill was approved by 370 votes for, with 18 against. Not one of the three main national TV channels saw fit to mention the bill in their main news shows. The second and third readings are set for December 9, and the bill could become law by January 1.

Liberal MP Vladimir Ryzhkov was one of the few to vote against the bill. He says: “It is one of the most scandalous laws adopted by the Duma in the last few years. At least 50% of Russian NGOs would be forced to close, as well as most foreign NGOs.” Ryzhkov points out that the bill directly contradicts the Russian Constitution, and UN conventions to which Russia is a signatory.

NGOs who would be threatened with closure include venerable institutions such as Memorial, Glasnost Defense Foundation and the Moscow Helsinki Group, many of which were set up by dissidents in the Perestroika era. It is interesting to reflect that these groups could survive under Gorbachev’s USSR, but may not be able to do so under Putin’s ‘democracy’.

Many foreign NGOs may have to close too, such as Amnesty International, Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, the Carnegie Center for International Peace, Medecins Sans Frontieres and others. These organizations are present all over the world, but would be unable to exist in Russia.

Their forced closure would be a great step back from Russia’s integration into the international community. As senators Jack Kemp and John Edwards, the heads of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Russia task-force, said in a letter to president Bush: “It would roll back pluralism and curtail contact between our societies”.

Or as journalist Rustem Talyakhov put it more starkly in an article Gazeta yesterday: “January 1 [when the law is due to come into effect] will go down in history as the day of the 'iron curtain'. On this day the Kremlin, gripped by the 'orange paranoia' - the fear of the Ukrainian square - will, once more, as in Soviet days, try to curtain itself off from the rest of the world”.

What a mistake this bill is. On that very same day, January 1, Russia will assume presidency of the G8 group, and come under the most sustained international scrutiny of Putin’s reign. As Ryzhkov says: “This will be a scandalous start. One of the foreign NGOs that will be forced to close is the International Republican Institute, whose president is Senator John McCain. He’s already calling for Russia to be expelled from the G8. Imagine what ammunition this will give him.”

And why has the bill been passed? Supposedly to prevent an Orange Revolution in Russia, according to one of its sponsors, Liberal Democrat Alexei Ostrovsky. But does anyone sane seriously think there is any chance of an Orange Revolution here in the next few years? With about 5% support for liberal parties?

The bill will also prevent “extremism” – i.e. any NGOs operating in the Caucasus that point out the state’s abuses there, so the region will become even more of a black-box, just as the security services want it.

But what the bill would really do, it seems to me, is make unnecessary enemies. It is too late to put the genie of civil society back in the bottle. As many as 600,000 NGOs exist, some with track records going back almost 20 years. The Kremlin is trying to make this sector dependent on it, financially and morally. It is trying to create puppet NGOs – Business Russia instead of the RSPP, Nashi instead of genuine youth NGOs.

But it is just as likely that these clumsy attempts to close down genuinely independent civil society will radicalize middle-class people against the government, people who had every desire to work with it. And it will certainly harden international opinion against Russia, just when the country is trying to ‘act liberal’ for its G8 presidency.

Who gave Putin the terrible advice to launch this amendment? Sources suggest it was the Lubyanka, from where the most paranoid comments against Orange Revolutions and Chechen NGOs have been expressed. If only Putin had some balancing voices to listen to, so as to balance out the blinkered paranoia of Patrushev. That’s precisely what you need civil society for – to provide other, saner voices, when the dark voice of Russian paranoia grows too loud.

Julian Evans is a British freelance journalist based in Moscow

Published in: Eurasian Home web site