January 18, 2006
Putin Quietly Signed NGO Bill Last Week
By Francesca Mereu
President Vladimir Putin last week quietly signed into law the bill that will increase state control over nongovernmental organizations, but the news was not made public until Tuesday, when it was published in the official government newspaper.
The seven-day delay appeared to be an attempt to avoid embarrassing questions from new German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made her first visit to Moscow on Monday and met with NGO leaders after her talks with Putin.
The bill flew through both houses of parliament amid mounting public criticism late last year, and Putin approved it on Jan. 10 -- exactly 14 days after it reached his desk. By law, Putin has only 14 days to decide whether to sign a bill.
The law will come into force April 10.
The notice about Putin's signing was published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Tuesday.
A similar notice could not be found in the section of the Kremlin web site devoted to new laws on Tuesday night. The presidential press service explained that the web site was reserved for laws that the public needs to know about, Gazeta.ru reported.
Asked why Rossiiskaya Gazeta had waited a week to publish the announcement, the newspaper's deputy editor, Timofei Kuznetsov, said, "This is not a pressing law. It does not come into force from the moment it is published, but within 90 days [of being signed]," Gazeta.ru reported.
In actuality, Kremlin watchers said, the presidential administration has developed a practice of being secretive about controversial legislation.
"In this case, the reason was simple: It was clear that Merkel was going to raise the NGO issue, and the Kremlin tried to avoid giving her the occasion to do so," said Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with the Indem think tank.
Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, a leading NGO, said the Kremlin had succeeded in avoiding a possible confrontation. "The bill got only mild criticism from Merkel," he said.
At a news conference after Monday's talks with Putin, Merkel noted the "many objections among the public" to the legislation and said Germany would "closely monitor how it is observed in practice."
German Embassy spokesman Brett Wolfgang declined comment on the issue Tuesday, except to reiterate that Merkel would wait "to see the practical application of the new legislation."
Putin stressed at Monday's news conference that "no harm will be done to NGOs that operate in accordance with their stated goals."
The law establishes a new agency to oversee the registration, financing and activities of the more than 400,000 NGOs that operate in Russia. The agency -- not the court -- will determine if an NGO should be shuttered for offenses such as using foreign money for political activities and engaging in activities unrelated to its stated goals.
After vocal protests from Russian and foreign NGOs while the bill was still in the Duma, Putin ordered deputies to remove a requirement that foreign NGOs reregister as Russian entities and become subject to stricter rules -- a rule that would have closed all foreign NGOs.
The legislation followed a warning by Putin last summer that Russia would not tolerate NGOs that used foreign money to finance political activities. The Kremlin is worried about the key role that NGOs played in the peaceful election-time uprisings that ousted regimes in Ukraine in 2004 and in Georgia a year earlier. Duma elections will be held next year, and the presidential election will take place in 2008.
Yelena Yershova, the president of the Consortium of Women's NGOs and a member of the newly formed Public Chamber, expressed dismay that Putin had signed the bill before the Public Chamber had had a chance to weigh in.
"We had a lot of remarks concerning that bill," she said.
"I don't understand what the president is doing. On the one hand, he takes steps to reinforce civil society and creates the Public Chamber. But on the other side, he backs that terrible law that would restrict NGO activities," she said.
Yershova said Public Chamber members would raise the issue when they met with Putin during their inaugural meeting on Sunday.
Putin ordered the chamber set up after the Beslan hostage-taking in 2004, ostensibly as way to give civil society a voice in government affairs. Critics call the chamber toothless. It can offer nonbinding recommendations to the government and the parliament on domestic policy, weigh in on legislation, request investigations into possible breaches of the law and request information from state agencies.
Alexander Chuyev, a Rodina Duma deputy, predicted Tuesday that no more than 5 percent to 7 percent of NGOs would be closed under the new law, Ekho Moskvy reported.
But Ponomaryov of For Human Rights warned that the consequences would be grave for many. "NGOs will become like Soviet dissidents: They can criticize the Kremlin only from home and not publicly," he said.
Human rights group Amnesty International, which had urged Putin to reject the bill, said in a statement that it regretted his decision and repeated its concern that the law gives the authorities excessive powers of scrutiny and discretion, which could be abused.
Russia's ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, acknowledged that he had concerns about the law but echoed Merkel in suggesting a watch-and-wait approach.
"Let's wait and see how the law works," he said. "I will report any human rights violations to the president."