May 18, 2007
U.S. Cash Is Lifeblood Of Dozens of NGOs
By Nabi Abdullaev
Some of the country's best-known human rights organizations say they couldn't make it without the U.S. government.
Moscow Helsinki Group, Memorial and For Human Rights are among dozens of Kremlin-critical NGOs that rely heavily on funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, backed by the U.S. Congress, and other foreign sources.
The reason is that they cannot count on corporate grants, as NGOs do in the West, or support from the government, which abhors criticism, said Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of Memorial, which tracks human rights abuses in Chechnya.
"We are almost exclusively being supported by foreign grants these days," said Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of Sova, the country's leading research center on ethnic hatred, which also receives support from the National Endowment for Democracy.
More than 90 percent of all funding for the human rights community comes from abroad, said Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Demos human rights group. She previously worked for six years as program officer for Moscow Helsinki Group.
The Moscow Helsinki Group was one of the first human rights groups to be accused by the Kremlin of improperly accepting money from a foreign government -- Britain -- after a British Embassy official who handled grant money was accused of wrongdoing by the Federal Security Service amid a spy flap in early 2006.
The claims surfaced weeks after Putin signed a controversial law that bans NGOs from participating in political activities and establishes restrictions on foreign grants.
Putin, speaking in support of the legislation, said: "Whether these organizations want it or not, they have become an instrument in the hands of foreign states that use them to achieve their own political objectives. This situation is unacceptable. This law is designed to prevent interference in Russia's internal political life by foreign countries and create transparent conditions for the financing of nongovernmental organizations."
There is no legal definition of what constitutes "political life," so authorities can easily interpret any NGO activity as such, Lokshina said.
In addition, authorities can portray any political activity as extremist, said Cherkasov of Memorial.
Throw foreign money into the mix, and authorities have a perfect pretext to accuse NGOs of being tools to advance the interests of foreign governments, Lokshina said.
The National Endowment for Democracy offered grants worth $2.5 million to 51 Russian NGOs last year. The amount was an increase of about $500,000 from the previous year, while the budget for 2007 is back at $2 million.
John Squier, the organization's senior program officer for Russia and Ukraine, stressed that no money goes anywhere near politics.
"We are forbidden from offering support to parties and the election process. NED can get in trouble for this at home," he said.