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Moscow Times
May 28, 2009
Kremlin Takes Small Step to Ease NGO Law
By Nikolaus von Twickel / The Moscow Times

Russia's stifling NGO law has been labeled a hallmark of former President Vladimir Putin's heavy-handed approach to civil liberties. Likewise, President Dmitry Medvedev's recent promise to review the law has been praised as a sign of his liberalism.

But when the first details of that reform emerged this week, nongovernmental organizations said Medvedev's liberalization turned out to be top-down, leaving them with little extra room to maneuver.

Medvedev promised to enact changes after listening to NGO leaders' complaints at a Kremlin meeting last month, and he set up a nine-member working group to chart the reforms.

The working group -- composed of representatives of the presidential administration, the Justice Ministry, the State Duma, the Federation Council and civil society -- has agreed on two key changes: to ease the registration process and to simplify accounting requirements, said Yury Dzhibladze, a member of the group.

Dzhibladze, director of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, told The Moscow Times that the results were far from what he had hoped to achieve but that they were a "reasonable compromise" given constraints set by Medvedev.

Medvedev on May 8 ordered the group to draw up legislation by this Friday so the Duma could consider it before adjourning for its summer recess.

"The deadline, of course, makes work difficult, because agreeing with the other side takes time," Dzhibladze said.

The proposed changes are meager and won't make life much easier for NGOs, said Jens Siegert, head of the Moscow branch of the Boell Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with Germany's Green party.

The only really positive change would affect the registration process, he said. Under the proposal, registrations and re-registrations will no longer be canceled if deemed incomplete or incorrect but just suspended until missing or corrected documents are handed in.

"Until now, applications were rejected for just one wrong comma or too many blank spaces between words," Siegert said in e-mailed comments.

NGO representatives have also expressed bewilderment at Medvedev's decision to name Vladislav Surkov, his first deputy chief of staff, as the head of the working group. Surkov, who held the same post in Putin's Kremlin, is believed to be the man behind the tough NGO law that is now under scrutiny.

"This made me wonder how difficult [the review] would be, given that Surkov was essentially the key person responsible for policy changes throughout Putin's presidency," Dzhibladze said.

Surkov has established the reputation of being the Kremlin's top ideologue and chief architect of the concept of "sovereign democracy," which is widely seen in the West as a set of measures that undermine democracy.

Surkov's office did not respond to an interview request sent by fax Tuesday.

But Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, said the mere fact that Surkov heads the working group does not rule out the possibility that the law will be liberalized. "Surkov is an opportunist who will consider the interests of both presidents," he said.

Mukhin said Medvedev's order to review the law might be a reflection of his liberal slant or might just reflect pragmatic politics.

The tough NGO law was passed amid government fears that NGOs might be used to mount a serious challenge to the ruling regime in the 2007 Duma elections and the presidential vote in 2008. Fueling those worries was the fact that NGOs played a key role in peacefully toppling the governments of Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.

The next Duma elections are scheduled for December 2011.

"Given its current levels of control, the government takes little risk in demonstrating some liberalism," Mukhin said.

The main point, Mukhin said, is that any liberal changes enacted today can be taken away tomorrow.

Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy with United Russia and a long-standing advocate of the NGO law, said the review of the law had nothing to do with a policy change and had been planned since the law's inception in 2006.

"It was clear from the beginning that we would look at how the law works and then improve it," Markov said in a telephone interview. "Setting up that working group was decided when the law was enacted."

He conceded that reform was necessary to remove bureaucratic burdens for NGOs but was adamant that this was not a sign that Medvedev is more liberal than Putin. "It is a sign of both Dmitry Medvedev's and Vladimir Putin's liberalism," he said.

NGOs said the proposed changes should only be a first step. "They should not stop with the working group," said Mathew Schaaf, an NGO expert with the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch.

He said that next on the list should be the powers of auditors who regularly inspect NGOs on their compliance to the law. "They are allowed to demand practically any document. These are really broad and invasive powers that need to be addressed," he said.

The Boell Foundation's Siegert said that in order to make the law really liberal, the vaguely defined reasons for refusing to register or for closing an organization needed to be changed.

He said, though, that he had little hope that this would be addressed. "Definitions like 'Endangering the sovereignty and national character of Russia' are probably too convenient ... to be discarded," Siegert said.