January 26, 2003
Rights Groups Squeezed by Russian Tax Law
New Levy Imposed on Some Foreign Grants Seen as Display of Anti-Western
By Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service
MOSCOW -- Virtually nothing has stopped a determined band of women from
demanding that the Russian military improve its treatment of troops, as the
plastic binders bulging with case records in their dusty office show.
For nearly a decade, the Soldiers' Mothers Committee has withstood the
wrath of high-ranking officers, military prosecutors and defense ministers,
including the current one, who this month all but accused the group of
encouraging soldiers to desert their units.
But the latest conflict with the Russian government has given even the
battle-hardened leaders of this organization pause. A little-noticed
regulation issued in November specified for the first time what types of
foreign grants are exempt from taxes: those intended to promote culture,
improve the environment and advance scientific research or education.
Conspicuously missing from the list was any mention of human rights or
The new rule could allow the government to claim nearly one-fourth of the
money given through grants to human rights organizations such as the
Soldiers' Mothers Committee. "It is horrible that activities that promote
civil society and help make Russia a democracy are not included on this
list of activities that qualify for tax-free grants," said Arseny Roginsky,
chairman of Memorial, one of Russia's most respected human rights groups.
Some activists said they fear that the regulation is part of a recent
display of anti-Western sentiment in the Kremlin after more than a year of
determined efforts by President Vladimir Putin to ally himself with Western
leaders. While the basic thrust of Putin's foreign policy is still solidly
pro-West, it appears to be fraying at the edges with Russia's recent
decisions to expel Peace Corps workers, a European mission to monitor human
rights in Chechnya and an American labor activist.
Roginsky said the regulation on grants is another reminder that Russia's
suspicion about foreign organizations lingers even as it proclaims itself
the West's new friend. "The Russian authorities do not sympathize with
Western foreign foundations," said Roginsky, whose group is largely
financed by the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute of the Soros
"They think that Western foundations want something that is not written in
their papers . . . such as control," he said.
Even if it is not enforced, activists said, the new regulation boosts the
government's leverage over human rights groups. "What sources of funds do
these organizations have besides foreign grants?" said Mara Polyakova,
director of the Western-funded Council of Independent Legal Expertise,
which advises nonprofit groups. "For many of them, it is a question of
Galina Zinkova, a Finance Ministry specialist, said the regulation was
adopted to comply with the limits on tax-free grants established by
Russia's new tax code. "It is not that we just took those fields and
programs from our heads," she said.
Some leaders of nonprofit groups saw a hint of a more restrictive policy in
Putin's remarks to them in June 2001. He told them their dependence on
foreign funds "doesn't do us credit."
"Our civil society must develop its own base," he said. "The state in
Russia has grown strong enough to provide and support the rights and
liberties of its citizens."
The women at the Soldiers' Mothers Committee take issue with that. As they
see it, they wage a lonely battle against the abuses of Russia's military
against its own, including a widespread pattern of beatings and violence
that claims hundreds of lives a year.
The group depends on grants from the Council of Europe -- of which Russia
is a member -- and the German government, each of which contributes about
$15,000 a year, according to the group's accountant. Private donors kick in
about another $10,000.
The group doesn't look to the Russian government for moral support, either.
Pavel Grachev, Russia's defense minister from 1992 to 1996, once
characterized the group as a public menace.
Sergei Ivanov, Putin's defense minister, said this month that servicemen
should rely on their commanding officers or military prosecutors, not on
"the so-called Committee of Soldiers' Mothers."
"Who supports them? What do they live on?" he asked, according to an
account in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Alexander Savenkov, Russia's military prosecutor, told reporters that two
groups that defend the rights of soldiers "are not always scrupulous in
their choices of sources of funding" and sometimes violate the law. He did
not name the organizations and said he was pleased with the work of most
Ivanov's criticism came several days after two dozen soldiers fled their
unit and showed up at the Soldiers' Mothers Committee chapter in St.
Petersburg. The soldiers said their captain had thrown stools at them and
their major beat them. A spokesman for the unit said the servicemen were
unhappy because they were not permitted to drink.
At the office of the group's Moscow chapter, workers took Ivanov's
disapproval in stride.
"Ministers of defense come and go," said Maria Fedulova, as she punched the
buttons on the telephone trying to discover what happened to a 20-year-old
soldier who disappeared from his unit in October.
"And we stay. We've been here 14 years, and we're permanent."