November 9, 2005
Bill Will Force All NGOs to Reregister
By Anatoly Medetsky
The State Duma is taking steps to force all nongovernmental organizations to reregister ahead of upcoming national elections, and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia face a very real threat of being shut down.
Remaining NGOs would be brought under close state control, according to a bill submitted to the State Duma late Monday.
The bill, titled "Amendments to Several Laws of the Russian Federation," appears to have a good chance of passing because it is being sponsored by a group of deputies from all four Duma factions.
Deputy Alexei Ostrovsky, a member of the Liberal Democratic party and one of the bill's sponsors, said the legislation should help the government crack down on politically active NGOs that receive foreign funding and might use the money to promote an Orange Revolution.
Ostrovsky linked the bill to comments made by President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with human rights activists on July 20. Putin told the meeting that he would not tolerate foreign money being used to finance the political activities of nongovernmental organizations.
Government officials have repeatedly accused Western countries of helping bankroll Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year and Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 through NGOs, and the Kremlin is worried that Duma elections in 2007 and the presidential vote in 2008 could trigger a similar popular uprising.
Adding to its worries, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a budget bill last Friday that would provide $4 million for the development of political parties in Russia, RIA-Novosti reported.
NGOs on Tuesday decried the Duma bill as unconstitutional and said it attempted to silence critical voices and limit civil freedoms.
"It would be used as a tool against NGOs that criticize the government's policy," said Alexander Petrov, head of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "We might have to work from abroad as in old Soviet times."
Under the bill, Human Rights Watch would have to close its Moscow office, said Alla Tolmasova, a lawyer with the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights who has studied the legislation.
The bill would bar foreign NGOs from having representative offices or branches in Russia, she said.
Foreign NGOs would be able to operate only by opening financially independent organizations that rely on grants like Russian NGOs, said Oleg Orlov, the head of the Memorial human rights group.
If Human Rights Watch had to do that, it would have to pay a large portion of the grants as taxes, Petrov said. Only a limited, government-approved list of foreign donors are allowed to issue tax-free grants in Russia, he said.
The new funding arrangement would also mean that foreign NGOs would be unable to hire expensive lawyers to challenge the possible pressure from the authorities, Orlov said.
Ostrovsky, the Duma deputy, said that if the bill became law, the 450,000 NGOs currently registered in Russia would have one year to reregister with the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service. The service will, in turn, be required to make sure the NGOs do not use foreign grants to fund political activities, he said.
Orlov complained that the bill would allow registration officials to demand NGOs to open up their financial records at any time. The financial oversight would come in addition to checks by tax authorities and further distract NGOs from their activities, he said. NGOs currently also have to file quarterly and annual financial reports to the Federal Tax Service.
Compulsory registration contradicts the Constitution, which says people have the right to assemble without registration, said Yelena Topoleva, head of the Agency for Social Information, an NGO that promotes and manages charity projects.
Many NGOs do not have official registration, and those that open bank accounts register only with the Federal Tax Service, she said. She noted that compulsory registration would give authorities the opportunity to filter out critical NGOs over technicalities, such as the choice of words in their applications.
Rodina Duma Deputy Alexander Chuyev, another sponsor of the bill, said it would prohibit people convicted of crimes and companies suspected of money laundering or assisting terrorists from founding NGOs. That provision would shut down Open Russia, whose founder, Khodorkovsky, is serving an eight-year sentence on politically tinged charges of fraud and tax evasion. Orlov said the provision would unfairly affect people who had committed only minor offenses.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the bill covered convicts from both Soviet-era and modern-day Russia.
Ostrovsky said the bill would also close down groups that claim to educate people about religion but in fact "are sects for expropriating people's money." He did not elaborate.
The Duma had not released a copy of the bill as of Tuesday, but several NGOs said they had obtained copies through their contacts in the Duma.
A group of NGOs are drawing up an appeal to the Duma to reject the bill, and Orlov, who is a member of the presidential Council for Fostering the Development of Civil Society, said he hoped the council would advise Putin against signing the bill into law.
The Duma Council is expected to set a date for a first reading of the bill within the next two weeks. The vote could take place in December or early next year, Ostrovsky said.
Other former Soviet republics have taken a second look at NGOs after the uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine. In Uzbekistan, where thousands of people are in prison for what human rights groups call political or religious reasons, the government of President Islam Karimov decided early this year to require foreign nongovernmental organizations to register with the Justice Ministry.
NGOs also reported pressure in Kyrgyzstan ahead of an uprising in March that ousted the country's longtime president.