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Russia: NGOs Denounce Proposed Status Changes As Move To Curb Their Activities
By Claire Bigg
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

The State Duma is poised to consider a series of amendments that would force all nongovernmental organizations to register with a state commission within a year. Most NGOs have expressed outrage over the proposed changes, which they say are an attempt by Russian authorities to rein in organizations whose activities they disapprove of.

Moscow, 11 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The proposed amendments to three existing laws were introduced into the State Duma this week by a group of deputies, including members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

Duma Deputy Vladimir Pligin said the proposed changes are aimed chiefly at curtailing money laundering by NGOs. The changes, he said, would enable the authorities to step up their fight against terrorism and extremism on Russian territory.

If the amendments are passed in their present form, NGOs will have to gain approval from a special state commission within a year in order to be able to pursue their activities.

NGOs in Russia have suggested that the proposed changes might be a pretext to crack down on organizations that are critical of the authorities.

Viktor Kremenyuk, the deputy head of the USA-Canada Institute, a Moscow-based foreign-policy think tank, calls the amendments an "assault" against not only pro-democracy groups but also a wide range of scholars.

"They will now most likely start cracking down on foundations, there's no doubt about that. It is a rather stupid, awkward, attempt to once more tighten control over what is happening inside the country," Kremenyuk said. "I am worried for sciences, for social sciences, for scholars, for people who hold views different to those that prevail in the Duma. It is an assault against all of us, a restriction of our rights."

Colored Revolutions

Nongovernmental organizations have irked some senior Russian officials. They say that NGOs --both local and foreign-funded -- have helped instigate popular protests that led to changes of power in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in July he would not allow foreign countries to fund what he called "political activities" via nonprofit organizations.

Many foreign NGOs fear the amendments, if passed, would force them to close down.

Under the proposed amendments, foreign NGOs such as U.S.-based Human Rights Watch or U.K.-based Amnesty International would no longer be able to operate in Russia through a representative office as they do now. Instead, they would have to reregister as a financially independent structure -- a status many NGOs fear they might struggle to obtain.

The proposal has fueled fears that Russia is following the lead of Belarus toward an increasingly authoritarian form of government. In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has imposed severe control over NGOs.

Aleksandr Cherkasov, a senior member of the Russian human rights group Memorial, says the proposed amendments remind him of Stalinist times.

"Nongovernmental organizations -- after political parties, state structures, and mass media -- are the last structures untouched by state control. If they want to pass it, if they want to build civil society according to a Belarusian scenario, then everything is clear," Cherkasov said. "But then this system should not be called modern -- we are going back to Stalin's Soviet Union, and we shouldn't delude ourselves on this account."

Cherkasov says Memorial plans to organize a campaign to protest the amendments. Veteran rights activist Lyudmila Alekeeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, has also vowed her organization will do everything to prevent the amendments from being signed into law.