November 21, 2005
Duma Gives $17.4M to NGOs
By Francesca Mereu and Oksana Yablokova
The State Duma voted Friday to allocate 500 million rubles ($17.4 million) to promote civil society in Russia and defend the rights of Russians in the Baltic countries.
Critics said the money was likely to go only to groups that support the Kremlin and was another step in the Kremlin's campaign to bring nongovernmental organizations under its wing.
The new funding was seen as a response to a vote in the U.S. Congress earlier this month to allocate $4 million for the development of political parties in Russia.
"We think that we have to finance civil society institutions not only in our country, but also abroad, in the Baltic countries," Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin of United Russia said Friday, Interfax reported.
"Look, democracy, freedom and human rights are being violated. It is necessary to develop democracy in those countries," Volodin said.
Ironically, the measure comes as deputies prepare to address what they and the Kremlin see as undue foreign influence in Russia's NGO community. The Duma is scheduled to consider a controversial bill on Wednesday that would forbid NGOs from accepting foreign grants for any activities deemed political and effectively prevent international nonprofit organizations from operating in Russia.
The proposed restrictions have caused concern in Russia and abroad. Members of the Public Chamber have asked the Duma to delay taking up the NGO legislation until its consequences can be fully scrutinized, and U.S. President George W. Bush raised the issue in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
The $17.4 million for civil society was contained in a United Russia-sponsored amendment to the 2006 budget, which the Duma passed Friday in the third of four required readings. When passed in the final reading, the budget goes to the Federation Council and then to Putin to be signed into law.
Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights group, said the Kremlin would likely use some of the money for projects aimed at improving its image outside Russia.
"In a way, it will be a return to the Soviet Union, with a number of pseudo-human rights groups specializing in criticism of what is going on in other countries in order to distract attention from what is going on inside Russia," Ponomaryov said.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy, called United Russia's initiative ridiculous.
"Over the past five years, United Russia has been doing everything to strangle democracy in Russia by rubberstamping one anti-democratic bill after another," he said.
"Very likely these funds will go to propagandists close to the Kremlin who will spend them on dubious PR projects, including one in the Baltics," Ryzhkov said.
Modest Kolerov, the head of the presidential administration's Department for Interregional and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and the CIS, said Friday that the state financing of Russian nongovernmental organizations was an important step toward developing democracy, since it would allow more organizations to get funding.
"Not every social organization in our country gets proper grants," Kolerov said. "And most grants people get from the West represent politically motivated funding."
His department, created in March to promote Russian language, education and culture abroad, is seen as a Kremlin instrument to spread Russian influence in the former Soviet bloc.
Kolerov said it was extremely important to finance NGOs in the Baltic countries, particularly Latvia, where many Russian speakers are without citizenship.
"Those people have almost no rights. Something should be done," he said.
Deputy Duma Speaker Valentin Kuptsov of the Communist Party said his faction would demand thorough accounting of how the money is spent.
Ponomaryov said he would expect the money to be distributed through the Public Chamber. "In this case the funds would likely end up with those groups that are supportive of the Kremlin's line," he said.
The Public Chamber, a Kremlin creation billed as a bridge between civil society and the state, is being packed mostly with people considered loyal to the Kremlin or celebrities.
Thus it was somewhat unexpected when 21 of its members signed a letter sent to the Duma last week asking for the first reading of the NGO bill to be delayed until the Public Chamber could review it.
The Kremlin-backed bill was put forward by all four factions in the Duma, who said they wanted to push the legislation through by the end of the year. The Public Chamber is expected to begin work early next year.
The bill would require all 450,000 NGOs registered in Russia to reregister and show that they do not use foreign grants to fund political activities.
Ahead of his meeting with Putin in South Korea, Bush came under pressure at home to address the NGO issue.
"The impact of this measure, if it became law, should be obvious: It would roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies," former Housing and Development Secretary Jack Kemp, a Republican, and former Senator John Edwards, a Democrat, in a letter to Bush. The two men are chairing a task force on Russian-U.S. policy for the Council on Foreign Relations.
"It would mark a complete breach of the commitment to strengthen such contact that President Putin made when you and he met in Bratislava," in February.
Kemp and Edwards said the campaign to restrict NGOs "raises an almost unthinkable prospect -- that the president of Russia might serve as chairman of the G8 at the same time that laws come into force in his country to choke off contacts with global society."
Bush raised the issue with Putin, but U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley declined to elaborate on the discussion.
"It's a confidential discussion between two leaders, and sometimes there are issues which can more productively be discussed outside of public view,'' Hadley said, the Los Angeles Times reported.