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Russia Profile
December 21, 2005
Some Impermissible Absurdities
What Will the NGO Law Really Prevent?

Comment by Yelena Rykovtseva

The changes to the law on non-profit organizations have been one continuous mishap. The story started in the summer, when President Vladimir Putin announced that financing of political activity from abroad must be forbidden. In fact, Putin had addressed this subject more then once before, but this time he must have sounded so tough that his words were interpreted as a guide to action: The law on non-profit organizations should be stricter. Foreign financing of political activities in Russia must be controlled only in this way will there be no funding of a Russian “colored” revolution, at least by means of foreign money.

And here the mishaps began. In the amendments that provoked such a big scandal, it was possible to find everything from a senseless demand that foreign agencies should register as Russian non-profit organizations to a presumption that the state should control how non-profit organizations spend their funds. Were they passed, all these amendments could only bring one result: an expansion of the bureaucratic apparatus, as well as an increase in routine paperwork. The activity of non-profit organizations would virtually be paralyzed by bureaucratic procedure.

The paradox of the situation was, however, that none of the amendments contained any mention of “impermissible political activities.” Moreover, none of the existing laws say that non-profit organizations have no right to take part in political activities using foreign money. Putin talks about it all the time, but the legislation keeps mostly silent (the law does prohibit direct financing of elections and political parties from abroad.) But, since everybody remembers that Putin’s words were the motivation behind the amendments, they continue to argue about his words, not the text of the amendments.

Then came another absurdity. Putin asked the parliament to “amend the amendments” by repealing some of the most ridiculous items but, at the same time, suggested several dubious ideas of his own, such as the idea that not only organizations, but all Russians, must let the authorities know if they received money free of charge from international or foreign organizations. In other words, Putin’s ideas had both reasonable and unreasonable aspects, but again, nothing was said about “illegal political activity.” And again, paradoxical as it may seem, the president was assailed for this by human rights activists. “Basically, the items that directly contradict international law and the Constitution of Russian Federation were repealed,” commented Yury Dzhibladze, the president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. “However, the emphasis of the law on toughening state control over international, Russian and foreign non-profit organizations was not only preserved, but even became stronger. And, most importantly, the law still does not have a definition of what ‘impermissible political activity’ should be denied foreign funding. It means that the part of the government that has the right to control and limit non-profit organizations will be motivated by an arbitrary interpretation of this ‘impermissible political activity.’”

I asked Dmitry Orlov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, why the authorities calling for the amendments as a necessary measure to stop illegal activity of non-profit organizations do not give any examples of this behavior. He answered that there are some concrete examples legal, non-profit agencies in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan that received money from Saudi Arabia. This money was spent, accounted for, and went to terrorists. But, certainly, some other laws can be used to stop the activity of such agencies, for example, the law on combating terrorism. This law means simply that the government wants to smash “political activity” rather than terrorism.

Truthfully, the amendments should have been hampered and then buried, since the changes did not and could not serve their original purpose. However, the president and the deputies who proposed the amendments are trying to save face. And chances are that the amendments will be passed. It will make life very difficult, almost impossible, for non-profit organizations. By no means could such a law prevent a “colored” revolution, because these revolutions are caused not by money, but by political situations. It is just more comfortable for the authorities to blame foreigners for all their problems than themselves. If this blame was only limited to verbal comments, there would be no scandal. But there should be limits on attempts to morph it into written legal action.