No need to fear the color orange

A year old, Ukraine's "orange revolution" is receiving strong push back - from outside the country. Autocratic governments from China to Uzbekistan, fearful of the spread of street protests, have cracked down on the type of nonprofit, activist groups that played a key role in Ukraine's about-face to democracy.

Of course, it was the Ukrainians' desire for freedom that overturned last year's fraudulent presidential election. But they were greatly helped by foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which put them through democracy basic training, teaching them how to monitor elections and organize opposition.

The explosive growth of NGOs since the end of the cold war - and their role in democratic revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan - threatens certain governments. Now Russia, which has grown alarmingly authoritarian under President Vladimir Putin, is considering disturbing changes that would make it virtually impossible for foreign-funded NGOs to operate there.

From Mr. Putin, his intelligence chief, and the Kremlin-friendly parliament, come charges that the nonprofits are money launderers, fronts for CIA spies, and vehicles for foreign meddling in internal politics.

Certainly, the NGO world is not above reproach. So-called "briefcase" NGOs open shop and solicit funds under false pretenses. Ethics standards are voluntary and varied in a burgeoning worldwide sector that encompasses millions of nonprofits involved in everything from disaster relief to cultural promotion.

But Russia's government is not interested in trying to work through these problems. If it were, it wouldn't be considering a bear swipe to all these groups. Legislation that has passed a first stage of approval in the Duma would require foreign NGOs to register as Russian local entities that would be subject to state controls on foreign funds and employees - essentially closing them. Tighter controls would also restrict Russia's fledgling domestic nonprofits.

This would mean eliminating or limiting the roughly 400,000 NGOs in Russia - the vast majority of which are committed to social work with children, veterans, the disabled, and so on. Human Rights Watch would probably leave, but so would the philanthropist Ford Foundation.

President Bush recently raised the issue with Putin. US and European leaders should keep up the pressure. They should point out the irony of Moscow shutting out foreign nonprofit dollars when Russia does plenty of its own promoting abroad. They might suggest establishing some NGO norms - such as no foreign contributions to political campaigns (a US law).

But most importantly they should remind Putin that the nonprofit sector fills holes a government can't, and that open societies - if they are responding to their publics - have nothing to fear from NGOs. In fact, they can benefit from their criticisms. (Where would the US be, for instance, without the civil rights movement?)

This legislation still has several stages to pass before it becomes law. Putin can show he's not afraid of the color orange, and stop this backward step toward the old Soviet system. Or he can reveal his true colors, and approve it.

Let's hope it's the former.

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