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Russia reins in 'foreign influence'

The legislature wants to tighten state control of 450,000 civic groups.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2005


The headquarters for Open Russia in downtown Moscow was known as "The Citadel" for its turreted Gothic facade.

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But these days a real bunker mentality prevails inside the civic education center founded by now-imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Like many other Russian nonprofit groups involved with public policy issues, it faces possible closure under new legislation that goes before the Duma next week.

"I don't want to be a Cassandra, but I fear the entire nonprofit sector in Russia is facing dark times," says Irina Yasina, the center's program director. "There is spy mania in Russia, and they are specially scrutinizing any organization that has foreign funding."

All of Russia's estimated 450,000 civic groups - from community sports clubs to charities and nationwide human rights movements - will need to re-register next year with a special state agency. The sweeping amendments to Russia's law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), approved by a Duma majority last month, would add up to levels of state control not seen since Soviet times.

The key goal, spelled out by President Vladimir Putin last week, is to block foreign-funded NGOs from "carrying out what amounts to political activity" in Russia. "Whether these organizations want it or not, they become an instrument in the hands of foreign states that use them to achieve their own political objectives," Mr. Putin said. "This situation is unacceptable."

Russia's FSB security service chief, Nikolai Patrushev, recently blamed foreign-funded NGOs for fomenting revolution in the post-Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. He called for a new law on NGOs, warning that "the imperfectness of [current] legislation and lack of efficient mechanisms for state oversight creates fertile ground for conducting intelligence operations under the guise of charity and other activities."

Monday, Putin said the new law would be a key step in defending Russia from "the spread of terrorist and hateful ideologies."

The law's backers argue that most countries ban foreigners from meddling in local politics, and that the rules are aimed at imposing order in Russia's NGO sector. "There is bacchanalia in the sphere of public organizations, which prevents social consolidation and will lead to the destruction of Russia," says Valery Galchenko, one of the law's authors.

$19 million for what?

Open Russia, which received $19 million from Mr. Khodorkovsky's overseas bank accounts this year, is an obvious target. "The authorities make it sound as though we're instructing people to build barricades," says Ms. Yasina. "But we are engaged with things that would not be considered partisan political activities in any developed country, such as holding classes to teach proper political debate, respect for law, civic cooperation, and tolerance."

Many NGO activists complain the Kremlin is abusing the term "political activity" to mislead the world about its intentions. "What most NGOs do isn't 'politics,' "says Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a 15-year-old media watchdog group. Rather, it's about criticizing or advocating particular policies. It's about developing or defending community interests, he says.

"This new law is aimed at striking fear into the NGO community, and changing the relations between state and society in ways I can only imagine in terms of our Soviet past," Mr. Simonov says.

If the law passes, global NGOs will be required to close their local branches and re-register as Russian organizations.