Russia reins in 'foreign influence'
The legislature wants to tighten state control of 450,000 civic groups.
MOSCOW — The headquarters for Open Russia in downtown Moscow was known as "The Citadel" for its turreted Gothic facade.
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.
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.
"This option does not suit us, because we have a very international team," says Alexander Petrov, Russian deputy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "A decade ago it would have been hard to imagine what is happening now. It would have looked like an anti-utopia," he says.
Expert think tanks could also be singled out under the new law. "It's hardly surprising that Russian foreign policy is misinterpreted abroad," deputy foreign minister Alexander Yakovenko told a conference last week. "This happens because the Russian and Western media cite the opinions of NGOs that are heavily bankrolled with foreign capital."
Duma deputy Alexei Ostrovsky, a co-author of the law, estimates up to a quarter of Russian NGOs receive money from abroad. These include hundreds of groups whose activities often entail criticism of state policy, such as environmentalists, human-rights monitors, consumer advocates, anticonscription activists, and many others.
Some foreign funding comes from government sources, such as USAID or the European Union's TACIS, but much originates with private donors such as the Ford or MacArthur Foundations. Russian NGO workers say they accept foreign money because few local businesses are willing to donate.
One wealthy Russian who did contribute generously to civil society groups - Khodorkovsky - was singled out for prosecution, many experts say, because his "political activities" angered the Kremlin.
Last month the Duma amended the 2006 state budget to include 500 million rubles (about $17 million) for "developing democracy in Russia and abroad," a step many NGOs have welcomed.
But Simonov argues that it's a sign the Kremlin aims to replace independent civil society with tame NGOs.
"Whenever I apply for foreign grants, I propose what I'm going to do and they decide whether to fund it," he says. "With the Russian government, they're always proposing what I should do with any funds they give me."
Under existing laws, NGOs already report on their sources of funding to tax authorities. The new rules would require them to register with a special state agency, which will scrutinize each NGO's accounts and activities before deciding whether to close it down or not.
Ella Pamfilova, who heads the Kremlin's council on developing civil society, says she fears the law will hand too much power to bureaucrats.
"I don't see the need for such a controversial, raw, bribe-inducing bill that gives government officials a lot of leeway for lawlessness," she says. "When any official gets criticized, he'll now have 10 times more ways to shut down a public organization by accusing it of being engaged in political activities."
Even some groups whose focus is far from politics say that they are worried.
"We already face all kinds of difficulties and [the bureaucratic hurdles] involved in re-registering could lead to serious difficulties," says Yury Kapsrov, president of the Russian Society of New Music, an association of musicians. "There already isn't any state funding for artists' unions. If they make things tougher, it could lead to collapse."
In response to critics, Putin said Monday that the bill should be toned down. His administration would send amendments to the Duma in the next five days.
"The main achievements of modern Russia are the democratic process and civil society, and we must make sure that we do not, as they say, throw the baby out with the bath water," said Putin.