Russian civil rights groups see threat in Putin oversight

The State Duma is to consider a series of regulations that could restrict or heavily tax funding for Russia's NGOs.

Veronika Marchenko spends much of her time locked in struggle with the Russian government.

But she insists there's nothing unpatriotic about her group, Mothers' Right, which provides legal aid and advocacy services to parents whose sons have died in peacetime military service.

"We find ourselves perpetually in a state of opposition," she says. "Our main goal is to make Russian officials work effectively and according to the law. Unfortunately they do not always do so, and without Mothers' Right, many bereaved parents would be left with no legal assistance at all."

Ms. Marchenko's position seems to dovetail neatly with President Vladimir Putin's emphasis, in a May speech, on the need to build "a mature democracy and a developed civil society" to speed Russia's integration with the modern world.

But Mr. Putin sent chills through Russia's small community of human rights, environmental, and independent journalists' groups by adding this proviso: "Far from all [nongovernmental organization] are geared toward defending the people's real interests," he said. "For some [the priority is] obtaining funding from influential foreign and domestic foundations. For others, it is servicing dubious groups and commercial interests."

A package of tax code amendments presently before the pro-Kremlin State Duma would give teeth to Putin's thought by creating a commission to control funding for NGOs. According to the draft regulations, all foreign or domestic donors will have to go through a tough registration process and provide full details of how the money will be spent. Any "unregistered" contributions are to be taxed at a rate of 24 percent.

As with many Kremlin initiatives under Putin, the proposed rules to govern NGOs have triggered a sharp debate between experts who see them as normal government supervision over social institutions, and those who fear it heralds an authoritarian crackdown on independent grassroots activism.

"There is nothing dramatic going on," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the independent Politika think tank in Moscow. "There is some concern in government that there's a lot of foreign funding of things the state doesn't like. That's nothing new."

Russia currently has about 350,000 civic organizations, most of them sports or hobby clubs, collectors' societies, veterans' associations and other nonpolitical groups. Few receive money from abroad - most have no regular funding at all - and some even say they would welcome more government intervention.

"Any state policy would be preferable to the present chaos," says Alexander Saversky, head of Russia's League for Protection of Patients' Rights, which runs a hot line for reporting medical abuses. Mr. Saversky says he is forced to work part time as a real estate agent to keep the group's work going. "Maybe a state department for the affairs of public organizations would help support groups like ours," he says.

Critics argue the new NGO rules are part of a Putin-era pattern that has included the gagging of independent TV networks, electoral controls that have reduced parliament to a Kremlin rubber stamp, and the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had funded opposition groups. Now, they say, the Kremlin is aiming to straitjacket independent groups that work in human rights, environment, press freedom, and military affairs.

"The situation in Russia has really changed. There are no more independent media or political parties," says Dimitry Bentsis, press secretary for the Moscow-based Movement for Human Rights, which is almost entirely funded from Western sources. "Putin said he supports dialogue with Russian citizens, but it has in fact come to an end," he says. "We think this spells the end of democracy in Russia."

Mr. Bentsis says his group is increasingly under fire from Russian officials for accepting grants from abroad. But "Rus- sian sponsors are afraid to support human rights groups," he says. "They fear that if they give money, they'll end up like Khodorkovsky."

Sergei Markov, head of the Kremlin-connected Center for Political Studies in Moscow, admits that some in the Russian government may be hoping to restore a Soviet-style civil society composed of state-controlled front organizations. But he insists that Putin genuinely desires a strong civil society to help press the cause of reform. "The Kremlin wants groups that will criticize bureaucracy. It wants democracy that really works," he says.

The main problem with many foreign-funded human rights groups, Mr. Markov suggests, is that they still have the Soviet-era mentality of absolute, unbending opposition to the state. "Not only the government should move toward compromise, but some of these civic groups should take some steps to cooperate with the state as well."

Marchenko says that Mothers' Right, which is funded by several Western foundations, doesn't feel any need for the "illusion of cooperation" with government. "The way the state is treating public organizations is terrible. We've got nothing to talk to them about," she says.

She says Mothers' Right will go on assisting soldiers' families with death benefit and pension disputes - something the Russian military is often loathe to provide - even if the new rules do portend a crackdown on independent groups. "Anything can happen in Russia. But we still remember how tough things were when we got started" in the early1990s, she says. "If we get squeezed out of our office, we'll just go back to working in our kitchens. We're certainly not going to give up."

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