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Saturday, August 25, 2007

NGOs, Buried Alive

The Moscow Times reports on the Kremlin's declaration of war on foreign NGO groups operating in Russia.

In a blizzard of bureaucratic absurdity, the new registration law for nongovernmental organizations has created administrative hurdles threatening to put many out of business and deterring others from setting up shop at all. When the bill passed last year, NGO representatives suggested that it was an instance of bureaucracy being deliberately beefed up to fight organizations the government dislikes. Now, they say that up to three-quarters of over 200,000 officially registered noncommercial organizations could face closure. "It's just tremendous bureaucracy," said Jens Siegert, head of the Heinrich Foundation's Moscow office. He said his organization, affiliated with the German Green Party, had to hire one extra staff member solely to cope with the workload.

Part of that workload came from a stipulation in the law that every single organization had to submit new accounting forms to the Federal Registration Service, a sprawling government body with roughly 40,000 employees that reports to the Justice Ministry. The agency's deputy spokeswoman, Lyubov Mikhailova, said that by May 20, just 48,470 -- less than 24 percent of the more than 216,000 registered NGOs in the country -- had submitted accounting forms, more than a month after the original deadline in April had passed. Mikhailova did not comment on what the consequences of noncompliance would be for the organizations. In a written response, she merely stated that during the first half of this year, 18,022 domestic and 34 foreign organizations received written warnings for not submitting the forms or violating submission procedures. This amounts to 8 percent of the national and 15 percent of the 226 foreign-run NGOs.

But critics say that just doing everything necessary to comply itself amounts to punishment. In addition, foreign-run organizations must hand in quarterly financial reports and a plan of their activities for the coming year that includes the amount of money allotted for each project by Oct. 31. Authorities must be notified of any new program at least one month in advance and of any essential change of plans within 10 business days of the decision.

The law also requires all foreign NGOs to re-register their offices by Oct. 18. Dozens of NGOs, including some that had submitted their documents prior to the deadline, were not in the registry by Oct. 18 and had to suspend their activities in Russia for days or weeks until the registry reviewed their paperwork and officially re-registered them. The recipients see the additional requirements as proof of what they believe is the regulation's real purpose -- to rule out the possibility that foreign organizations could provoke public unrest in the way the Kremlin believes happened in Georgia and Ukraine. "I call this law an Orange measure," Siegert said in a telephone interview, referring to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power. "NGOs are forced to occupy themselves with internal matters instead of their real work," he said. He also suggested that the relatively low numbers of warnings issued was a sign that the authorities themselves were also overwhelmed by the workload.

The new regulations prevented small organizations in particular from focusing on their real activities, said Inara Gulpe-Laganovska, NGO liaison officer for Human Rights Watch in Russia. She also said the law contained disproportionate punishment for violations. "Only two types exist -- suspension or liquidation," she said in e-mailed comments. Aside from the burdens, critics say the law allows the authorities to engage in excessive interference. "The worst thing is that the reporting makes NGOs vulnerable by giving registration officials an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding which projects comply with Russia's national interest," Gulpe-Laganovska said.

Human rights campaigners also point to the fact that authorities have arbitrarily targeted some organizations with seemingly ludicrous demands. The St. Petersburg-based NGO Citizens' Watch, for instance, has been asked to disclose the entirety of its written correspondence with anyone or any organization outside the office over a three-year period -- including e-mails. "The registration service came to us in July and showed us a screening warrant," the organization's chairman, Boris Pustintsev, said in a telephone interview. "They then suddenly demanded that we produce all outgoing correspondence from July 2004 to July 2007." Pustintsev said he initially refused because he believed the request exceeded the agency's competence. After a board meeting, however, the NGO did grudgingly agree to comply "because otherwise the authorities could freeze our bank accounts," he said. But Pustintsev added that Citizens' Watch also decided to "raise hell" with the Federal Registration Service. "We will sue them, we will appeal to [service head Sergei] Vasilyev, and we might take the matter to the Constitutional Court," Pustintsev said.

Other organizations have already been officially closed under dubious circumstances. The International Youth Human Rights Movement -- a group that says it has 1,000 active members in Russia and abroad -- learned in early August that it had been shut down by a court in Nizhny Novgorod. "The ruling was made June 13, but we only heard about it by chance almost two months later," the movement's coordinator, Dmitry Makarov, said in a telephone interview. The rationale behind the decision seems to stem from a basic bureaucratic mix-up. "The court based its decision on our failure to submit accounting forms to the local branch of the registration service," Makarov said. Instead, he said, the documents had been filed to the Federal Registration Service in Moscow, as requested, because the organization had reorganized into an international group in 2004. Bereft of its legal status, the movement is now filing a legal complaint against the ruling.

Others are also trying to fight back. Agora, an interregional association of Russian human rights groups, said in a memorandum that it found 33 cases of unlawful actions from the service against NGOs from April 2006 to May 2007. Agora provided legal assistance to those concerned in 20 of them. The cases demonstrated the service's "unfriendly bias against NGOs," excessive demands on their operations and, in some cases, an unwillingness to maintain constructive relations, the memorandum said. Another consequence is that setting up an NGO has become a daunting task. A study prepared under the presidential human rights council found that the cost of legal procedures was 33 percent higher than setting up a business and requires more time. "It takes a minimum of six to eight weeks to register an NGO, while registering a commercial company takes from seven to 10 days," said Anton Zolotov of the Institute of Civil Analysis, who co-authored the survey, preliminary versions of which were released earlier this year. Siegert said he knew of at least two cases where individuals had opted to open up a business instead of an NGO, just to avoid the hassle.

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