No sooner had the Kremlin announced a new set of restrictions on NGOs, including the ability to retain anyone in the country on allegations of having failed to pay taxes (in Russia's arcane system, such a charge can be leveled against anyone at any time) than it started actually denying foreigners the right to leave the country. The Moscow Times reports:
The French director of the Institute for Collective Action, an NGO, was prevented from leaving the country after border guards at Sheremetyevo Airport questioned her residency permit, she said Monday. Carine Clement, a French citizen whose husband is a State Duma deputy, said she believed she might have been stopped to keep her from speaking about Russian housing scams at a conference that opened Monday in Brussels. The incident could raise new worries among nongovernmental organizations, which have complained of growing state pressure over the past two years. "The border guards would not allow me to get out of the country, saying that my residency permit is an old form and that I should have changed it into a new one," Clement said. She said she visited Rome a month ago and that she did not have any problems leaving the country. But when she mentioned this to the border guards, she said, she was told that foreigners were supposed to change their old residency permits for new ones under a government decree that came into force one month ago.
Clement, whose residency permit expires in May, said she knew nothing about the decree. "If I find out that this decree doesn't exist, I'm going to bring legal action against the border guards, and if I find out that the decree does exist, I'm going to contest it because we didn't have enough time to change our residency permits," she said. It was not immediately possible to confirm the decree Monday. All government offices were closed for a public holiday.
Clement is married to Oleg Shein, a Just Russia deputy who was elected in a single-mandate district in Astrakhan and formerly belonged to Rodina. She said she might have been prevented from leaving the country because she was supposed to report to the European Housing Forum in Brussels about the plight of Russians swindled out of new apartments by developers. "The Russian government at the moment wants to have a good reputation in European society," she said.
The two-day forum, held under the auspices of the European Parliament, opened Monday. More than 200,000 people nationwide are believed to have paid companies for homes that were never built or that were sold to multiple buyers. Many of these people have nowhere to live and no money to buy new homes. In April, hundreds of defrauded home buyers demonstrated in Moscow, Ulyanovsk, Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh, Smolensk and Samara. Clement said the border guards who stopped her refused to give her their names. Calls to Sheremetyevo Airport went unanswered Monday. No one picked up the phone at the Federal Border Service, part of the FSB.
NGOs have found it more difficult to operate in Russia since a law came into force last year that increased the amount of paperwork they must keep and required them to reregister under stringent new guidelines. The law was adopted after President Vladimir Putin said he would not tolerate foreign funds being used by NGOs for political activities. Foreign-connected NGOs played key roles in regime changes in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.
Among the NGOs that have come under fire is the Educated Media Foundation, formerly Internews Russia, which trained regional journalists. Its head, Manana Aslamazian, has been charged with smuggling after she failed to declare 9,550 euros ($12,400) at Sheremetyevo Airport in January. She has left the country and vowed not to return until her name is cleared. Investigators raided her organization's offices in April and seized its computers and documents amid what they called an investigation into possible money laundering and illegal business activities. Without the papers and equipment, the NGO has been forced to close.