The head of a New York-based human rights group accused Russia on Wednesday of "bureaucratic harassment" of civil groups critical of the Kremlin after he was denied a visa to travel to Moscow.
The comments by Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth came two weeks before a presidential election opposition groups say furnishes Vladimir Putin's chosen successor with blanket media coverage. Europe's human rights watchdog, the OSCE, has opted not to field observers, citing lack of official cooperation. Roth had been due to present a report in Moscow that said new laws on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were being used to crack down on groups the Kremlin does not like. "This is precisely the kind of bureaucratic harassment NGOs across Russia are facing," the HRW Executive Director told Reuters by telephone from New York when asked about his visa problems. "It's up to the whim of the government to decide who to single out and it tends to single out groups that are somehow trying to hold it accountable," Roth told Reuters.
When asked by Reuters to comment on Roth's case, Russia's foreign ministry said it could only respond to questions submitted in writing. Reuters sent questions by fax but there was no reply. Human Rights Watch said Roth was the first member of staff to have been denied a visa to travel to Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The story changed every day, it was always some kind of technical reason, we should have applied for this kind of visa or that kind of visa," Roth told Reuters. "It's also the first time that I personally have been refused a visa any place in the world since Nigeria's Sani Abacha did so in 1997," Roth earlier told a news conference in Moscow by telephone.
Roth's NGO and other rights groups attack what they call a deterioration in Russia's human rights record during the eight-year rule of President Putin. Putin is due to step down after a March 2 election almost certain to be won by his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
The Human Rights Watch report said a 2006 Russian law "grants state officials excessive powers to interfere in the funding and operation of NGOs". The NGOs facing the most scrutiny are those "dealing with Chechnya, human rights... anyone receiving funds from abroad or anyone trying to express or mobilize dissent," Roth said. He rejected allegations by Russian officials that some NGOs are a front for foreign intelligence agencies trying to undermine the Kremlin. "The groups that have been targeted are receiving completely legitimate private funds. There has been no evidence whatsoever intelligence money is the focus of this," Roth said. "It's just another excuse - the point isn't the foreign funding, the point is the public criticism."
Russia's parliament passed the 2006 law to tighten regulation of NGOs after a series of revolutions in neighboring ex-Soviet states unnerved the Kremlin with their well-organized civil society movements.