Of course, those of us interested in such things have been waiting to see how the NGO laws in Russia would play out. Even C.J. Chivers of the NY Times took time away from his busy schedule of discussing trout and salmon in Russia, to write about the NGO suspensions. While much had been made of the new laws and how absolutely terrible they would be (insert hand-wringing here), it was widely acknowledged by those with knowledge about laws governing NGOs, that the Russian laws were not more restrictive than long-standing NGO laws in other countries. From a February 15, 2006 NGO Watch article:
Despite sizzling criticism from leading human rights groups, the new law on nongovernmental organizations is not as restrictive as similar legislation adopted by France, Finland and other developed democracies.Well, now we come to a deadline in the registration of NGOs in Russia, and it seems almost 100 were suspended. Is it a Russian crackdown ... or a self-fulfilling prophecy by NGOs who didn't get their act together in time? From the AP article:
What makes it potentially dangerous, however, is a lack of clarity over how it will be enforced at a time when the Kremlin is methodically tightening its grip on every area of public life and courts are not generally viewed as independent.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed to laws governing NGOs in France, Finland and Israel when he defended Russia's legislation in an open letter last month. He said worries raised by Russian human rights organizations were "inspired by an incomplete understanding of the situation in the given field of the legislation of leading Western democratic countries."
A review of legislation in France, Israel and Finland shows that they indeed are more restrictive. In France, an NGO must report all donations and bequests and can collect the money only with authorization from the head of the local administration, who first must examine the group's activities. Russian NGOs, in contrast, will have to report only donations from abroad.
Also, a French NGO is required to submit on request its accounting records to both the local administration and the Interior Ministry. In Russia, authorities will be permitted to carry out a financial check on an NGO only once a year.
Russia's law empowers authorities to examine whether an NGO is spending money on its declared program, while the French law only allows authorities to review whether an NGO's economic activities are unfairly competing with the commercial sector.
Russian NGOs have complained that the law uses vague language to describe the reasons a Russian branch of a foreign NGO can be denied registration. The list reads "threats to sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and the national interests of the Russian Federation." Most of those terms are left unexplained, opening the door for arbitrary interpretation on the part of bureaucrats.
But the French, Finnish and Israeli laws are nearly identical in their language. In France, an NGO can be denied registration or shut down if it is found to operate "contrary to the law, morals or integrity of the territory or the republic." Finland's law says almost the same thing.
In Israel, an NGO's purpose must not contradict the law, morality or public order. Public associations there are also prohibited from undermining Israeli democracy or serving as a screen for illegal activities.
Western governments have expressed strong concern about the law, which imposed strict limits on all NGOs but especially Russian ones, as likely to curtail civil freedoms. The State Department on Wednesday urged Russia to speed up the re-registration process and to allow all NGOs to continue operating.So it would appear that more than half of the NGOs were able to complete their required registration on time, and those suspended appear to be so only temporarily while they are allowed to complete their registration. However, as these groups are supposed to be professionals and they have known this date was coming for quite some time - I have very little sympathy for their suspension.
But Justice Ministry official Anatoly Panchenko said authorities were unable to process the registrations of 96 NGOs by the midnight Wednesday deadline, although he promised they would do so as soon as possible.
"We will do our best to process them as quickly as possible so they can resume their work," he told the AP.
He was later quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying that the number of pending applications had fallen to 93. The Danish Refugee Council, an aid group active in Chechnya that has had uneasy relations with the Russian government, said it was told that its permit would be issued Friday.
However, medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said it had to halt some of its humanitarian work in Chechnya and a program in Moscow involving homeless children because two of its three offices - those based in Belgium and France - had not obtained registration.
The law obliged foreign-based groups to complete the procedure by the deadline or suspend their activities.
"We attach paramount importance to the principle of freedom of association and we hope the NGO law will have a positive rather than negative impact," European Commission spokesman Pietro Petrucci said.
An official from the Council of Europe, Europe's leading human rights body, urged the Russian government to issue the necessary permits. "We deeply hope that the authorities will very quickly give registration to organizations such as Amnesty," Annelise Oeschger said.
The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute, both U.S.-based organizations that promote democracy, were also affected by the suspension order - which lets NGOs keep paying staff and remain in their offices.
Officials have accused NGOs of filing their applications too late, saying many only began the process in July, although the law came into force in April.
But the NGOs complained of shifting guidelines and onerous red tape; one requirement stipulated that organizations had to submit personal details on their founders, even if they were dead. Some devoted lengthy time to searching for death certificates or affidavits from widows.
A Western NGO activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing the registration process, accused authorities of deliberately seeking ways to obstruct the applications.
Panchenko said 107 groups completed the procedure in time. The Justice Ministry had earlier estimated the number of foreign groups in Russia at between 200-500, but Panchenko said only about 250 were probably working in the country.
Russian NGOs face even more onerous controls under the law, which allows authorities to ban financing of specific NGOs or projects if they are judged to threaten the country's national security or "morals."