Russia moves to keep prodemocracy groups under close watch
Will weigh bill on supervision, new restrictions
MOSCOW -- Employees of Open Russia, the nonprofit, prodemocracy charitable foundation established by jailed oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, came to work one morning in October to find a police bus parked outside, along with two minivans marked ''Prosecutor General's Office."
A dozen investigators swarmed out of the buses and proceeded to seal off the building. Authorities said they were looking for evidence of money laundering. But foundation directors came to believe they also were suspected of other offenses: promoting an independent electorate and a free press.
The detectives left 10 hours later, loaded with all the data from their computers and five bags of documents.
But there was little new evidence to find. Open Russia, one of the instruments of Khodorkovsky's campaign to end government repression, already had been the subject of 21 separate government examinations in the past two years.
''Tax inspections. Ministry of Justice inspections. Social Security Fund inspections. Labor inspections. Anybody who can control anybody was here to control us," program director Irina Yasina said.
Then the government brought out the big guns. Russia's parliament is scheduled to consider a bill tomorrow that would dramatically increase government supervision over an estimated 400,000 nongovernment organizations, and impose new restrictions that could put Open Russia and hundreds of other NGOs out of business.
Many analysts say the bill is a cornerstone in the Kremlin's move to control virtually all levels of public discourse. In what many see as a step back -- toward the Soviet era -- President Vladimir V. Putin has moved to centralize his authority over parliament, media, the courts, and regional governments. The proposed legislation would add the last independent sector in public life -- civil society.
Its chief target, analysts said, are Western-funded prodemocracy organizations perceived by the Kremlin as encouraging an uprising to topple the government, such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Rose Revolution in Georgia.
Analysts said international organizations as diverse as Human Rights Watch, the National Democratic Institute, anti-AIDS, and environmental groups could be effectively prevented from operating in Russia.
''Under this law it would be very questionable whether we would be able to register our office in any form," said Diederik Lohman, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in New York.
Outside Russia, the NGO legislation is considered by many to be a retreat into international isolation at a time that Russia is scheduled to take over chairmanship of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.
''It raises an almost unthinkable prospect -- that the president of Russia might serve as chairman of the G-8 at the same time that laws come into force in this country to choke off contacts with global society," former senator John Edwards and former Housing and Development secretary Jack Kemp, who are chairing a task force on Russian-US policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a letter this week to President Bush.
But sponsoring legislators said the bill was aimed at businesses trying to launder profits, extremist groups, and foreigners seeking to destabilize the political situation.
The legislation would allow the government, for example, to restrict the activities of a foreign environmental group working near secret Russian military installations, said cosponsor Alexander Chuyev, deputy chairman of the parliamentary Committee for Non-Government and Religious Organizations.
''I would not be surprised if a majority of employees of these organizations was working for the interests of other countries," Chuyev said.
In addition to requiring registration and oversight of all NGOs, the bill would prohibit foreign nonresidents from working at NGOs and prevent foreign groups from operating in Russia unless they could reinvent themselves as local organizations.
Open Russia could be closed under provisions prohibiting convicts and people suspected of money laundering from founding NGOs: Khodorkovsky was convicted earlier this year of fraud and tax evasion, and is also the subject of a separate $7 billion money laundering investigation.
But Open Russia leaders think the government's interest in the organization has more to do with the group's work promoting civil society.
''We are trying to awaken in people a desire to learn, to always know an alternative point of view," Yasina said.
Officials have repeatedly accused Western-funded NGOs of helping to mobilize the student organizations and activists who eventually toppled at least three post-Soviet governments in the past two years.
''I don't think anyone's trying to promote an Orange Revolution in Russia," said Catherine Osgood of the US-based Freedom House, which provides internships for Russian students in European think tanks and NGOs. ''I think the primary goal of foreign NGOs is to help strengthen Russian civil society."
Deliberately oblivious to the irony in the move, the ruling United Russia party on Friday pushed through a $17.4 million appropriation to fund NGOs promoting ''civil society and the development of democracy" in nations outside Russia.
''In a number of states, human rights are violated . . . including violations during so-called Orange Revolutions, and Russia intends to pursue a focused policy on these issues," Vladimir Pekhtin, deputy head of the party's parliament faction, said in an interview.
President Bush raised the NGO issue in a meeting with Putin on Friday in South Korea, but national security adviser Stephen Hadley later declined to elaborate.
''It's a confidential discussion between two leaders, and sometimes there are issues which can more productively be discussed outside of public view," Hadley said.