Moscow to close foreign groups
The Washington Times
By Michael Mainville

MOSCOW — Russia’s parliament is expected to approve legislation today that would shut down foreign-funded human rights and pro-democracy groups while tightening controls over domestic civic organizations.

Among the foreign groups that would have to close their Russian operations are some of the world’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Ford Foundation.

The Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute, which aim to spread democracy by training political parties around the world, also would be forced to restructure or halt operations.

The bill must pass a second reading in the State Duma on Dec. 9 and be approved by the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council, but with all major political parties supporting it, there is little doubt that it will be passed.

“If this law passes, we would essentially be closed down along with a whole range of other international organizations,” said Diederik Lohman, a senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, a frequent critic of Russia’s human rights record.

“This goes beyond anything else in the former Soviet Union. Uzbekistan and Belarus have pretty draconian NGO laws, but even those countries don’t have a law that explicitly bars branch organizations of foreign NGOs.”

Amnesty International yesterday expressed “serious concern” over the draft law and called it “a serious attack on freedom of association.”

Stephen Nix, director of Eurasia at IRI, said the group had spoken with U.S. government officials about the bill and that “our understanding is that the administration is taking this very seriously.”

The legislation, endorsed by President Vladimir Putin’s Cabinet and co-sponsored by his United Russia party, would bar international NGOs from operating offices in Russia and require the country’s 450,000 NGOs to re-register with the state.

Russian NGOs also would have to show that they do not receive foreign funding for “political activities,” which critics say could be interpreted to mean almost any activity.

Supporters say the bill is designed to prevent foreign interests from interfering in Russian society. Mr. Putin and other officials have accused internationally funded NGOs of being a “fifth column” that seeks to destabilize Russia by creating an opposition movement like those that started Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia’s Rose Revolution.

“The purpose of this foreign funding is to undermine the Russian state and attempt to produce another Orange Revolution in the post-Soviet space,” said Alexei Ostrovsky, a parliamentarian with the Liberal Democratic Party and one of the bill’s sponsors.

“The special services of European states and the United States are behind this. … The United States uses the pretty mask of ‘protecting human rights’ in order to achieve its own geopolitical interests in Russia, bringing to power in Russia those who would support its national interests.”

Opponents say the law is designed to restrict one of the few areas of public life still outside state dominance. Since becoming president, Mr. Putin has moved to cement Kremlin control over parliament, the television stations, courts and regional governments.

“The provisions in this law are so elastic that its aim is clear: to forbid NGO activity and drive out anyone who is not in the Kremlin’s circle of power,” said Oleg Orlov, the chairman of Memorial, Russia’s most prominent rights group.

NGO representatives say they are hoping that international pressure ultimately will persuade Mr. Putin to veto the bill next year. Mr. Putin has vetoed other restrictive bills after international condemnation.

“This law is so draconian that the whole world will be putting pressure on Russia, especially in the year that it is leading the G-8,” Mr. Lohman said.

Russia is scheduled to take over the leadership of the Group of Eight industrialized countries next year.

Pressure already appears to be mounting, with President Bush reported to have raised the issue in a meeting with Mr. Putin last week in South Korea.

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