U.S. pro-democracy groups say they are facing increasing — and increasingly sophisticated — opposition from authoritarian regimes eager to preserve their grip on power.
“It used to be that groups like ours could fly somewhat under the radar,” said Lorne Craner, president of the congressionally funded International Republican Institute (IRI). “That certainly is not the case anymore.”
Nongovernmental organizations such as the IRI, its Democratic counterpart the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House, the Open Society Institute (OSI) and their Western European allies insist that their mission is to help countries build the infrastructure of democracy and civil society, not to overthrow governments.
But the prominence that President Bush has given to democratic reforms in his foreign policy and the stunning success of the so-called “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan have made the democracy-promoting foundations the targets of sharp new scrutiny.
NDI President Kenneth Wollack said the distrust of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by authoritarian rulers was nothing new, but that the recent political upheavals had given the campaign new fuel.
“They try to mischaracterize us as a way to deflect from the growing political demands of their own people,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month signed a law tightening restrictions on NGO activism and funding, saying he did not mind “financially transparent” NGO activity, but that such groups “cannot be used as a foreign policy instrument by one state on the territory of another.”
In practical terms, Mr. Craner said, the new laws make it very difficult for groups like IRI to operate.
“Essentially, it means we can set up a Russian office for IRI, but then the main office here in Washington couldn’t fund it,” Mr. Craner said.
Despots and semi-authoritarian leaders in other former Soviet states have taken a cue from Mr. Putin.
In Belarus, longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko has severed virtually all ties between domestic democracy groups and foreign NGOs. Kazakhstan’s parliament approved two laws restricting links between local and international NGOs.
The Washington-based Freedom House earlier this month was forced to suspend activities in Uzbekistan for six months after losing an appeal against charges that it broke the law by, among other things, providing Uzbek human rights advocates with free Internet access.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has targeted the activities of foreign NGOs since May, when riots in the southern city of Andijon rocked his regime and sent relations with the West plummeting.
An estimated 200 Uzbek NGOs have been closed, and several prominent foreign groups, including the OSI and the media NGO Internews, have left the country.
“It’s clear that in Uzbekistan and a good many other countries, there is a push back against us,” said Thomas Melia, deputy executive director at Freedom House. “And the main motivation is typically to cut off domestic forces from their natural supporters abroad.”
U.S. officials reject claims that the democracy NGOs have hidden agendas or favor one group over another in their work abroad.
“I would say that there is pressure against NGOs in Russia, in Central Asia, in China and worldwide,” Barry Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state of democracy, human rights and labor, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “In fact, this is a growing phenomenon.”
James Vermillion, a longtime USAID official and now executive vice president of IFES, a Washington-based pro-democracy NGO, said the world’s autocrats have learned that it is too risky and inefficient to hold onto power by stuffing the ballot boxes on election day.
“Now they use the tax laws, registration requirements, press controls, banking regulations and other means to try to control the process,” he said.
Mr. Craner said his group and other Western NGOs would like nothing better than to see local democracy activists in Russia and elsewhere be self-sufficient.
“We have a lot of other places where we could put our resources,” he said. “Unfortunately, these crackdowns leave us with no other option than to try to help them.”
Mr. Melia said the anti-NGO campaign “certainly has forced us to step up our own game.”
“We’re certainly having to learn how to deal in a much more hostile environment,” he said. “Unfortunately, I would not be surprised to see more of this kind of pressure on us in the future.”