Duma set to vote on bill to curb civil society activity Wednesday

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US weighs in with heavy criticism

The 450-seat Duma passed the bill on its first reading with flying colors, with a vote of 320-18, with 48 abstentions. Protests attended the first reading of the bill early this month. Five activists were jailed and at least one reporter was thrown to the ground by police surrounding the Duma, making the bill one of the most heated topics in Russian politics.

Lawmakers and NGO observers alike have expressed a unified opinion that the NGO bill, which will require all NGOs in Russia to register with the governments, and force both foreign and domestic civil societies to undergo severe audits by the government, will likely pass through the Kremlin-held Duma with little fuss.

This second reading, which was to have taken place Friday, was postponed at the behest of the Public Chamber so that the Duma and Russian President Vladimir Putin would have time to suggest amendments to the bill. But whether these amendments would soften the bill or make it more abrasive have become a matter of spin in Kremlin-watching circles.

Putin’s proposed amendments
Putin’s proposed amendments include dropping the requirement for branches of foreign NGOs to reregister as separately financed Russian entities.

However, the amendments proposed by Putin and Duma deputies would leave intact the requirement that Russian and foreign NGOs file reports on their activities and funding with the Justice Ministry. The ministry would not be able to inspect NGOs’ books but could ask tax authorities to do the job, said Sergei Popov, head of the Duma’s Public and Religious Organisations Committee, Interfax reported.

The bill would require Russian NGOs to reregister, and the authorities would be able to refuse to register an NGO if its founders included people suspected of money laundering or assisting in terrorism, granting the often capricious Russian government wide berth in who it considers to be worthy NGO founders. Putin, however, suggested that these and other criteria for refusing registration should be made clearer during the amendment process that delayed the second reading.

The ostensible purpose behind forcing Russia’s some 450,000 NGOs and civil society organizations to register with the government is to protect Russian national security and to help apportion money—especially foreign donations, or project money spent by foreign NGOs—to areas where the Russian government says it is needed most.

Critics of the bill, among them representatives of the US Government, have said that the registration process—which will be arduous and contain investigations into a civil society organizations political leanings, sources of funding, and overall adherence with Russian national policy—will cripple or liquidate the activities of those organizations whose activities are not popular with the Kremlin.

The United States, in its first major outcry against Russian domestic policy since 9/11 made clear that it wanted to see the bill thrown out of the Duma or watered down significantly from its current form. US Congressional Representatives passed a non-binding resolution, with a vote of 405-15 last week, prompting some of the bill’s sponsors in the Duma to bristle and Russian NGOs to welcome the support.

The House vote came after Putin, faced with a storm of international and domestic criticism over the legislation, proposed amendments that addressed some of the concerns of international NGOs.

The US House of Representatives resolution
Sponsored by House Representatives Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, the US resolution urged the Russian government to withdraw or modify the bill because it “would have the effect of severely restricting the establishment, operations and activities of domestic and foreign” NGOs in Russia, “including imposing unprecedented restraints on foreign assistance,” according to the resolution text posted on the House of Representatives web site.

Russia’s concerns that “foreign interests and intelligence agencies” could use NGOs to undermine the government and national security could “be addressed by more limited and appropriate measures,” the House resolution said.

Putin, while ordering amendments to the NGO bill nonetheless defended it as necessary for preventing foreign funding of political activity in Russia, and for fighting terrorism—a popular beat with which Putin has managed to internationally justify some of his most egregious domestic policies in Chechnya, against the media, and for his war against civil society institutions that criticise his government

The US resolution also said that “Russia’s destiny and the interests of her people lie in her assumption of her rightful place as a full and equal member of the Western community of democracies” but “the proposed measures … are incompatible with membership in that community.”

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the U.S. resolution constituted interference in Russia’s legislative activity and was politically motivated. It was “another strong confirmation that some foreign NGOs active in Russia were really being used for political purposes and […] our bill identified the right problem,” he said, Interfax reported Friday.

Charles Digges