Russian society greets spring in the courtrooms

Protestors against the NGO law being roughly handled by Russian OMON special police units in front of the Duma.

Publish date: May 9, 2006

Written by: Kristin Vibeke Jørgensen

Many small and large organizations in Russia are fighting in Russian courtrooms this spring for their survival. This is because April 17th 2006 marked an important date for the Russian civil society. It is the date the new and stricter NGO laws were set into effect.

The goal of these law changes is to limit the independence of Russian organizations, and their possibilities to receive economic support from foreign countries. The implementation of this law coincides with a massive government campaign to limit the number of independent organizations, and their activities, in Russia.

The new law allows for organizations to be shut down if they commit “administrative violations,” meaning that reasonably small violations may have fatal consequences for independent Russian organizations. At the beginning of this year the number of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in Russia was estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of 500,000, but the Russian human rights organization Agora reports that this number will drop below 50,000 in the course of the next year. Agora also states that the Russian government is using these new laws to rid itself of bothersome organisations that clash with the centralising politics of the Kremlin.

The importance of civil society
It is a fact that civil society plays a major role in any well functioning democracy. It is also a fact that the Russian civil society is very fragile. This is partially a result of the authoritarian and centralised Soviet Union and the Tsarist periods, and partially a result of the general sense of apathy, cynicism and lack of power felt by the Russian people who are ruled by a large and corrupt bureaucracy. Ever since Vladimir Putin was elected in 2001, Russia has been moving toward new authoritarian heights.

The media and the court system are under the government’s heel, meaning that the government is closing in on a monopoly on truth. The backbone of Putin’s Russia is a strong and centralized state, and this leaves no room for a society where freedom of speech is mandatory. A Russian politician sees any criticism from his own people as a personal insult. Furthermore the situation in Russia today makes it easier to close in on the people criticising than to improve the situation causing the criticism.

Russian government on the offensive
Recently there has been a series of government attacks on Russian civil society organizations and NGOs. An example worth mentioning here is the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee, an independent organization which has caused inconvenience for the ruling regime by fighting for the rights of Russia’s conscripted youth. This is an interest organization founded by mothers of soldiers that were the victims of violence within the Russian armed forces. Devodshina, or a brutal form of hazing, has become a serious problem within the military. Devodshina leads to great personal tragedies, and in some cases mutilation and death.

According to the Helsinki committee a total of 1,064 deaths were registered in “peaceful” military installations during the year 2005. Of these 246 were suicides. The Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee is made up of fearless mothers that speak out against the all-pervasive armed forces, demanding thorough reforms within the army, and an improvement of the living conditions of those serving as conscripts.

The irony in the indictment against the organization stating that it “neglected to inform the government of their existence” is obvious, as few organizations have been a larger nuisance to the powers that be.

Another example shows that the struggle against NGOs is linked to the struggle against western influence in Russia. The revolutions in Georgia and the Ukraine, which were enjoying heavy western support have frightened the Russian regime. This was probably part of the reason behind the harshness of the resolution passed on April 19th this year by the city parliament of Moscow, tuning to the government to quash support for AIDS and HIV organisations.

AIDs organisation promote ‘pedophila’
The April 19th resolution places restrictions on foreign independent organisations working with HIV- and AIDS problems in Russia, which have become pandemic in recent years. The reasoning behind the resolution, driven by President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, is that these organizations promote paedophilia, prostitution and drug abuse among teenagers.

A party representative, Lyudmila Stebenkova, told the Moscow Times on April 20th that: “Foreign independent organisations working within the HIV and AIDS sector lead to an increase in the number of infected.” Foreign organizations operating within Russian borders believe this to be another step in the campaign against their presence.

The root of the conflict
Sergei Mitrokhin, a liberal former Parliamentarian in Russia, gives the following cultural explanation on the conflict between the NGOs and the city parliament: “What works in the West is often seen as strange in Russia.” To Western eyes it seems strange that Putin is trying to build a democratic state whilst crushing the civil society. There can be no doubt that the democratic process in Russia is heading in the wrong direction. Putin’s argumentation about the need for a more “unified political system” will in reality strengthen his power at the cost of others. Critics have been accusing Putin of conducting a slow authoritarian coup, but this criticism has little significance as Putin controls those who make the laws.

Putin came to power on a kind of political contract with the Russian people. The contract stated that they would have to give away some of their freedom in exchange for more stability. Putin has to a certain extent managed to deliver what he promised: the unruly regions are back under Russian control, (Chechnya is still a problem, but far less visible than earlier as no journalists are allowed within its borders), the conflict between the President and the Parliament which was so visible during Boris Yeltsin’s reign is gone, Putin has gotten rid of the oligarchs who became billionaires and powerful political advisors under Yeltsin, and Putin has re-nationalized the petroleum industry and is rebuilding Russia as the world’s leading energy superpower.

The irony
In addition the whole world is now aware that Russian foreign policy will not be dictated by the European Union or the United States. But the price for greater stability is in reality that all critics are gagged or forced out of the spotlight, often with the help of bureaucratic means, as we are now able to observe.

While all of this occurs, Russian authorities are trying to build a government-run Russian NGO in the United States, the U.S-Russian Business Cooperation. The goal of this organization is to strengthen Russia’s image overseas. Odd, isn’t it?

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