Russia-based foreign NGOs in paper chase to beat Oct. 18 registration deadline, or face closure

Nils Bøhmer

Publish date: October 16, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – Foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are scrambling in the 11th hour to assemble reams of documents to meet the Russian Government’s deadline to re-register with the Ministry of Justice’s Registration Service by Wednesday, October 18th, or their doors will be closed by authorities.

If they miss the Wednesday deadline, they will have to re-file all registration documents by January 18th from scratch, as if they had just begun operations in the country, Registration Service authorities said. During that interim, they will not be able to operate on Russia soil.

The new registration process is part of a law drafted by the government of President Vladimir Putin and passed by Putin’s United Russia party-dominated parliament last January, which makes the registration requirements for foreign NGOs far more laborious. Many critics of the legislation say the law is an effort by the increasingly more authoritarian and insular Putin government to squeeze foreign influence out of Russia – especially in the taboo fields of politics, the Chechen war, and human rights.

The Kremlin has meanwhile, and somewhat coincidentally, come down like a hammer on a Russian NGO that promotes better relations between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya who have been embroiled in a bloody and meciless 12-year-old civil war – and closed the doors of the Nizhny-Novgorod-based Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS).

The group, which published the Pravo-Zashchita newspaper until the publication went bankrupt last year, was shut down because its leader Stanislav Dmitrevsky had a criminal record for reprinting comments by Chechen rebel leaders calling for peace talks with Moscow in 2004 – violating, according to the court his case was tried in, Russia’s law on inciting ethnic hatred. Dmirtrevksy received a two-year suspended sentence.

On Saturday, Federal NGO officials closed the organization, citing that section of the new NGO law which states that convicted felons cannot serve as NGO leaders. The shut down came exactly one week after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s most prominent Chechen war reporter and human rights activist. Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, both headquartered in New York City, condemned RCFS’s closure.

Foreign NGOs compliment Registration Service’s aid – but remain wary
Despite what the RCFS incident may entail for the future of Russian or foreign civil society organisations in Russia, many foreign NGOs have reported that their dealings with the Registration Service have been cordial and informative – far unlike the labyrinthine maze of red tape, contradictory information and arbitrary rudeness that are the hallmark of Russia’s infamous bureaucracy.

Registration Service representatives, said many foreign NGO representatives, have been responsive and helpful to foreign NGO’s efforts to wend their way through the lengthy re-registration process.

Charm does not equal fairness

Nonetheless, foreign NGOs remain concerned by the new law’s seemingly intentionally vague terms, which grant the Registration Service carte blanche to deny registration to, or close down, any NGO without court issued warrants.

“The NGO law deeply concerns us for its potential impact on civil society in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, head of Human Rights Watch, which has a branch office in Moscow, during a telephone interview with Bellona Web from the organisation’s headquarters.

“The law seems designed to interfere in civil society – for example, state officials can demand without warrant documents from foreign NGOs and shut down an NGO or any part of an NGO’s programme work.”

Denber explained that the grounds for rejection for registration as spelled out by the new NGO law are murky at best, saying that a foreign NGO can be closed for “not being in Russia’s national interest” thus giving rise to wide and arbitrary interpretation of the law.

“Much will become clearer in the coming months as we see what kinds of NGOs have been registered, but for now, there is plenty of cause for concern.”

Russian government upbeat about registration, despite two reported rejections

The Russian government was anxious to play down these concerns to international journalists, saying that all was going according to plan and that the applications they are receiving have been correctly filled out and are, by and large, already being approved.

According to a Justice Ministry official reached by Bellona Web – who withheld her name as she is not authorised to speak with the press – “Everyone is following the rules and filing their applications as needed.”

Putin tried to put a positive spin on the impact of the controversial new law while speaking last week at a forum in Dresden, Germany. He asserted that the vast majority of the 400 foreign NGO’s that had already filed their applications had not been denied registration – though he gave no information about those that had been rejected or why.

The Moscow Times, Russia’s premier English-language daily, reported that two foreign NGOs had been rejected for unspecified "technical reasons," but the paper was unable to determine which two organisations had been denied and what these technichal reasons for their rejections were. Yet, the Justice Ministry official who spoke to Bellona Web said she had not heard of any rejections, and Human Right Watch’s Denber said she was also unaware of the rejections or which organisations the paper could have been referring to.

Presidential spokeswoman Natalya Timakova’s secretary Monday denied Bellona Web an interview with Timakova to clear up the confusion about the reportedly rejected organisations. Additionally, telephone lines to the Registration Service have been consistently clogged with calls for the past two days, so Bellona Web could obtain no further clarifying comment on the reported denials.

As of Tuesday, according to the Regnum Russian news agency, the Federal Registration Service had registered 80 foreign NGOs. Half of these organisations are international adoption agencies, Regnum cited the Federal Registration Service’s Chief Director Sergei Movchan as saying. Another 72 applications are currently under review, and 25 have been sent back for redrafting, Regnum reported.

Alexei Zhafyarov’s, head of the NGO division of the Federal Registration Service, estimated to the Russian news service that another 200 to 500 foreign civil society organisations currently operating in Russia have yet to hand in their applications. This was confirmed by Bellona Web interviews with several of Russia’s most prominent foreign NGO’s.

Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, told The Moscow Times that his organization was in the final stages of renewing its registration and was just waiting for Zhafyarov’s signature to sign off on its paperwork. Somers also said that he was aware of 80 NGO’s that had already successfully registered – in correspondence to the figures given by Movchan. Somers also said, in disagreement with The Moscow Times report, that he had not heard of any rejections.

The American Chamber of Commerce is a valuable ace in the hole for Russia’s long-held desire to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

"We have found the (Registration Service) agency very cooperative," Somers told the newspaper late last week. He further praised Zhafyarov for meeting with representatives from 70 foreign NGOs last month to answer questions.

Those still caught in the paper chase
The Ford Foundation said in an interview that it has received its approval to keep operating.

“We successfully passed registration and received our registration number 10 days ago,” said a spokesman for the organization in a telephone interview with Bellona Web. “Our number is 51, which means that altogether 50 other organisations had been registered before us.”

Yet the registraton process was arduous and Ford is one of few organisations interviewed by Bellona Web that had already received its registration, let alone handed in its paperwork prior to Wednesday.

The delay in getting the paperwork in, explained many other interviewed NGOs, is a result of the daunting amount of documentation required by the Registration Service – which includes an accounting of why a given organization’s operations in Russia are beneficial to Russian society, detailed audits of financial records and sources of funding, down-to-the-penny accountings of how that funding will be spent, profiles of all the founders of an NGO, even those who are no longer affiliated with it, among many other items.

And even though most NGOs began assembling the required documents beginning in January when the NGO law was passed, the sheer volume of required paperwork has many of them burning the midnight candle to get their applications in under the wire.

“Of course, the list of (required) documents at first made our eyes go wide,” said Irina Lyskenko, coordinator of international volunteer programmes with the Russia-German Exchange. “ But thanks to our legal department, everything got done on time.” She added that her group expects to hear a final answer from the Federal Registration Service next week.

Amnesty International told Bellona Web that they had filled out all the required documentation, but had yet to send it in.

“We haven’t turned in our documents, but we will send them today (Monday),” said Amnesty’s Russian Division Press Secretary Yelena Franklin in a telephone interview from Moscow.

“The fact is, preparing the documents, including translating them into Russian, took a lot of time.”

She added, though, that the Registration Service had told Amnesty that they could register by handing in an incomplete set of documents on the contingency that the remaining files be sent soon.

The Macarthur Foundation is facing many of the same difficulties as Amnesty because such enormous volumes of paperwork had to be translated into Russian. Yelena Kordzaya, the Macarthur Foundation’s Moscow deputy director, told Bellona Web their documents would be handed in Monday or Tuesday.

“Preparation took a long time because part of the documents are located here and part of them are located at the head office (in the United States) – all of that needed to be coordinated,” she said. "On top of that, the documents had to be translated into Russian.”

Of the major foreign NGO’s operating in Russia, only Human Rights Watch seemed to be ahead of the game. According to Denber, the application from Human Rights Watch was submitted to the Registration Service about a month ago, but that they have not heard anything yet.

“It’s just a matter of waiting,” said Denber.

Unnecessarily burdensome
Speaking last week in Oslo about the new NGO law, Alexander Nikitin, who heads up Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, said the grueling application process put an unfairly weighty burden on foreign NGOs.

“Assembling all of these documents took hours and hours of manpower, and some organisations even had to take on new staff just to deal with assembling the paperwork,” he said. “This means that many NGOs that operate on a small budget will simply disappear because they can’t afford the staff to compile the registration application.”

Bellona St. Petersburg is registered as a Russian NGO, so it did not have to hop through the same hoops of fire that its foreign counterparts did. But it is subject to all of the other onerous requirements governing Russian non-profit organisations that were handed down as part of the new NGO law. Nikitin noted, for instance, that he has had to take on more accounting staff to satisfy government audit requirements for Russian organisations receiving foreign funding.

This is a bill that most of Russia’s smaller NGO’s will not be able to foot, said Nikitin.

“And that is exactly the point (of the law) – to smother civil society in so many extra costs and extra bureaucracy that they cannot function and will simply disappear from the scene,” he said.

“Nothing pleases the Putin administration more than silencing the voice of opposition.”

Charles Digges reported from Oslo and Vera Ponomareva reported from St. Petersburg.