Spit and string – office supplies required for the future of foreign NGOs in Russia

Nils Boehmer/Bellona

Publish date: November 3, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

String versus staples or plastic sheaths. “Incorporated” versus “Inc.” Employee address lists tossed out because a single worker misstated his or her postal index - a system that can vary by as much as one digit per entry hall in Russia’s complex mail system.

These are the reasons foreign NGOs are having their applications tossed back in their faces for rewrites by federal registration officials – among them Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Danish Refugee Council and two of the three Russian branches of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

Naturally, none of these organisations that have had their applications euphemistically “returned” to them for “reworking” are allowed by the Russian government to discuss these petty little outrages with the press – on pain of losing their right to operate for good.

For the time being, the programme work of some 80 foreign organisations – a number that fluctuates depending on who you talk to at the Federal Registration Service and when you ask – has been suspended while they rework their applications. Telling the press why they have to do so is considered programme work by the Justice Ministry’s Federal Registration Service, though, oddly, actually reworking the applications is not.

Off the record, though, foreign organisations are open. In interviews I conducted with some of those approximately 80 that remain on suspension, I have heard stories ranging from the absurd to the plain surreal. More than one organisation told me they had their application returned to them because it had not been bound in string, but rather in ring binders and plastic sheaths.

Another 20 or so have to rework their entire employee lists because this or that employee failed to list their postal index, or zip code, correctly – information in Russia that is so arcane and outdated that even most local postal offices don’t know their own postal codes.

Still another 20-some organisations have to redo their entire applications – including re-obtaining notarized copies of their charters from their home countries, which then have to be re-translated into Russian by an official translator and stamped with an apostille – because they used the abbreviation “Inc.” and “Incorporated” interchangeably.

And Amnesty stated on the record that they had to provide a notarized and translated death certificate of their founder who died in 1919.

“Our application was sent back for really stupid reasons, even though we had been working with Russian authorities to have it in top form,” said one representative of a foreign NGO.

“We were never informed that we had to use string instead of more professional binding techniques,” said another nonplussed member of Russia’s foreign NGO community. “If we had known we were to submit (the documents) in the form of the Gutenberg bible, or even on stone carved tablets, we would have done so.”

In response to Bellona Web’s publication of these claims, Federal Registration Service heads Sergei Movchan and Galina Fokina said on Wednesday that Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and MSF were “liars,” and that these suspended organisations had run afoul of Russia’s new NGO requirements and “failed to respect Russian law,” a quote parroted verbatim by both leaders. They told of how Registration Service officials had been working overtime prior to the October 18th re-registration deadline, meeting some 400 representatives of foreign organisations on the service’s own time.

Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) backed up this statement by Movchan and Fokina. AmCham passed the re-registration process – and praised the Registration Service for being candid, responsive and speedy. In the interest of full disclosure, though, Russia’s entrance into the WTO would be severely crippled without AmCham’s endorsement. Somers told The Moscow Times, Russia’s preeminent ex-pat newspaper, that his group had passed muster without incident. Small wonder.

Yet, other organisations felt they were constantly being shoved to the back of the line or ignored altogether. The registration offices themselves are only open for three hours a day, so whatever extra-curricular aid Somers and like organisations were getting from authorities was a courtesy that certainly was not extended to everyone.

So why were the registrations of so many groups sent back for “reworking?”

The conditions remain mysterious. First, organisations now operating under suspension were never told that they had to use string instead of more reliable binding techniques. Nor were they told in what detail they had to supply their employee lists. By contrast, foreign organisations that have passed the re-registration process – those who are useful to Russia’s foreign and economic policy – told me that they were fully aware of the method in which their documents were to be presented.

Among these organisations are international adoption agencies, and, more importantly, business organisations that will – like AmCham – promote Russia’s aspirations to enter the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This is a far different situation from Kremlin-critical organisations, a representative of which told me “there was nothing in the registration documents indicating to us that applications had to be bound by string instead of plastic or other methods. Nothing.”

The representative’s conclusion was that certain foreign organisations were purposely singled out by federal authorities for a “half-assed briefing” by registration officials to assure that their work was – at least temporarily – halted.

The United States and various European countries have laws governing the registration of foreign NGOs. But I have yet to hear a story where Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International were singled out for pseudo-bureaucratic reasons to halt their operations because they espouse policies that are unfriendly to the US campaign in Iraq.

The Nazi party, which preaches the overthrow of Zionist governments, also has branch offices throughout the United States and Europe – and though the respective hosts to such organisations are opposed to their politics, these organisations are still allowed to operate and are not derailed because they used staples, glue, string or shoe polish to register. Indeed, so long as they conform to local tax laws, the bulk of NGOs – no matter how repugnant they are to democratic principles and the polity at large – are left alone. Yet, perhaps this difference in accepting critisism and muzzlng it is the difference between a secure state and one that has something on its conscience.

But in Russia, for the time being, some can submit their documents in folders, others can attach them together with static electricity – but those who challenge the state have to use “Spit and String, Inc. (or Incorported)."