EU raises question on Russian NGO law with Moscow authorities

Publish date: October 5, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

BRUSSELS – In what has become a running leitmotif for European Union (EU) human rights officials, representatives of member states have again spoken out with concern about the encroaching effects on Russian civil society that the country’s year-old law on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is having.

In a September 3rd meeting, EU and Russian officials met in Brussels to discuss the issue, and European representatives expressed concern about the worsening operating conditions for NGOs and the health of civil society in Russia.

The EU has been holding human rights consultations with is Russian counterparts since 2005, and the central agenda item has been Russia’s NGO laws, which came under serious discussion in Russia’ Parliament that same year and were then signed into force in 2006.

Can Russian NGOs smell the trouble?
As has become practice, EU representatives met with delegates from Russian NGO’s the day before discussions with government officials. According to EU sources interviewed by Bellona Web, the NGO official they spoke with indicated that the new NGO law has not caused problems as big as those feared, and the representatives based that sanguine assessment on the assertion that no NGOs had been forced to close down recently.

Bellona’s Igor Kudrik was quick to pour cold water on that rosey appraisal.

“I would not evaluate the situation so optimistically,” said Kudrik.
“We are well aware of the cases around Russia where NGOs were either closed down, or are having big troubles making it through the inspections.”

The Russian delegation, led by Oleg Malginov, the director of the Department of Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, indicated that “minor” changes “might” be made to ease the bureaucratic demands of the NGO law.

Bellona St. Petersburg and the new NGO law

In Kudrik’s view, these changes would have to significantly reduce the amount of paperwork and stamp chasing that eat into the resources of Russian NGOs.

“The bureaucratic requirements in have resulted in the fact that the NGOs have to use a lot of resources to report to the authorities,” he said.

“Our office in St Petersburg had to work two full months to get through the inspection. As the result we received ungrounded demands from the authorities which we had to appea. These inspections can become a never ending process.”

Bellona’s St, Petersburg office, ERC Bellona, ran afoul of inspection officials because it had received sponsorship funding from the Duch and British consulates for its training programme for environmental journalists. As a stipulation of receiving the funding, ERC Bellona agreed to indicate the programme was made possible with the sponsorship of these consulates whenever ERC Bellona referred to the programme in the media.

As a result, the Federal Registration Authority claimed ERC Bellona had not paid a bogus advertising tax, and turned the matter over to Russia’ notoriously truculent tax inspectorate for investigation.

ERC Bellona has officially appealed the erroneous findings of the registration officials and the Dutch and British consulates have rushed to the organisations aid, saying publicly that the consulates are certainly not advertising with Bellona, and that it is common practice in the diplomatic community to support civil society projects in Russia and other countries.

The NGO law and Western Funding
But this sort of support seems to be precisely the sort of thing that Russia’s NGO laws are taking aim at, especially in the run-up to next year’s Parliamentary and Presidential elections.

Driven by fears that Russia could see take two of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in which local civil society organisations, dependent on western funding, overturned a presidential election rigged to favor Moscow’s preferred candidate.

The NGO law – drafted by the Kremlin and passed by the Kremlin-friendly parliament in January 2006 – requires: an accounting of why a given organisation’s operations in Russia are beneficial to Russian society; detailed audits of financial records and sources of financing; down-to-the-penny accounting of how that funding will be spent; profiles of a given NGO’s founders – even if those founders are no longer with the NGO or are dead – and many other items including the onerous demand that copies of all press coverage of a given NGO’s activities be provided to registration officials.

Gutting the civil society sector
Organisations are further subject to “random” spot checks to ensure compliance, and those that receive Western funding are singled out for special attention and usually tedious and time-consuming audits.

Moscow has signaled widely that NGOs that are not found to be in accord with the new legislation run the risk of being shut down, and authorities have stated that strict accounting of money received and spent by these organisations is “a question of state security.”

ERC Bellona’s chairman Alexander Nikitin has said that 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s 500,000 non-governmental organisations stand to be closed by the new NGO laws in the foreseeable future.

Nikitin has said that the new reporting and audit will drive most NGOs off the political landscape for lack of resources to keep up with the new bureaucracy.

“It has been established that the new reporting system (under the new NGO law) will cost civil society organisations in Russia some 6.9 billion roubles ($230m) a year. This is money the organisations neither have nor would have been in any condition to use for any socially useful purpose,” Nikitin wrote in a September 20th comment piece in Norway’s national daily Aftenposten.

“A more suitable name for Russia’s Registration Authority could these days therefore be ‘Liquidation Authority.’"

Eivind Hoff wrote and reported from Brussels. Charles Digges wrote from Oslo.