Duma Gives Nod to Tough NGO Bill
The State Duma easily approved in a first reading
Wednesday a bill that would place nongovernmental organizations
under strict state control and that foreign NGOs warned would
shut them down.
"This bill will put an end to civil society
in Russia," Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy,
said during debate before the vote. "The Duma has neither
the moral nor the constitutional right to vote in favor of it."
"The bill is aimed at shutting down organizations
that don't share the government's or President Vladimir Putin's
ideas," Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin told reporters
during a Duma recess.
United Russia Deputy Andrei Makarov, however,
defended the legislation as a way to fight extremism and money
laundering, and denied that it sought to clamp down on NGOs.
"Many criminal organizations disguise themselves as NGOs
or use the status of an NGO to launder dirty money," he
Pressed several times by reporters to offer
an example of how criminals use NGOs as a cover, Makarov was
unable to provide any examples.
Asked why deputies had not sought advice from
NGOs in drafting the bill, Makarov said deputies had been working
on the legislation for years. "We have carefully studied
every single detail in that bill," he said.
Deputies from all four political parties represented
in the Duma helped draft the bill, and the 450-seat chamber
approved it in a 370-18 vote, with 48 abstentions.
All the abstentions were from Communist deputies,
who criticized the version that had been submitted for the vote
and promised to propose amendments before the second reading.
If the current bill is passed into law, the
country's 450,000 NGOs will be forced to reregister with the
Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service under tighter
rules next year. The agency would also have to check that NGOs
did not use foreign grants to finance political activities.
Under the bill, which has to go through two
more readings, registration officials would supervise the financial
flows and taxes of NGOs and determine whether their activities
were in accordance to the law and to the NGOs' declared goals.
"We know how easy it would be for the
tax police and fire inspectors to find something wrong and shut
down unwanted organizations," Ryzhkov, the independent
deputy, said during the debate.
He said the bill violated the Constitution,
which states that people have the right to freedom of assembly
and association. "Why do you want to pass a bill all human
rights organizations oppose?" he said.
The bill would also bar foreign NGOs from having
representative offices or branches in Russia and restrict Russian
NGOs' ability to accept foreign cash or employ non-Russian workers.
People convicted of crimes and companies suspected
of money laundering or assisting terrorists would be prohibited
from financing NGOs -- a provision that would shut down Open
Russia, whose founder, oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky,
is serving an eight-year sentence on politically tinged charges
of fraud and tax evasion.
NGOs could be denied registration if the documents
they provide contain false information, or if their name "offends
the morality, national or other feeling of citizens," the
Nikolai Duckworth, the director of Amnesty
International's Europe and Central Asia program, said that if
the bill became law, it would lead to the closure of foreign
"As such, it would have a chilling effect
on the right to freedom association and expression in Russia,"
he said in a statement. "It is unfortunately all too easy
to imagine how the increased powers of scrutiny could be abused."
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the legislation
would "eviscerate" civil society in Russia. "The
express purpose of this law is to emasculate the NGO community,"
said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch's regional director.
Government officials have repeatedly accused
Western countries of helping bankroll Ukraine's Orange Revolution
last year and Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 through NGOs,
and the Kremlin is worried that Duma elections in 2007 and the
presidential vote in 2008 could spark a similar popular uprising.
Putin told a meeting of human rights activists
last summer that the Kremlin would not tolerate the use of foreign
money in political activities.
In a response to a vote in the U.S. Congress
earlier this month to allocate $4 million for the development
of political parties in Russia, the Duma voted on Friday to
allocate $17.4 million to promote civil society in Russia and
in the former Soviet Baltic countries.
During Wednesday's Duma debate, Alexei Ostrovsky,
a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and a co-author
of the bill, heaped scorn on NGOs and accused the CIA, the U.S.
intelligence agency, of fomenting uprisings.
"We remember how those human rights organizations
defended human rights in Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Georgia under
the cover of the CIA, and we know how it ended," he said.