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Putin Stands By Tough NGO Bill

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday responded to worries of a looming crackdown on nongovernmental organizations by insisting that foreign funding of any political activity in Russia must come under state control.

But Putin, making his first public remarks about a contentious NGO bill that the State Duma approved in a first reading Wednesday, also stressed that the legislation must not damage civil society.

The bill in its current version would, among other things, require NGOs to reregister with the Justice Ministry and empower authorities to check that NGOs do not use foreign grants to finance political activities. Foreign NGOs have warned that the bill would shut them down.

"Political activity in Russia must be transparent to the utmost," Putin said at a meeting with Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential Council for Fostering the Development Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence.

"The ongoing funding of political activity in Russia from abroad, I think, must be on the state's radar screen, especially if this funding ... comes through the state channels of other countries, and ... organizations operating here and involved in political activity are, in essence, used as foreign policy instruments by other states," he said in televised remarks.

Putin's comments appeared to indicate a softening in his rhetoric from July, when he sternly told human rights activists at a Kremlin meeting that Russia would ban foreign funding of political activity, not just keep it under control. "We are against overseas funding for political activities in Russia. I categorically object," Putin said at the time. "Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won't allow it either."

With an eye on the Duma elections in 2007 and the presidential vote in 2008, 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.

Kremlin-connected consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, however, expressed doubt that Putin had changed his mind. "There's no change in the president's position," he said.

Pavlovsky said that both Putin and the NGO community opposed foreign funding for political activity but that they differed on what constituted political activity.

Alexander Petrov, acting head of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, said political activity occurred when an NGO used foreign money to support a specific party, not when an NGO campaigned for a fair election.

Some NGOs that received foreign funding have transformed into political parties, Pavlovsky said, naming the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees as an example. The group, which provides legal assistance to conscripts, has received at least one foreign grant, $35,000 in 2004 from the National Endowment for Democracy, according to U.S.-based endowment's web site. It founded the United People's Party of Soldiers' Mothers in 2004.

Putin on Thursday said he would discuss the bill with Duma leaders to make sure that foreign funding could be targeted without causing any damage to civil society. "When solving these kind of issues, civil society institutions must not suffer," he said on Rossia television.

Noting that public opinion was not in favor of the bill, she said the current version would hamper NGOs that were involved in culture and education and that helped orphans and homeless children.

The Duma has set a Dec. 4 deadline for amendments to the bill. A second reading is expected on Dec. 9, human rights activists said.

The new Public Chamber will suggest amendments to the bill, even though only two-thirds of its members have been named, member Yelena Zelinskaya said Thursday.

Pavlovsky said the bill was right to take NGOs "out of the shadows" but that it required changes to head off NGOs' suspicions. "In Russia, we need to increase, not roll back, human rights activity," he said.

Petrov, of Human Rights Watch, said he did not feel encouraged by Putin's call to prevent damage to civil society. "For that, the bill has to be canceled or changed drastically," he said.

Source: The Moscow Times

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