May 26, 2009
Lengthening the Leash
While Sending a Positive Signal, Medvedev’s New Measures Will Make no Difference for Small NGOs
By Sergei Balashov
Make no mistake about itDmitry Medvedev is serious about living up to his image of the liberal Messiah, working hard to fulfill his mission of guiding Russia out of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and back to democracy. But while altering the controversial law that currently regulates the work of NGOs in Russia to lift some of the existing pressure is the next step on Medvedev’s path, public activists remain pessimistic about getting any actual relief.
A task force lead by the First Deputy Head of the president’s administration and United Russia’s chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov has prepared a package of amendments to the existing legislation dealing with non-profit organizations, meant to ease governmental control over their activities. Medvedev himself stated that the law was not perfect and some alterations were indeed needed. This law stirred controversy back in 2006, when then-President Vladimir Putin cracked down on human rights groups. New legislation was introduced, broadening the list of reasons for which NGOs could be denied registration and obliging every non-profit entity to present financial reports to the government as well as endure annual inspections.
This law appeared to have been driven by Putin’s paranoia about foreign governments meddling with Russia’s internal affairs through various public organizations and politicians, who “scavenged like jackals for funds from foreign embassies,” as Putin himself put it a year after the scandalous amendments were approved by the State Duma. “All of this happened when the Kremlin was panicking over the Orange revolution, since they knew that NGOs played a role in financing and organizing the event. They decided to shut the NGOs down, but it’s really ridiculous as they might have learned from United Russia’s experience that this kind of financing is usually done by hand-carrying cash in briefcases,” said Boris Nadezhdin, a member of the federal political council of the Right Cause party and the former deputy head of the Union of Right Forces State Duma faction.
Public organizations were subsequently broken down into two groupsthose that could secure enough funding or had strong state support and could thus afford to handle the extensive bureaucratic procedures, and smaller non-profit entities that had little choice but to virtually go underground. “These are basically proto-revolutionary organizations. They could not function on the official level since they were not registered, and were thus stripped of any chance to partake in any public councils or round tables. Nor could they secure any grants or rent offices. The only choice left was to operate as a dissident group. People who did not want to fall out of the official spectrum were marginalized. And a marginalized public activist naturally turns into a revolutionary,” said Evgeny Ikhlov, an expert at the For Human Rights movement.
Among other reasons for tightening the grip was the possibility of NGOs being used by criminal entities for money laundering, an allegation that public activists laugh at as something that would jeopardize their reputation. “It’s like taking a ball pen and adding zeroes to a hundred dollar bill. This would be beyond ridiculous,” said Ikhlov.
The new amendments to the legislation are expected to be passed in late June. Once they get approved, the NGOs will have to face less red tape when registering, and the number of inspections will be cut down to just one every three years. Also, those public organizations with smaller budgets would be allowed to file their financial statements in a simplified manner.
But public activists appear unsatisfied, claiming that they do not need to be controlled at all and that leaving them alone will be the only acceptable way of relieving the pressure the state currently puts on non-profit organizations. “We had a well functioning system where law enforcement was dealing with it on a case by case basis, if they suspected some organization of being involved in illegal activity. But really everything about us is transparentthey can see what events we hold, what offices we rent, what press conferences we give. Nobody needs the kind of control we have now,” said Ikhlov.
But the stiff regulation of NGOs was not the only problem. Some vague reasons that could serve as a basis for denying registration also raised many eyebrows. Now, an NGO could be turned down if its activities are deemed to be a threat to Russia’s sovereignty or national identity. “Is the state afraid that an NGO would hand money to an Ingrian fund that would call for St. Petersburg to be returned to the Ingrian Finns, since the land it was build on originally belonged to them? Russia has over 140 peoples with their own national identities. This kind of wording is pathetic,” said Ikhlov.
The forthcoming changes are said to be a message from the Kremlin. Medvedev now seems to be trying to ease the tension created by Putin’s witch hunt three years ago, while still leaving some control in the Kremlin’s hands. “Here, laws are never taken literally. It was a political message back then, and it is one now. After the changes were passed three years ago, law enforcement started visiting NGOs frequently to conduct various inspections. The real danger is not in the law itself, but in the message it carries for those who try to work their way up the career ladder by grabbing and busting,” said Nadezhdin.
Putin certainly managed to get his message across. The British Council, a high profile NGO, was forced to shut down its offices in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg after state officials claimed that it did not have the legal right to conduct its activities out side the capital, and Medvedev himself accused the council of espionage. But what good Medvedev’s current message will do is debatable. Easing up on the seemingly unnecessary regulations will certainly help the plight of the NGOs, but it won’t bring those forced out of official politics back to the stage. “Those organizations that can afford to have the staff to write reports and handle accounting will get a little relief. But it won’t matter for those on the lower levels. If you ask a man to carry a load of, say, 500 or 400 pounds, he won’t care, he couldn’t handle it either way. This is just giving us hope, like saying ‘hey guys, wait for a few more years, maybe it will get better’,” said Ikhlov.
But some in Russia’s democratic circles remain optimistic. “We hope it’s going to be a message to the law enforcement to keep their hands off the NGOs, as they are doing the right thing,” said Nadezhdin.
Russian liberals still have hope that Medvedev really means business when he comes up with another initiative aimed at keeping democratic values alive in Russia, the changes to the NGO legislation being the latest. Medvedev’s tenure has already marked the inception of a new democratic party, the Right Cause, which basically replaced the Union of Right Forces that was dissolved after its leaders argued over whether to cooperate with the Kremlin. The Right Cause is a liberal project initiated by the Kremlin, and it is perceived as heavily influenced by the presidential administration. “Some of changes we’ve seen are real. The opposition is armed with new opportunities. The Union of Right Forces got wiped out, but then we got a license to start the Right Cause party,” Nadezhdin added.