December 22, 2005
Amended NGO Bill Quickly Approved
By Oksana Yablokova
The State Duma on Wednesday rushed through a raft of amendments to a bill that would increase state control over nongovernmental organizations and passed it in a crucial second reading, ignoring a wave of protest from Russian and foreign NGOs.
Deputies voted 376 to 10 in favor of the contentious bill, having approved 62 Kremlin-supported amendments to the original version of the bill passed by the Duma last month. They threw out more than 80 other amendments that did not have the backing of the Duma's Public and Religious Organizations Committee.
The entire debate, including a half-dozen votes, took less than an hour.
United Russia Deputy Sergei Popov, a co-sponsor of the bill and the committee chairman, said that the new version of the bill took into account all concerns, including those voiced by President Vladimir Putin and foreign NGOs.
The bill will be considered in a third, technical reading on Friday and then must be approved by the Federation Council before being signed into law by the president.
Critics of the bill denounced its approval as a rollback of political freedoms and civil society in the country.
Independent Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the very few fierce opponents of the bill in the Duma, said the day was "shameful for Russia's parliamentary system.
"With this law, the life of civil society in this country will be dramatically complicated. Thousands of groups, both local and foreign -- including those involved in charity -- will suffer," Ryzhkov said after the bill had been passed.
Ryzhkov and another independent deputy, Sergei Popov, a member of the liberal Yabloko party who is no relation to the other Popov, left the session immediately after the final vote in frustration.
United Russia's Popov said that the only amendments that were thrown out were "technical" ones that would have changed only the wording of the bill, not its essence.
But Ryzhkov said that the vague wording of some provisions was the main problem with the bill.
"These vague definitions will allow the officials who will be enforcing the bill when it becomes law to interpret it as they want and deny NGOs registration based on their personal opinion," Ryzhkov said.
Ryzhkov said that the bill's sponsors had allowed some improvements to be passed but that they were not enough.
The main concessions made were to allow branches of foreign NGOs to continue operating in Russia without establishing a separate Russian entity, and dropping the requirement for Russian groups that want to operate informally to register as legal entities.
"Cactus lovers are out of danger, no one will make them notify the authorities of their existence," United Russia's Popov said.
While not required to register their branches as local entities, foreign NGOs will have to notify the Federal Registration Service, an agency that will be put in charge of NGOs, of their existence within six months after the bill becomes law.
The amended bill now also says that officials can ban a person from founding an NGO only if a court finds him guilty of extremism or money laundering, and not if the founder is merely a suspect of such wrongdoing -- as the original version of the bill had said.
"Despite partial improvements, the bill remains harmful in its mere concept, dramatically extending the powers of bureaucrats and allowing them to interfere in what the groups do and in their finances," Ryzhkov said.
He said that it would be the thousands of local NGOs that would be hardest hit.
Under pressure from the United States and the Council of Europe, Putin urged the Duma to drop many of the proposed restrictions for foreign NGOs but left intact proposals that would keep strict control over Russian NGOs.
Ryzhkov was the only Duma deputy who took to the floor of the chamber to oppose the bill's sponsors. He attempted to convince deputies not to vote for the bill, or at least to approve some of the amendments that had been rejected by the Public and Religious Organizations Committee ahead of Wednesday's session.
In the brief debate, United Russia Deputy Andrei Makarov, another co-sponsor of the bill, told the deputies that Ryzhkov's arguments made no sense.
Deputy Speaker and senior United Russia official Lyubov Sliska asked rhetorically what kind of passport Ryzhkov had, hinting that he was defending the interests of foreign nongovernmental groups too strongly.
Ryzhkov demanded that Sliska apologize for her comments, but she refused.
United Russia's Popov said that Ryzhkov should quit his deputy's seat.
Makarov said that with all the improvements passed in Wednesday's session, the bill had turned out rather "liberal," and corresponded to international standards and the Russian Constitution.
Makarov attacked Ryzhkov and other opponents of the bill over what he said was inconsistency, given that they had opposed the establishment of the Kremlin's proposed Public Chamber but were now citing its members' doubts about the NGO bill.
Members of the Public Chamber have asked that the Duma put off consideration of the NGO bill until the full Public Chamber has a chance to discuss it in the new year.
"Six months ago, these critics called the establishment of the Public Chamber the end of civil society in Russia, but now they are appealing to it," Makarov said.
Though expected, the bill's passage came as bad news for many people who were awaiting the outcome of the session outside the Duma, including NGO activists.
Andrei Kortunov, head of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based charity, said that by pressing on with the bill, the Kremlin was trying to realize its broader vision of how civil society should function in Russia.
"Just like the Public Chamber, its institutions should serve as mediums to translate the will of the authorities down to the people," Kortunov said. "There is little space for freely operating NGOs in this plan."
He added that the Duma had sped up the adoption of the bill despite protests from abroad and requests by the Public Chamber to postpone the second reading to allow a broader discussion.
Further delay could lead to more critical actors stepping into the fray, Kortunov said.
Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank, said that NGOs -- among the very few institutions that remained out of the formal control of the government -- had fallen victim to the Kremlin's increasingly pervasive power vertical.
"Russian authorities love to have a baton ready for everyone, including the NGOs, especially when it is so easy technically to obtain it from the tame Duma," he said.
Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report.