Russia Takes Aim at Foreign-Funded NGOs

By Patrick Goodenough | November 18, 2005 | 7:16 PM EST

( - Russian lawmakers are considering legislation that will compel non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to register, thus preventing foreign-funded political activity.

Critics see the move as a bid to further the Kremlin's grip on power and prevent a democratic revolution in Russia like those in Georgia and Ukraine.

President Bush has been urged to raise concerns with President Vladimir Putin when they meet at an Asia-Pacific conference in South Korea on Friday.

Sponsors of the bill say its intention is largely aimed at preventing NGOs from money-laundering and other activities that could assist terrorists.

If the legislation passes, however, it could shut down the Moscow chapters of major international think tanks, groups fostering democratic norms, and human rights organizations, while preventing Russian-based NGOs from employing foreigners.

One of the bill's sponsors, Alexei Ostrovsky of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, was quoted by Moscow Times as saying the legislation should help the government clamp down on NGOs that might use foreign funding to promote an upheaval like Ukraine's "Orange revolution" almost year ago.

Russian officials have frequently accused Western-funded NGOs of helping to ferment Ukraine's transition as well as the "Rose revolution" in Georgia in late 2003 and Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip revolution" early this year.

All three former Soviet states saw the removal of autocratic pro-Moscow governments of long standing.

Russia also has an election cycle coming up -- parliamentary elections in 2007 and presidential polls the following year.

Putin, who has been criticized by the West for centralizing political control and restricting independent media, is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term. This week he reshuffled his administration, sparking speculation that he was preparing a chosen successor.

Last July, Putin said he would not tolerate foreign funded political activities by NGOs.

"Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won't allow it either," he was quoted as telling a meeting of human rights campaigners.

He urged the activists to remain independent of foreign influences.

Putin was speaking at the first meeting of a council set up to advise the president on human rights and civil society institutions.

This week, the head of the council spoke out against the new NGO bill.

If the legislation was passed it would cause difficulties between Russian NGOs and their foreign counterparts and erect an "iron curtain" between diplomats, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Ella Pamfilova as saying Thursday.

In Washington, a bipartisan taskforce on U.S.-Russia relations, set up by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) last May, asked Bush in a letter this week to take up the NGO legislation when he meets with Putin.

A taskforce delegation recently visited Moscow and held talks with NGO representatives about encroaching state control over civil society, the CFR said in a statement.

In its letter to Bush, the taskforce chairmen -- Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat John Edwards, both former vice-presidential candidates -- said the controversial legislation, if passed, would "roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies."

They said it was part of a clear, negative pattern of growing state control over Russian society.

They only noted that Russia will next January assume the rotating presidency of the Group of Eight (G-8) - at the very time laws may be enacted which "choke off contacts with global society."

Uzbekistan is another former Soviet republic whose regime worries about Western-funded political turmoil, and President Islam Karimov early this year ordered foreign NGOs to register with the country's justice ministry.

Karimov has shifted this year from being an ally in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamist terror to much closer ties with Moscow.

On Monday, he and Putin signed an alliance treaty which, among other things, provides for Russia to come to Uzbekistan's aid - military and otherwise -- in the event of "an act of aggression."

The treaty signed this week also lays the groundwork for Russia and Uzbekistan to use military facilities in the other's territory.

Angered by Western criticism of a bloody crackdown against protestors in the town on Andijan last May, Karimov gave the U.S. notice to vacate a military base being used in support of coalition operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

See earlier story:
Russian Reshuffle Sparks Talk of Presidential Succession (Nov. 15, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow