Russia's NGO Law Cannot be Viewed in a Vacuum

Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), by Christopher Walker

The introduction and adoption of Russia's new law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rightly attracted a good deal of attention at home and abroad. The new law, which was signed by President Putin in January, affords the authorities a new set of tools for monitoring and controlling the NGO sector in Russia. The very fact that this legislation generated such a passionate reaction suggests that those with a dedicated interest in Russia's democratic development recognized the serious stakes involved.
 
At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge that these NGO restrictions are not an isolated chapter in the story of Russia's recent political development. In fact, the new law represents only the latest in a series of measures, legislative or otherwise, taken over the past five years to limit the ability of independent voices to influence policy in today's Russia. Given the range of actions taken by the Kremlin to rein in political, business and, now, civic actors, the new NGO law cannot be viewed in a vacuum. 
 
The larger issue, of which the new NGO law is an important part, is the ongoing campaign to dismantle any meaningful institutional checks on the Kremlin's power. This trend has serious implications for a range of critical issues, including Russia's ability to diversify its economy from reliance on the energy sector to the country's ability to combat the scourge of corruption, as well as the ongoing terrorist threat.
 
The new NGO legislation requires detailed reports from nongovernmental organizations on their funding sources from abroad and their activities inside Russia. Nonprofit groups that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union warn that the restrictions could force them to close down. Under the new law, NGOs and other private organizations will have to register with the government and detail their activities. These organizations will be screened by a new regulatory bureaucracy, which will decide whether NGO activities are permitted under Russian law. The new law also requires detailed reports about the sources of funding and how it will be spent. A complete prohibition on foreign NGOs funding their Russia-based sister organizations, included in the original version of the bill, was set aside before President Putin signed the measure.
 
In what has been characterized by the authorities as an effort to reform the NGO sector by making activities more transparent is perceived by many in the NGO community and at major international bodies, including the Council of Europe, as an effort to further intimidate NGOs.
 
A comprehensive review of the legislation undertaken by the respected International Center for Not-for-Profit Law highlights the dangers posed by a number of ambiguous provisions and how these might be applied. The Council of Europe has stated clearly that it shares the concern about the manner in which these new set of tools will be applied.
 
It is precisely because other pivotal institutions, which should ensure democratic accountability, have already been neutered by the Kremlin that this is of such concern. Over the course of the last five years, the Russian authorities effectively established control over national broadcast media such that there is little in the way of independent or critical comment on the authorities' decisions or performance. The Kremlin has also reined in the state Duma and regional governors, in the process shrinking institutional capacity to provide a political counterweight to the executive. Finally, the judiciary has been unable to establish itself as an independent force capable of advancing the rule of law.
 
Given the lack of independence of the media, legislature and the judiciary, the Russian leadership was already well positioned to clamp down on whomever it deemed politically undesirable, even before the passage of the new NGO law. And of course the paucity of democratic accountability contributed to a robust enabling environment for corruption. Mikhail Dmitriyev, head of the government's Center for Strategic Research, had it right when said at the recent conference in Altai that "the best way to combat corruption is through democratic institutions."
 
The NGO sector has a valuable role to play as a check on executive power, offering valuable feedback to the authorities, and contributing a diversity of ideas to the policy debate. The long list of Russia's deep structural problems - enhancing the efficiency of state management, debureaucratization, diversifying the economy, and reforming the military and security services - cannot be solved by decree. 
 
This is of particular importance with approaching elections slated to be held in 2007 and 2008. In fact, both of these elections should be the appropriate forum in which to have a vigorous discussion about how Russia can tackle corruption and other challenges facing society. Unfortunately, an intimidated and beleaguered NGO sector will not make the sort of contribution to this debate that would serve the public interest.
 
This reality brings us back to the implications of the passage of the new NGO law. Unfortunately, the common denominator in the new restriction on NGOs - as well as all of the steps taken to curb the independence of the judiciary, parliament, governors and news media - is the reduction of accountability of key institutions to the Russian people.
 
Christopher Walker is Director of Studies at Freedom House. He is co-editor of Freedom House's survey of governance, "Countries at the Crossroads."

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