Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thousands of Russian NGOs entangled by new rules

Thousands of non-governmental organizations operating in Russia may soon be forced to close their doors because of tough new government regulations.

In 2006, the Russian Duma passed strict laws regulating the operations of NGOs in Russia, requiring them to submit detailed reports of their activities, membership and funders. Since then the laws have been revised several times, making them stricter each time. NGOs now have until Tuesday to meet the new reporting requirements, or could risk being closed by the government.

The law affects thousands of NGOs operating in Russia dealing with issues from human rights to the environment. I know from talking with friends that the climate for operating NGOs in Russia is already difficult. After decades of centralized government rule under the Soviet Union, the idea of privately operated groups dealing with social issues was unheard of and often met with suspicion.

Suspicion of the activities of NGOs is what has been driving the crackdown by the Russian government. It contends that anti-government campaigns in Serbia and Georgia (the "Rose Revolution" in 2002) that led to the downfall of the governments in those countries were funded and organized through NGOs. The Russian government has therefore been wary of NGOs in Russia, particularly foreign-funded ones, fearing that they are front organizations looking to stir up political turmoil.

It is a pretty silly fear that ignores a few facts. First Serbia and Georgia are far smaller countries than Russia, so organizing nationwide protests was a much easier task in those places then it would ever be in Russia. Second, and more importantly, the governments in both Serbia and Georgia at the time of the protests were very unpopular, quite a different situation from the 70-80% approval ratings that Vladimir Putin currently enjoys.

In the end, the Russian government will likely only hurt its own people while protecting against a threat that does not exist. NGOs in Russia could provide a valuable safety net for people being left behind in Russia's economic boom (like the elderly and children in rural areas), something that will not happen if the government makes it too difficult for them to operate.
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