Freedom limitations for NGOs
Activists of non-profit organizations encounter several obstacles in carrying out their activities. In the main cities of Moscow and San Petersburg human rights activists often organize freedom of assembly protests to voice their right as codified in article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Security forces often disperse the protests, citing vague provisions, and arrest their participants. The general perception is that the Kremlin is ready to label any dissent demonstration as illegal, simply because it is not prepared to confront opposition from the civil society.
Working conditions of NGOs are often not eased by the local governments, especially for those dealing with human rights and financed by foreign companies. This is the case of the human rights society, Memorial, hit in 2009 by the murder of Natalya Estemirova, an activist working in Grozny. The organization chief, Oleg Orlov was then sued by a district court in Moscow for libel against Chechen president Kadyrov, whom he accused of complicity in the killing of Natalya Estemirova. Orlov stated that Memorial could close its branch in Chechnya since Kadyrov’s opposition to the organization made the situation not safe for activists working in the region.
After the come into force of the 2006 law, the Kremlin aimed to control the funding of NGOs by foreign countries, often accused of fomenting revolution through the activity of non-profit organizations. Most donors supporting the activity of Russian non-profit organizations come from abroad, mainly from the EU and the US. By 2008 Putin reduced from 101 to 12 the number of foreign foundations and international organizations allowed to give tax-free grants in Russia, jeopardizing the very survival of thousands of Russian NGOs, whose activity often depends exclusively on foreign donors. Among the left-outs should be mentioned the Ford Foundation and the International Federation of the Red Cross.
Russian NGOs are thwarted from expressing their hostility towards the government due to the Kremlin’s control over the main newspapers and broadcasting agencies. Echo Moskvy, an independent radio station was accused by Prime Minister Putin during the war in Georgia to report incorrect information about the war, which conveyed a picture of the Russian government that was not welcome by the Kremlin. The ruling party, United Russia, holds most of the seats in the State Duma and a large consensus among the electorate, living little room for the activity of opposition parties. United Russia exerts a strong influence also in regional elections, where most of the administrative posts are covered by its representatives.
The Russian NGO Law
The State Duma, under President Vladimir Putin, passed a law addressing the situation of NGOs in Russia, the so-called “Russian NGO Law”. This significantly expanded government control over NGOs and considerably restricted the right to association and the right to privacy of NGOs and NGO members. There are several limitations to the work of NGOs concerning fundamental aspects of their organization.
The first one concerns the registration procedure. Provisions require a too detailed and burdensome documentation. Therefore, many organizations responded by either re-registering as commercial ones in order to avoid the documentation requirements, or by uniting to simplify the registration procedures.
The second one concerns funding reports. NGOs must complete annual reports, listing all foreign donations received and the ways in which those funds were used. This outlaws anonymous donations, which is especially relevant in the field of human rights, where most of donors are foreigners despite former President Putin’s stance against foreigners participating and sponsoring Russian NGOs.
The third one concerns membership. The Russian NGO Law limits who may found, participate, or join an NGO to individuals domiciled in Russia, thus denying foreign nationals or stateless people full freedom of association.
The fourth one concerns government supervision. The NGO Law expands the government’s powers to supervise and thereby control NGO activity, which limits the NGOs ability to work as independent organizations.
President Medvedev tried to relax laws on NGOs ordering a working group of parliamentarians and activists, chaired by Ella Pamfilova to consider laws on NGOs. He then submitted a bill to simplify registration and other rules for non-profit organizations. However, these amendments covered only a third of Russian NGOs. They can be considered as a step forward towards allowing civil society to have its say, however much still remains to be done.
Implication for Russia and the International Community
Limiting political dissent may help the ruling party stay in office but it has devastating consequences both on the Russian civil society and on Russia’s position in the international arena. Restrictions on access to impartial information prevent the Russian society from taking a conscious and informed decision about which party to vote for, and whether the ruling government is actually acting in the interest of the people or in its own. NGOs in Russia work to raise the awareness of the public on sensitive issues and problems, questioning the ability of the government to deal with them. Therefore, they become the first target of restrictions and limitations from the authorities. In a centralized and authoritarian-like system, the government’s discontent with the work of NGOs provokes a generalised mistrust towards them. The risk is that activists are perceived of as extremists and fanatics breaking the federal law, while all they try to do is to often risk their lives to allow people to enjoy the rights they are entitled to.
The attitude of the Russian government towards civil society and towards human rights activists raised the concern of international actors. The Council of Europe put public pressure on Russian authorities to honour the country’s commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As such, the country is also subject to constant monitoring of its human rights record by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Commissioner for Human Rights and the Committee of Ministers. In case of human rights violation, in fact, the Council could suspend the country’s voting rights in the PACE. Finally, through the Conference of International non-governmental organizations (INGOs), the Council can gather a number of regional NGOs to discuss issues of common concern and look for possible solutions.
Since 2005 the European Commission holds biennial Human Rights Consultation with Russian authorities. However civil society representatives dismissed them as a “mere farce”. They accuse the EU to “trade oil for basic rights” and to attach more importance to its “strategic partnership” and bilateral relations with Russia than to the protection of human rights. The EU, in turn, claimed that promoting liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are among its main goals and that even its external action is aimed at promoting such values. Since 2006, in fact, it launched the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), which aims to fund civil society organizations in partner countries and does not require the consent of country in question’s government to operate. In Russia, the EIDHR was launched in 2007 for a six-year period of time to help local and international NGOs promoting human rights. So far, the EIDHR in Russia has contributed to its scope through projects aimed at strengthening the role of civil society in promoting human rights and democratic reforms, providing assistance to human rights defenders and consolidating political participation and representation in Russia.