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Russia's NGOs: strangled by red tape

About the author
Olga Gnezdilova is a lawyer in Voronezh, Russia.  She is legal counsel for the Voronezh/Black Earth inter-regional Human Rights Group.

On 18 April 2006 the "new law on non-commercial organisations" came into force. This involved significant changes to the activities of non-government organisations (NGOs). 

The amendments to the law went through parliament in 2006 in an atmosphere fraught with suspicion. Outright accusations were flying around that human rights advocates were hand in glove with foreign intelligence and top politicians made speeches about the need to fight terrorism and orange revolutions.

Since then, despite NGOs having been under intense scrutiny, not a single terrorist or extremist group has been uncovered, unless you count Tyumen's Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender organisation "Rainbow House".  They were refused registration for "undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia by reducing its population".

Although no terrorists have been found, NGOs have been having serious difficulties in setting up and registering.  It became much harder to make changes to an NGO's charter,or to register a new address or director. Directors started being liable for criminal proceedings.  The authorities have started searching their offices. NGOs have also been forced to pay tax on their funds, as the government has reduced from 101 to 12 the list of international organisations entitled to receive money without having to pay a 24% tax on profits.  The media have meanwhile kept on discrediting NGOs and accusing them of extremism. 

In May 2008, there was a glimmer of hope that the situation might change.  On 12 May President Dmitri Medvedev removed the registration and monitoring of NGOs from the Federal Registration Service (FRS) and transferred it to the Justice Ministry and its regional branches. Many took this to be the president's way of trying to resolve the standoff between the organisations. This had been going on ever since the changes to NGO legislation were introduced, when the FRS was granted unprecedented monitoring rights.

But the hopes vested in President Medvedev were soon dashed.  The Justice Ministry turned out to wield exactly the same powers as the FRS. Indeed, in many regions it was the same people doing the monitoring. 

Death by bureaucracy

Organisations are still finding it hard to register. The Justice Ministry has a chart of its "Key Performance Indicators" on its official website. This chart contains a quota for the number of voluntary and religious organisations which will be denied registration in 2008-9. That figure is 1,400.

The procedure for registering changes of director and address is also laid down by law, and they may not be granted at all. This procedure often drags on for several months and paralyses the work of the NGO. For instance, on 8 May 2008 the Voronezh Regional FRS refused to register a new director of the organisation "Free University", which is engaged in further education. However, the letter only arrived on 26 May. The refusal was appealed at the FRS and the complaint was upheld.  Voronezh officials continued refusing to register the new director until September 2008, which meant no one could sign any of the necessary documents and the organisation was unable to operate.

In recent years communications from the Justice Ministry regional branches have come to read like reports of socialist competitions. For the success of a regional branch is clearly being measured by how many organisations have been inspected or prosecuted. In 2008, for example, the Nizhny Novgorod regional branch of the Justice Ministry issued 2,541 warnings related to infringements of the law.  There were 961 warnings to voluntary organisations, 311 to religious organisations, 1246 to NGOs and 23 to regional branches of political parties -  an increase of 452% over 2007 figures.

NGOs receiving funding from abroad continue to attract the special attention of the registration bodies. On 29 April FRS representatives in the Republic of Chuvashia announced that this year there would be compulsory checks to ensure that funds received had been spent as originally intended. There are 5 such organisations in Chuvashia at present.

The chart on the Justice Ministry website shows that the number of warnings, reports of breaking the law, notifications or orders to cease operations planned for 2008 was 10,000.  The same plan indicates that not one appeal by an NGO will be upheld by a court.

NGOs still have to submit duplicate reports to the tax authorities and the Justice Ministry. In 2008 there were attempts to develop new simplified report forms, but these have yet to be approved.

As of 1 January 2009, according to the State Registration Gazette, 219,802 Russian NGOs had been struck off the register for various reasons.  Over 44,000 ofthese were as a result of applications to the court (usually by the FRS regional branches or the Justice Ministry) to have an organisation declared non-operational.

Most are struck off for failure to submit accounts, which is one of the 2006 amendments.  But courts often do not investigate if an organisation has actually ceased operations. They may strike an NGO off the register simply for failing to submit accounts.

Writs issued by the Justice Ministry branch in the Nizhny Novgorod region in 2008 show that decisions were taken to close down 332 NGOs. The same office intends to initiate further closures of more than 130 NGOs.

A case was brought against Voronezh's Consumer Protection NGO requiring it to prove over an 18 month period that it was operational. The organisation had to submit to the court over 40 pages from the local press about its operations, as well as certificates from the city and regional authorities. This they did. None the less, the FRS representative, Natalia Urazova, still insisted on pursuing the court case. It was a "matter of principle" for the regional FRS, she maintained.  However, the court came to no conclusion and the case was closed on the grounds that the body monitoring the NGO had changed in May 2008.

Fantastical redefinitions

Recently there has been a move to close down NGOs engaged in outreach activities, such as seminars, training etc.  The problem was discussed in April at a joint meeting of the Public Chamber Committee on the development of civil society and the FRS Community Council.  Members of the Chamber discussed a change that has been slipped through which distinguishes between ‘outreach' and ‘educational activity'. Educational activity must have an approved programme, an exam and a diploma. It also has to have a licence, which is very difficult to arrange.  Seminars and training, on the other hand, do not require the NGO to have a licence.

Data from the Public Chamber show that education and academic research are the main areas of activity for almost half of all NGOs (46%).  Thus, broadening the definition of educational activity so that more NGOs will need a licence threatens the existence of half the organisations.

Spy Mania

Since 2006 the work of NGOs has been dogged by "spy mania".   On 13 March the head of the Voronezh Regional FRS, Inna Demidova, organised a press conferencein Voronezh. One of the topics was the "Illegal Financing of NGOs by Western Intelligence Agencies".  When journalists tried to find out how many Voronezh organisations were illegally financed by Western secret services, and which ones, Demidova gave no reply.  She merely complained that several unscrupulous NGOs did not submit their accounts on time or failed to do them at all. The media were not present at the press conference, but they noted this as the key issue.

In April the head of the Russian FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, announced at a meeting of the National Anti-terrorist Committee that "individual foreign NGOs provide information support to terrorists". Although he did not give any specific facts, he was undoubtedly sending a signal to government officials who work with NGOs.

Many NGOs had great hopes of working with the Justice Ministry. But the civil sector does not have a hope of being able to develop unless there is significant change.  This cannot happen unless the laws governing the authorities monitoring the sector are amended. Leading politicians are going to have to re-assess their attitude to NGOs before this can take place.   Until then, these organisations will struggle to survive.

 


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