Russia: The Persecution of Civil Society

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by David Levine

On January 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law “Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” which radically curtail the independence of the country’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Russia’s parliament, the Duma, had passed the bill in its third reading in late December by a huge majority: 357 in favor and only 20 against. Recalling an earlier era, Putin’s signing was not made public until word of it appeared a week later in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the government’s official newspaper. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was in Moscow for her first visit, and had publicly expressed her concerns about the bill’s impact on nongovernmental organizations, was unaware that the bill was already a law by the time she met Putin.

With the Duma providing no check on Putin’s power, and after measures to curb businesses, regional governments, and radio and television, the new law is an attack against civil society, one of the last significant parts of Russian public life in which independent critical voices have not yet been suppressed. The arrest and imprisonment in Siberia of the prominent industrialist Mikhail Khodorkovsky has, with few exceptions, silenced business leaders. The Duma elections of fall 2003 produced a pliant legislature in which the liberal opposition was eliminated and the majorities controlled by Putin are able to change the constitution. Instead of being popularly elected, all governors are now appointed by the president (with regional legislative approval). After the state’s shutdown of the last remaining private national television channel in 2003, radio and television now offer few views that challenge the government’s policies. Though they are vulnerable and fragmented, nongovernmental organizations in Russia still express independent opinion as do some newspapers and the Internet. Among the NGOs, the country’s human rights groups have been particularly important in calling attention to the continuing abandonment of the commitment to democracy that the Russians of the Nineties seemed to make after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The new law, which goes into effect in mid-April, has several clear objectives. The first, consistent with Putin’s determination to recentralize power in Moscow, is to broadly expand the authority of an agency within the Ministry of Justice to register, monitor, and audit nongovernmental groups. This powerful bureau, in effect a Russian “homeland security agency,” will have a staff of several thousand, many of them (some predict around one third) drawn from Putin’s natural constituency, the intelligence and security services. Rosregistratsia, as the agency is called, is charged with reregistering all of Russia’s reported 450,000 NGOs. It will seek information on the annual activities of all these groups, including where they get their funding. It will also have the right to attend any NGO-organized event it chooses. It can decide at any moment to request documents and other information that, if deemed unsatisfactory, could lead to an organization’s immediately being shut down. A prominent foundation representative…

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