NGOs Face Hostility Abroad; Democracy Efforts Opposed

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

NGOs Face Hostility Abroad; Democracy Efforts Opposed


Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In a growing number of countries around the world, promoting the popular will is becoming unpopular.

U.S. pro-democracy groups say they are facing increasing - and increasingly sophisticated - opposition from authoritarian regimes eager to preserve their grip on power.

"It used to be that groups like ours could fly somewhat under the radar," said Lorne Craner, president of the congressionally funded International Republican Institute (IRI). "That certainly is not the case anymore."

Nongovernmental organizations such as the IRI, its Democratic counterpart the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House, the Open Society Institute (OSI) and their Western European allies insist that their mission is to help countries build the infrastructure of democracy and civil society, not to overthrow governments.

But the prominence that President Bush has given to democratic reforms in his foreign policy and the stunning success of the so-called "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan have made the democracy-promoting foundations the targets of sharp new scrutiny.

NDI President Kenneth Wollack said the distrust of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by authoritarian rulers was nothing new, but that the recent political upheavals had given the campaign new fuel.

"They try to mischaracterize us as a way to deflect from the growing political demands of their own people," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last month signed a law tightening restrictions on NGO activism and funding, saying he did not mind "financially transparent" NGO activity, but that such groups "cannot be used as a foreign policy instrument by one state on the territory of another."

In practical terms, Mr. Craner said, the new laws make it very difficult for groups like IRI to operate.

"Essentially, it means we can set up a Russian office for IRI, but then the main office here in Washington couldn't fund it," Mr. Craner said.

Despots and semi-authoritarian leaders in other former Soviet states have taken a cue from Mr. Putin.

In Belarus, longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko has severed virtually all ties between domestic democracy groups and foreign NGOs. Kazakhstan's parliament approved two laws restricting links between local and international NGOs.

The Washington-based Freedom House earlier this month was forced to suspend activities in Uzbekistan for six months after losing an appeal against charges that it broke the law by, among other things, providing Uzbek human rights advocates with free Internet access.

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