"Babushka Said Two Things-It Will Either Rain or Snow; It Either Will or Will Not": An Analysis of the Provisions and Human Rights Implications of Russia's New Law on Non-Governmental Organizations as Told through Eleven Russian Proverbs

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An old Russian proverb expresses the simple truth that a future outcome remains an uncertainty and that - at the present time - it could go one way or the other.1 This adage readily describes the situation in the Russian Federation today and, more specifically for the purposes of this Article, the nature of the recently amended law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), passed by the Duma and signed by then President Vladimir Putin in early 2006.2

Longtime observers of Russia increasingly have called attention to and expressed profound concern for the direction the Russian Federation has taken in recent years.3 In advancing President Putin's vision of "dictatorship of law"4 and "managed democracy,"5 the Russian government has retreated from key democratic reforms, undermining the transition away from Soviet rule and imperiling significant gains in fundamental human rights. Indeed, a direct correlation may be made between the steep decline regarding human rights during the past few years and the "rise of authoritarian trends"6 in the Russian Federation. Foremost among the discouraging developments indicating the halt - if not reversal - of democratic progress in Russia is the escalation in state persecution of "socially active" groups and individuals through employment of unfair and "obviously selective" methods "directed against those who are not liked by the authorities or . . . individual officials,"7 the consolidation of state control over media outlets,8 and imposition of tighter restrictions on "non-traditional" religious communities and NGOs, particularly those undertaking human rights activities.9

According to the U.S. Department of State:

Continuing centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, political pressure on the judiciary, intolerance of ethnic minorities, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, continuing media restrictions and selfcensorship, and harassment of some [NGOs] resulted in an erosion of the accountability of government leaders to the population.10

Furthermore, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported that actions and statements by Russian officials "indicate a declining level of tolerance for unfettered NGO activity, particularly for those NGOs receiving foreign funding," and a number of NGOs have alleged that lengthy government investigations of their finances and other tactics are used to restrict their activities.11 In the same vein, Human Rights Watch concluded that Russia's internal crackdown on independent voices signals an intent to rebuild "a sphere of influence, especially among the nations of the former Soviet Union, even if that means embracing tyrants and murderers."12

Although Russia is a state party to major regional and international human rights treaties, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention)13 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),14 government officials have challenged universally recognized human rights principles, as well as the overarching validity of human rights advocacy in Russia, charging that both are being used for political purposes. In President Putin's not-so-subtle words, "[w]hen speaking of common values, we should . . . respect the historical diversity of European civilisation. It would be useless and wrong to try to force artificial 'standards' on each other."15 On international funding of NGOs, Putin is blunter: "What bothers us? I can say - and I think that it is clear for all - that when these nongovernmental organizations are financed by foreign governments, we see them as an instrument that foreign states use to carry out their Russian policies."16 To be certain, this characterization has heightened the vulnerability of Russia's human rights advocates and those they defend, and has undermined the value and content of international law. …


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