Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russian Civil Rights Groups See Threat in Putin Oversight ; the State Duma Is to Consider a Series of Regulations That Could Restrict or Heavily Tax Funding for Russia's NGOs

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russian Civil Rights Groups See Threat in Putin Oversight ; the State Duma Is to Consider a Series of Regulations That Could Restrict or Heavily Tax Funding for Russia's NGOs

Article excerpt

Veronika Marchenko spends much of her time locked in struggle with the Russian government.

But she insists there's nothing unpatriotic about her group, Mothers' Right, which provides legal aid and advocacy services to parents whose sons have died in peacetime military service.

"We find ourselves perpetually in a state of opposition," she says. "Our main goal is to make Russian officials work effectively and according to the law. Unfortunately they do not always do so, and without Mothers' Right, many bereaved parents would be left with no legal assistance at all."

Ms. Marchenko's position seems to dovetail neatly with President Vladimir Putin's emphasis, in a May speech, on the need to build "a mature democracy and a developed civil society" to speed Russia's integration with the modern world.

But Mr. Putin sent chills through Russia's small community of human rights, environmental, and independent journalists' groups by adding this proviso: "Far from all [nongovernmental organization] are geared toward defending the people's real interests," he said. "For some [the priority is] obtaining funding from influential foreign and domestic foundations. For others, it is servicing dubious groups and commercial interests."

A package of tax code amendments presently before the pro- Kremlin State Duma would give teeth to Putin's thought by creating a commission to control funding for NGOs. According to the draft regulations, all foreign or domestic donors will have to go through a tough registration process and provide full details of how the money will be spent. Any "unregistered" contributions are to be taxed at a rate of 24 percent.

As with many Kremlin initiatives under Putin, the proposed rules to govern NGOs have triggered a sharp debate between experts who see them as normal government supervision over social institutions, and those who fear it heralds an authoritarian crackdown on independent grassroots activism.

"There is nothing dramatic going on," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the independent Politika think tank in Moscow. "There is some concern in government that there's a lot of foreign funding of things the state doesn't like. That's nothing new."

Russia currently has about 350,000 civic organizations, most of them sports or hobby clubs, collectors' societies, veterans' associations and other nonpolitical groups. Few receive money from abroad - most have no regular funding at all - and some even say they would welcome more government intervention.

"Any state policy would be preferable to the present chaos," says Alexander Saversky, head of Russia's League for Protection of Patients' Rights, which runs a hot line for reporting medical abuses. Mr. Saversky says he is forced to work part time as a real estate agent to keep the group's work going. …

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