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Charities in Russia stymied by new law
MOSCOW -- Dozens of human rights groups and humanitarian charities will be forced to suspend work in Russia today after missing a deadline for registering under a law against foreign support of nongovernmental agencies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the law, which faced widespread criticism internationally, earlier this year.
It allows authorities to shut down nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) if they fail to register again with Russia's Justice Ministry, provide financial data and submit program plans for approval.
The estimated 400 to 500 foreign-funded NGOs operating in Russia had until yesterday to hand in their requests for registration.
NGOs will be allowed to continue submitting requests until Jan. 18 but will not be allowed to work without registration until they do. They will remain legal entities, however, allowing them to maintain offices and pay staff.
A list published yesterday on the Federal Registration Service Web site showed 80 NGOs whose registration had been approved, including British charity Oxfam, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Center. Foreign adoption agencies accounted for most of the list.
Among the organizations that failed to obtain registration were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
"We won't be able to do anything substantive," said Allison Gill, the director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, which was unable to obtain the necessary documents to apply before yesterday's deadline. "We won't be able to issue press releases, interview victims of human rights abuses, do public advocacy -- any of the real work that matters."
Some NGOs, including Amnesty International, IRI and NDI, were able to submit documents in time but have yet to win approval from registration officials.
Officially, authorities must respond to registration requests within 30 days, but NGO representatives say bureaucrats can delay the process with requests for additional documents.
"We expect they'll be finding 'mistakes' in our documents," said Sergei Nikitin, the Moscow representative of Amnesty International. "I don't know when we'll be able to get back to work. If I'm being really optimistic, it could be a few months."
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that four foreign NGOs doing extensive humanitarian work in the North Caucasus, including the Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee, had suspended their operations in the region until they could obtain registration.
Registration officials have said NGOs are to blame for missing the deadline and that many have had to resubmit documents that were riddled with errors.
But NGOs say they haven't been given enough time to come up with the reams of documents required for registration and complain that many of the government's demands are unrealistic.
Among the information needed, for example, are extensive background details, including passport numbers and addresses, on NGO founders, no matter how old the group is or if its founders are long dead.
"The whole process has been absurd," Ms. Gill said.
Even if they do manage to get registered, foreign NGOs face another hurdle on Oct. 31, when they must submit financial and program plans for next year.
The law gives individual bureaucrats the right to reject any program proposal that they think threatens Russia's state interests.
NGOs say this could prevent them from working in sensitive regions, such as the conflict-ridden republic of Chechnya, or from funding groups that can be critical of authorities.
Critics say the new law is part of wider Kremlin crackdown on civil society, opposition groups and news organizations under Mr. Putin.
The Russian government has countered that many groups posing as NGOs are actually criminal or terrorist organizations.
Russian lawmakers have also accused foreign-backed NGOs of supporting opposition groups in Russia seeking to overthrow the government in a popular uprising similar to the recent revolutions against pro-Moscow regimes in Ukraine and Georgia.
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