- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

MOSCOW — Russian lawmakers yesterday approved a widely criticized bill on nongovernmental organizations, paving the way for the Kremlin to impose strict controls on human rights groups and other civic organizations.

The lower house, or State Duma, voted 376-10 in favor of the bill, which was condemned by domestic and international NGOs and the United States and other Western governments as a serious threat to democracy and civil rights.

The bill, approved in a first reading in late November, still must be passed in a technical third reading tomorrow, but substantive changes can no longer be made.

President Vladimir Putin called for the bill to be rewritten in the wake of international criticism, but NGOs said that after 74 pages of amendments, the bill remained draconian.

“Only the most outrageous, truly inadmissible limitations on the rights of international organizations were dropped,” said Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, Russia’s most prominent rights group. “The bill still provides for widespread and arbitrary repression of Russian and international NGOs.”

Deputies did scrap a provision that barred international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from operating branch offices in Russia, but added an amendment that would allow foreign NGOs to be closed if they threaten the country’s “sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and national interests.”

Washington-based NGOs said the relaxing of the curbs on international groups is reassuring, but there are still concerns about the implementation of the new law and its impact on the Russian NGOs.

“Overregulating civil society will be counterproductive to both the Russian democracy and the Putin administration,” said the spokeswoman of an international group that works to promote democracy in Russia and other former Soviet states.

The bill creates a new agency of the Justice Ministry to oversee the registration, financing and activities of the thousands of NGOs. It will have the power to refuse to register or dissolve NGOs. The bill will also require stringent, constant accounting before the government, including the notification of any donation, no matter how small, from abroad.

Mr. Orlov said the provisions of the bill are so vague that it will essentially give bureaucrats the power to shut down NGOs on a whim.

“Individual officials will have an enormous amount of authority to prevent NGOs from operating,” he said.

Authorities say the bill is aimed at preventing NGOs from being used as fronts for subversive political groups, foreign intelligence agencies, criminal gangs and terrorist organizations.

Officials have accused internationally funded NGOs of being a “fifth column,” seeking to destabilize the political situation in Russia by creating an opposition movement like those that launched Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” and Georgia’s “Rose Revolution.”

The bill’s supporters say the proposed measures are similar to laws in the United States and other Western countries designed to monitor the flow of funds sent to NGOs from abroad to ensure that the money isn’t used to support terrorist organizations and illegal groups.

“It’s clear that this law was indispensable,” said Sergei Popov, from the pro-Putin United Russia party. “The goal is to have financial controls. Any civilized state does the same thing.”

Since taking office, Mr. Putin, a colonel in the KGB spy agency during the Soviet era, has moved to cement Kremlin control over parliament, broadcast media, courts and regional governments.

Also yesterday, Russia’s Constitutional Court struck down a challenge to a new system introduced by Mr. Putin last year that abolished direct elections for regional governors and gave the Kremlin the power to appoint them, subject to the approval of regional legislatures.

Desikan Thirunarayanapuram contributed to this report in Washington.

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