- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Private Russian charities fear they will be hurt by the backlash from the Kremlin’s campaign to curb the activities of domestic and foreign pro-democracy groups.

Legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in January requires detailed reports from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their funding sources from abroad and their activities inside Russia.

Nonprofit groups and charities that have flourished since the collapse of communism, providing everything from shelters for battered women to technical training for political candidates, warn that the restrictions could force them to shut down.

“All NGOs that get money from abroad are under suspicion,” said political commentator Valerij Vizhutovich, who noted that the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine have sharpened fears of a similar democratic revolution in Russia.

“Apparently, the Russian special services got the information that revolutions in countries of the ‘near abroad’ occurred due to the foreign funds,” Mr. Vizhutovich said.

Under the new law, NGOs and other private organizations will have to register with the government and detail their activities next month.

Charities will be screened by a new regulatory commission, which will decide whether their activities are permitted under Russian law. The new law also requires detailed reports about the sources of funding and how it will be spent.

A blanket ban on foreign NGOs funding their Russia-based affiliates, included in the original version of the bill, was dropped before Mr. Putin signed the measure.

“In our country, most crisis centers and programs were created and function because of foreign funds,” said Larisa Aleksandrovna Leonova, general manager of the Global Family Center, which counsels women suffering from family violence.

She said her group previously had to provide financial operating information only to Russia’s tax authorities and the reporting burden was far lighter.

If foreign financing is blocked, “most Russian NGOs will find themselves without means of subsistence and will have to shut down their programs,” Mrs. Leonova said.

Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, said the added reporting requirements will give government officials more ammunition to harass and close critical or politically aggressive NGOs.

Already, he said, the government has been critical of such respected and established NGOs as the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Russian Union of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committees.

“Real dangers exist that the authorities, having no formal grounds for closing these organizations, would defame the name of NGOs in public opinion,” Mr. Brod said.

Just days after Mr. Putin signed the NGO legislation in January, Russian security forces staged a spectacular and high-profile sting, charging four British diplomats with secretly financing the Moscow Helsinki Group and other domestic NGOs. British officials angrily rejected the charges, which many in Moscow saw as a staged incident to warn other private groups.

U.S. officials fear the anti-NGO campaign in Russia, as well as in other former Soviet republics, is part of a series of anti-democratic steps taken by Mr. Putin in recent years.

But Thomas Melia, deputy executive director of the Washington-based Freedom House, said he recalls being told by a high-level Russian official that the crackdown reflects the Kremlin’s increasing grip on the levers of power.

The official’s message, he said, was: “In the 1990s, we were weak. Now we’re strong, and we don’t have to put up with this anymore.”

Julia Gimadyeva reported from Moscow.

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