Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Russia is deliberately using government regulations to choke off independent activism, says a report prepared by Human Rights Watch for release today in Moscow.

The report, “Choking on Bureaucracy: State Curbs on Independent Civil Society Activism,” documents the effects of such regulations on nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, in Russia.

Legislation adopted in 2006 appears designed to interfere with the work of foreign-funded NGOs that associate with opposition movements, work on human rights issues or challenge government policy, the report says.

Human Rights Watch officials say the law, which among other things empowered the Federal Registration Service to regulate the work of NGOs, represents a government effort to establish control over civil society and prevent public dissent.

The report says the Kremlin has become increasingly suspicious of foreign-funded NGOs since the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004. Russia thinks advice from such organizations contributed to the overthrow of friendly governments in both countries.

The NGO law gave government officials wide powers to interfere with the activities of the groups, the report says.

“Any government has the right to regulate NGOs; we would never question that,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “But those restrictions have to meet a certain test of necessity in a democratic society, and there are guidelines for interpreting what necessity is — guidelines that were put up by the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member.”

Researchers conducted 40 interviews with NGO workers in Russia and inspected official documents of the registration service before concluding that endless inspections and bureaucratic requirements have been used to harass NGOs and distract them from productive work.

“The government doesn’t need to close you,” Ms. Denber said in a telephone interview. “But if the government wants to silence you, it can just make sure that you spend all your time fighting court battles and dealing with bureaucracy.”

Human Rights Watch cites instances in which the registration service issued warnings to NGOs for not filing activity reports on time or refused to register organizations because of typing errors in their applications.

The report says the registration service counts more than 240,000 NGOs in Russia, but groups that receive foreign funding or work on sensitive issues are targeted most often with endless inspections.

“We’re not saying the Russian government is trying to shut down civil society, but it has certainly narrowed the space for it,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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