One of the most high-profile foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia was decidedly keeping its head down when the BBC asked it to comment on the Kremlin’s move to keep tabs on the NGO sector.
Russia’s intelligence services have spoken out about NGOs
With the future of vital aid projects at stake, it had decided to keep out of politics and the representative declined, very politely and with some regret.
Nobody in the foreign-funded NGOs really knows what will happen on 10 April when the new law takes effect and officials will technically be able to dictate what they can and cannot do, under threat of closure.
Kremlin officials have defended the law on three grounds:
- that foreign spies infiltrate NGOs
- that NGOs distort the country’s image
- that NGOs elsewhere work under similar controls.
A possible fourth, unspoken reason is that foreign-funded NGOs allegedly played a key role in bringing down Kremlin-friendly governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and could threaten Russia’s own rulers.
The validity of these arguments, which potentially affect the lives of thousands of people needing aid, is open to question.
Romancing the Stone
The furore reached a peak in January when a Russian TV report suggested British spies equipped with an electronic device cunningly disguised as a rock were funding some NGOs.
The situation [in Chechnya] remains perfectly catastrophic
In the words of one Muscovite I chatted to – evidently a bit of a film buff – there may have been a fair deal of Romancing the Stone involved but the threat of foreign espionage is being talked up by officials.
Sergei Lebedev, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, has argued that humanitarian missions and NGOs attract “all the world’s intelligence services” because they need a cover for their work.
The new law, he says, is simply a step by Russia to protect its national interests and state security.
But John Prados, a senior analyst at the US National Security Archive, argues that intelligence services such as the CIA would be wary of using NGO staff as agents precisely because they are in the spotlight.
“Nor do they face the same problems putting people into the country as they faced during the Iron Curtain years,” he adds.
Along with charity work, many foreign-funded NGOs in Russia campaign for human rights, providing a voice for victims and seeking to expose state abuses.
Helping to create a political level playing field is a quite different thing from providing support to opposition candidates
Open Society Institute
In the eyes of the government, the reflection of Russian realities in reports by the like of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch (HRW) is more that of a distorting mirror.
“It is no surprise when Russia’s foreign policy is perceived inappropriately and falsely abroad,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko said in a recent interview.
“This happens because the Russian and Western media quote the opinions and views of NGOs well funded by foreign capital. This situation should be urgently corrected.”
HRW, whose Moscow bureau did agree to be interviewed by the BBC News website, stands by its exhaustive reporting of events in Russia and hurls the accusation of distortion back at the state.
“Ordinary Russians are being given the impression that the country is full of these NGOs spying for the US or British intelligence – which is completely wrong,” says Sasha Petrov, the deputy director for Moscow of the US-based organisation.
“All these statements are nothing more than a propaganda campaign against the NGOs.”
But Mr Lebedev says Russia’s new law “is no tougher than in other leading democratic countries”.
NGOs had, he says, “got used to feeling privileged and free and now see the slightest attempt to regulate their activities as an infringement of their rights”.
But while Western and other states have legal frameworks of their own which govern NGOs, “the comparison probably ends there”, says Robert Kushen of George Soros’ Open Society Institute, who has studied NGO legislation around the world.
“I am aware of no case in Western Europe or the US where the government is exercising the kind of intrusive oversight that is contemplated by the new Russian law.”
Mr Putin’s allies face a dilemma in 2008 when a new presidential election is due to be held without their man, who will have served two terms.
ON THE KREMLIN’S DOORSTEP
Foreign human rights NGOs working in Russia since early 1990s
Russian human rights NGOs such as Moscow Helsinki Group date back to 1970s
All sponsors currently listed by Helsinki Group’s website are foreign
Some speculate that an Orange Revolution-type movement in the country could sweep an opposition figure to power.
Many NGOs have to balance promoting democracy and transparency without appearing to take sides politically.
Such organisations played only a tiny and indirect role in political events in Ukraine and Georgia, according to Cliff Kupchan of the US-based Eurasia Group, who handled aid projects in the former USSR at the US state department and has headed an NGO in Moscow himself.
The key factor was simply popular discontent with the existing authorities, he says.
Robert Kushen says that election-related work such as monitoring polling stations and running exit polls was essentially a neutral activity for NGOs:
“Helping to create a political level playing field is a quite different thing from providing support to opposition candidates, which was not happening.”
The idea that NGOs acted in a focused, concerted way in Ukraine to bring the opposition to power, he says, smacks of conspiracy theory.
The possibility of NGOs’ links to political parties is rather a red herring in Russia, according to Sasha Petrov, who argues that recent elections have killed off any real political opposition.
The HRW representative believes there is a Kremlin policy to create “dummy” NGOs to complement a dummy parliament and dummy television channels – a civic and political Potemkin Village for the Putin era.
Imagine, he says, justice ministry officials studying HRW’s plans for the year ahead and then saying: You can go on reporting human rights abuses by Chechen rebels but not by the federal forces and Chechen paramilitaries.
“To obey the ban, would be to destroy the whole project,” he says.
Stressing the need for the new law, Vladimir Putin said this week that NGOs working to “foreign puppet masters” only compromised the others.
He described NGOs as an “important component of the social system” and said society needed them to “monitor the state itself”.
Few would deny a state the right to defend its national security, but when it insists on the right to monitor its own monitors, it is unclear how long the NGOs can remain “non-governmental”.