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In Russia, Pro-Democracy Groups Hear Tick-Tick-Tick

November 19, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Employees of Open Russia, the nonprofit, pro-democracy charitable foundation established by jailed oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, came to work one morning in October to find a police bus parked outside, along with two minivans marked "Prosecutor General's Office."

A dozen investigators swarmed out of the buses and proceeded to seal off the building. Authorities said they were looking for evidence of money laundering. But foundation directors came to believe they were being targeted for something else: promoting an independent electorate and a free press.

The detectives left 10 hours later, loaded with all the data from the foundation's computers and five bags of documents.

But there was little new evidence to find. Open Russia, one of the instruments of Khodorkovsky's campaign to end government repression, already had been the subject of 21 different government examinations in the last two years.

"Tax inspections. Ministry of Justice inspections. Social Security Fund inspections. Labor inspections. Anybody who can control anybody was here to control us," said program director Irina Yasina.

Then the government brought out the big guns. Russia's parliament on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a bill that would dramatically increase government supervision over an estimated 400,000 foundations and impose new restrictions that could put Open Russia and hundreds of other groups out of business.

Many analysts say the bill is a cornerstone in the Kremlin's move to control virtually all levels of public discourse. In what many see as a step back toward the Soviet era, President Vladimir V. Putin has moved to centralize his authority over parliament, the media, courts and regional governments. The proposed legislation would add to the list one of the last independent sectors in public life -- civil institutions.

Its chief target, analysts said, is nongovernmental organizations funded by the West that promote democracy, and that the Kremlin perceives as encouraging an Orange Revolution-style uprising, like the kind that toppled the governments of neighboring Ukraine and Georgia.

Already, millions of dollars in U.S. Agency for International Development grants earmarked for democracy and good-government foundations have been held up under separate regulations governing tax exemptions.

In September, the former Moscow director of the U.S. National Democratic Institute was blocked from entering the country. She was admitted only after the U.S. Embassy intervened.

"The new draft law on NGOs is targeted at what is perceived to be 'revolutionary activity,' or the alleged role of foreign organizations in instigating public protests and popular revolutions," said Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, which receives about a third of its funding from USAID and the European Union.

Analysts said international organizations as diverse as Human Rights Watch, the National Democratic Institute, and anti-AIDS and environmental groups could in effect be prevented from operating in Russia.

"Under this law it would be very questionable whether we would be able to register our office in any form," said Diederik Lohman, senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Outside Russia, the legislation is considered by many to be a retreat into isolationism at a time when Russia is scheduled to take over chairmanship of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.

"It raises an almost unthinkable prospect -- that the president of Russia might serve as chairman of the G-8 at the same time that laws come into force in this country to choke off contacts with global society," former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and former Housing and Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who are leading a bipartisan task force on U.S.-Russian policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a letter this week to President Bush.

But sponsoring legislators said the bill was aimed at businesses trying to launder profits, extremist groups and foreigners seeking to destabilize the political situation.

The legislation would allow the government, for example, to restrict the activities of a foreign environmental group working near secret Russian military installations, said co-sponsor Alexander Chuyev, deputy chairman of the parliamentary Committee for Nongovernment and Religious Organizations.

"I would not be surprised if a majority of employees of these organizations was working for the interests of other countries," Chuyev said.

In addition to requiring registration and oversight of all NGOs, the bill would prohibit foreigners without residency permits from working at NGOs and prevent foreign groups from operating in Russia unless they could reinvent themselves as local organizations.

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