Putin Stands By Tough NGO Bill
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday responded
to worries of a looming crackdown on nongovernmental organizations
by insisting that foreign funding of any political activity
in Russia must come under state control.
But Putin, making his first public remarks
about a contentious NGO bill that the State Duma approved in
a first reading Wednesday, also stressed that the legislation
must not damage civil society.
The bill in its current version would, among
other things, require NGOs to reregister with the Justice Ministry
and empower authorities to check that NGOs do not use foreign
grants to finance political activities. Foreign NGOs have warned
that the bill would shut them down.
"Political activity in Russia must be
transparent to the utmost," Putin said at a meeting with
Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential Council for Fostering
the Development Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights,
at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence.
"The ongoing funding of political activity
in Russia from abroad, I think, must be on the state's radar
screen, especially if this funding ... comes through the state
channels of other countries, and ... organizations operating
here and involved in political activity are, in essence, used
as foreign policy instruments by other states," he said
in televised remarks.
Putin's comments appeared to indicate a softening
in his rhetoric from July, when he sternly told human rights
activists at a Kremlin meeting that Russia would ban foreign
funding of political activity, not just keep it under control.
"We are against overseas funding for political activities
in Russia. I categorically object," Putin said at the time.
"Not a single state that respects itself does that, and
we won't allow it either."
With an eye on the Duma elections in 2007 and
the presidential vote in 2008, government officials have repeatedly
accused Western countries of helping bankroll Ukraine's Orange
Revolution last year and Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 through
Kremlin-connected consultant Gleb Pavlovsky,
however, expressed doubt that Putin had changed his mind. "There's
no change in the president's position," he said.
Pavlovsky said that both Putin and the NGO
community opposed foreign funding for political activity but
that they differed on what constituted political activity.
Alexander Petrov, acting head of U.S.-based
Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, said political activity
occurred when an NGO used foreign money to support a specific
party, not when an NGO campaigned for a fair election.
Some NGOs that received foreign funding have
transformed into political parties, Pavlovsky said, naming the
Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees as an example. The group,
which provides legal assistance to conscripts, has received
at least one foreign grant, $35,000 in 2004 from the National
Endowment for Democracy, according to U.S.-based endowment's
web site. It founded the United People's Party of Soldiers'
Mothers in 2004.
Putin on Thursday said he would discuss the
bill with Duma leaders to make sure that foreign funding could
be targeted without causing any damage to civil society. "When
solving these kind of issues, civil society institutions must
not suffer," he said on Rossia television.
Noting that public opinion was not in favor
of the bill, she said the current version would hamper NGOs
that were involved in culture and education and that helped
orphans and homeless children.
The Duma has set a Dec. 4 deadline for amendments
to the bill. A second reading is expected on Dec. 9, human rights
The new Public Chamber will suggest amendments
to the bill, even though only two-thirds of its members have
been named, member Yelena Zelinskaya said Thursday.
Pavlovsky said the bill was right to take NGOs
"out of the shadows" but that it required changes
to head off NGOs' suspicions. "In Russia, we need to increase,
not roll back, human rights activity," he said.
Petrov, of Human Rights Watch, said he did
not feel encouraged by Putin's call to prevent damage to civil
society. "For that, the bill has to be canceled or changed
drastically," he said.