Russia Hostile to NGOs

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Moscow Skyline (image, CC: 5500 / Flickr)

Working in Russia can be full of bureaucratic red tape for the average citizen. There are lots of rules to follow, there are forms to fill out, licenses to get, job descriptions to be approved, but the situation can be even worse for those who work for foreign NGO’s in the former Soviet Union, organizations that the government may see as a threat. Matthew Schaaf is an NGO liaison for human rights watch in Moscow.

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"Organizations that work on controversial issues or that are affiliated in some way with the political opposition do appear to have more trouble with the authorities."

One such organization is Golos Samara, a voters rights NGO situated in Samara, on the Volga River in the south of the country. It was the site of the 2007 summit between the  European Union and Russia. Schaaf says right before the meeting, the government cracked down on NGO’s throughout the area, it didn’t matter what they specialized in.

"A voters rights NGO came to their office one day to find that the whole building was locked because of fire safety violations.  They were also accused of using illegal software."

Schaaf says the government has been using a 2006 law, that allows for unnecessary audits and demands that NGO’s maintain cumbersome and unnecessary paperwork, just to make it more difficult for them to operate. In 2006 the Russian parliament passed anti-extremism legislation that expanded the definition of extremism to include slandering a public official, hindering the work of authorities and involvement in hooliganism or vandalism for ideological, religious or ethnic reasons. Russian officials claim the legislation will stop hate crimes.

Oppositionists say the law is just one of many that the Kremlin uses to force NGO’s out of Russia. Alexander Verkhovsky is director of the SOVE Center for information and analysis in Moscow, an organization that researches nationalism and xenophobia in Russia. He says it’s ironic that the Russian government has used anti-extremism legislation to prosecute NGO’s when he’s received death threats from skinheads himself.

"Some neo-nazi groups, they sent us death threats by email or by phone, some people even came to my house. They sent me a video. It explained that I am an enemy of Russian people, that I support terrorists. My house was exposed, my address, my photo."

Verkhovsky says police have done nothing. Rights groups aren’t the only institutions who think laws governing NGO’s here need to change. During his during his inaugural visit to Russia, President Barack Obama took the time to address some 100 civil society leaders about the importance of change.

"For history teaches us that real progress, whether it’s economic or social or political doesn’t come from the top down, it typically comes from the bottom up. It comes from people, it comes from the grass roots, it comes from you."

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was invited to the conference but decided at the last minute not to attend. His spokesperson cited a scheduling conflict. There has been some change. The state Duma is debating a bill that would ease some of the tighter regulations governing NGO’s. Matthew Schaaf, with human rights watch, points out the new law only affects one third of the NGO’s here and more importantly, it doesn’t address some of the bigger issues NGO’s face, like violence.

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