Putin's war on civil society

In the run-up to Russia's presidential elections, the Kremlin continues to undermine democratic inst

“An election is more than what happens on election day,” goes the expression - and it seems particularly apposite to Russia in the lead up to the presidential elections on 2 March. In the past eight years the government of president Vladimir Putin has weakened, almost beyond recognition, most of the essential elements that underpin a healthy democracy.

All Russia's major democratic institutions remain in place, but they have been largely emptied of real capacity to serve as a check on the Kremlin's power. The news media have been neutered: independent TV and radio have been all but destroyed and the independent press severely curtailed. The parliamentary opposition in the Duma has been marginalized. Direct election of regional governors has been abolished. The independence of the judiciary has, through various means, been seriously compromised.

All this has been prominently reported in the international media. Less well known is the extent to which the Kremlin has deliberately gone about stifling another essential pillar of a vibrant and successful democracy: independent nongovernmental organisations.

In a report published this week, Human Rights Watch documents how Putin’s government has in recent years sharply turned the screw on Russia’s vibrant civil society that emerged from the glasnost era. The report, Choking on Bureaucracy, tells the depressing but familiar story of an authoritarian government using a combination of red tape and arbitrary intimidation to curtail the efforts of grassroots social activists to build a better society.

The main tool has been a 2006 law that gives the government agencies broad authority to regulate the activities of non-governmental organizations. It has used this law – and other measures such as the amended 2002 “anti-extremism law” – to silence or effectively paralyze critical voices. Particular targets of the Kremlin are those NGOs which work on controversial issues such as human rights, those working in sensitive regions such as the North Caucasus, those that receive foreign funding, and those which seek to galvanize legitimate public dissent.

The 2006 law grants state officials wide powers to interfere in the setting up and operations of all NGOs. The authorities can reject applications for registration on the pettiest of grounds. The law imposes onerous reporting requirements and allows officials to conduct regular and intrusive inspections, which have been used to harass NGOs. Both can tie down an organisation in weeks or months of paperwork.

In its attack on civil society, the government has not needed to resort to such blunt tactics as mass closings of NGOs or overt censorship. More subtly, though just as effectively and chillingly, it has drowned them in paperwork and bureaucracy, while maintaining veneer of legality. NGOs are free to challenge the warnings and directives which result from inspections, but only at a huge cost to their substantive work.

One example: throughout much of 2007 the Information Center of the NGO Council, a group that provides daily bulletins on the situation in Chechnya and Ingushetia, was threatened with dissolution by the tax service for being improperly registered and failing to pay back taxes. The organization is challenging a fine for the equivalent of US$ 20,000 imposed by the tax service.

The Kremlin has justified the NGO law on the grounds that it must monitor foreign funding of Russian NGOs. This is something the Kremlin has regarded with great suspicion since the so called ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia when public uprisings peacefully overturned pro-Moscow governments. Moscow believes those uprisings were spearheaded by foreign funded NGOs.

The Russian government, like any other, has the right to regulate NGOs. But it also has a duty to ensure that any restrictions on NGOs are compatible with Russia’s obligations under international human rights laws that protect freedom of expression and association.

As the Human Rights Watch’s report demonstrates quite clearly, the 2006 NGO law and other restrictive measures used against NGOs by the Russian authorities are in violation of international human rights standards and hinder the effective exercise of basic civil and political rights.

The 2 March election may be a foregone conclusion. But there is a longer term, and those seeking to salvage Russian democracy should start by challenging the Kremlin’s crackdown on NGOs and speaking up for the rights of Russia’s courageous and vibrant civil society.

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch

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