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Since the Russian Federation’s emergence in 1991, its laws governing free speech and the right to association have been studied and scrutinized by the outside world, most notably by the United States. The state of civil society in Russia during the political upheavals of the early 1990s, as well as throughout the last decade of relative transitional stability, has been a source of optimism, concern, and speculation: Would the “New Russia” promote a free exchange of ideas and tolerate dissent? The answer, after the new non-governmental organization (NGO) legislation passed this year, unfortunately appears to be a resounding no.
On January 10, 2006, the Russian Federation passed a law addressing the situation of NGOs in Russia. This law, officially entitled “On Introducing Amendments into Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,”2 came into effect on April 15, 2006. In common parlance, its vague title has been replaced by “Russian NGO Law” to reflect the actual target of the legislation, namely nongovernmental organizations. The full consequences of this law are not yet known, because no prosecution has been brought to date; it remains to be seen, therefore, how this law will be applied and how courts will interpret its provisions.
The language of the law, however, significantly expands government control over NGOs and considerably restricts the right to association and the right to privacy of NGOs and NGO members. The Council of Europe reviewed a draft of the law and declared many of the provisions problematic.3 The Russian Government then revised its law, incorporating several recommendations made by the Council.4 Many restrictive provisions remained, however. The Russian Government also added new amendments in the final version limiting the rights of foreign NGOs and NGO members that were not in the original draft evaluated by the Council of Europe.5 These amendments potentially violate international and national law. This analysis will review the NGO Law6 and then address the possible breaches of the legislation, law by law, article by article.
Provisions of the Russian NGO Law
The Russian NGO Law has introduced new documentation requirements for NGOs. In order to register under the new law, organizations must fill out roughly 100 pages of documents, listing detailed personal information about each founder and each member.7 If any of the founders are deceased, the organization must provide death certificates. These new requirements create an excessive burden on NGOs, and any mistake in the paperwork can be grounds for denial of registration, essentially providing the government with another excuse to dissolve – or refuse to recognize legally – organizations.
A letter condemning the new legislation from Amnesty International commented: “The experience to date has been that the law is unduly burdensome, diverting resources from substantive programs, while using a regulatory framework that can be arbitrarily applied, has key provisions which lack a precise legal definition, and sanctions that are disproportionate.”8 As of June 29, 2006, forty foreign NGOs had applied for official registration under the new law – and not a single one was successful.9 All received notification that they did not comply with the documentation requirements and must resubmit their applications. The fact that all forty were denied registration indicates how complicated the new requirements are and confirms NGOs’ fears that this law can be used to harass NGOs, creating unnecessary work for them and excuses for the government to deny organizations registration.
Additionally, NGOs must complete annual reports, listing all foreign donations received and the ways in which those funds were used. This documentation requirement essentially outlaws anonymous donations. It also complicates large-scale public fundraising; NGOs do not have the necessary personal information about each small donor, who, for example, puts ten dollars in a collection bucket at a rally. These requirements are especially problematic for NGOs involved with human rights, because these organizations receive most of their financial support from foreign sources.17
The Russian NGO Law limits who may found, participate, or join an NGO to individuals domiciled in Russia, thus denying foreign nationals or stateless persons full freedom of association. Additionally, the NGO Law forbids certain others from becoming NGO members, including “undesirable” foreigners, individuals on a money-laundering and anti-terrorist financing watch list, individuals found by the court to have participated in extremist activity, individuals currently imprisoned, and members of organizations that have been suspended under the Law Countering Extremist Activity. The NGO Law does not define “undesirable” or “extremist,” and the money-laundering and anti-terrorist financing watch list is a non-published private government document. In other words, without knowing the definition of the government’s terms or who is on the government’s watch list, NGOs cannot protect themselves from accidentally accepting “illegal” members and thus facing dissolution.
The NGO Law expands the government’s powers to supervise and thereby control NGO activity. It gives the government the authority to review an NGO’s private documents, including those related to financial and policy decisions, as well the ability to send a government representative to any NGO meeting, including private strategic and financial meetings. These provisions, if exercised broadly, would drastically limit the ability of NGOs to function as independent organizations. If an organization is in constant fear that its documents will be requested or its meetings observed, it can neither operate efficiently nor remain uninfluenced by the political leanings of the government.