Background Briefing

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On November 23, 2005, the State Duma, Russia’s parliament, is scheduled to consider a draft law that would dramatically restrict the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Russia. The representative offices of foreign groups, including Human Rights Watch and also foreign foundations, think tanks, and social service providers, would have to re-register as local membership organizations or face liquidation. The law would furthermore allow far greater government interference in the work of Russian NGOs, putting them at serious risk of losing their independence.

This draft law follows two years of marked deterioration in the working environment for NGOs in Russia. In his 2004 state-of-the-nation speech, President Vladimir Putin of Russia issued a broadside attack against NGOs that, in his opinion, “serve dubious group and commercial interests” and fail to stand up for the “people’s real interests”—evidently a charge against groups that have criticized the government’s handling of human rights, the environment, and other sensitive issues. Coming after the Putin administration obliterated independent television, marginalized the written media and parliamentary opposition, and jailed or forced into exile perceived opponents among businessmen, it was broadly seen as a sign that the administration had shifted its focus to the last remaining large and independent sector of civil society, the NGOs.

More than a year later, NGOs that work on human rights issues in Chechnya are increasingly embattled in a way that often keeps them from doing their substantive work. While no coordinated campaign is yet underway against other critical groups, the working environment for NGOs has considerably deteriorated over the past year. Numerous officials have made a habit of launching verbal attacks on them, and incidents of harassment appear to be on the increase. The draft law heightens fears that an official crackdown is imminent.

These fears are not far-fetched. The situation for NGOs today is reminiscent of that of independent television in 2000. The campaign against independent television in Russia started that year with the Kremlin imposing crippling restrictions on journalists covering the Chechnya conflict, and attacking media and journalists who refused to toe the Kremlin line. After harnessing most coverage on Chechnya, the Kremlin then quickly moved against all independent television stations so as to establish control over all televised news reporting. It is logical that in their campaign against critical NGOs, the Kremlin has first taken on groups working on Chechnya, with their continuing reports of grave abuses. However, given the Kremlin’s well-documented lack of tolerance for criticism, it is unlikely to stop once it has silenced these groups.

As a party to all major international human rights instruments, Russia is obligated to uphold freedom of expression and association.3 Although these freedoms are not absolute, Russia may not arbitrarily restrict these rights. The government’s interference with NGO work documented below, and its harassment of human rights defenders and victims of abuse, fly in the face of its commitment to ensure the fundamental human rights of its people. They also undermine the government’s stated goal of developing a democratic society in Russia, of which independent NGOs are a vital component.

[3] Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protect freedom of expression and association respectively. Russia ratified the convention on May 5, 1998. Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) contain similar provisions. The Soviet Union, to which Russia is a successor state, ratified the ICCPR in 1976.

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