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The Russian government should reform regulations that are choking independent activism, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. New laws and regulations giving the state broad authority to interfere with the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been adopted in the context of growing authoritarianism in Russia.

The 72-page report, “Choking on Bureaucracy: State Curbs on Independent Civil Society Activism,” documents how these regulations have targeted various NGOs that work on controversial issues, seek to galvanize public dissent, or receive foreign funding.

“With the new rules, NGOs live under a looming threat of harassment,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “And this is a serious threat to freedom of expression in Russia.”

Roth was to have presented the report at a press conference in Moscow. However, the Foreign Ministry, aware of the plans, cited a changing array of technical reasons to refuse him a visa.

The new rules include a 2006 law that gives the Registration Service broad control over NGOs. It can reject NGO registration applications, conduct intrusive inspections of NGOs, and make extensive requests for documents, including confidential records.

An inspection is a lengthy bureaucratic ordeal, during which an NGO’s substantive work can grind to a halt. Theoretically, an NGO can face a series of inspections. The Registration Service can issue warnings following inspections, for a wide range of alleged violations, some of them petty. It also can petition to shut down an NGO for repeated or “systematic” violations. The Registration Service has said that it in a period of four months in 2007 it issued warnings to 6,000 NGOs.

The Human Rights Watch report illustrates how these rules work in practice, through examples of NGOs harassed by authorities or whose work was paralyzed by red tape.

In 2007, for example, authorities conducted a month-long inspection of the Center for Enlightenment and Research Programs (CERP), a small St. Petersburg-based NGO. The local Registration Service criticized CERP for violating its mandate by conducting “educational” instead of “enlightenment” work, and holding events outside of St. Petersburg despite CERP’s status as a regional organization. It also admonished CERP for a publication that officials said appeared to interfere with and discredit the work of state officials and undermine Russia’s interests because it characterized police as not having sufficient awareness of the rights of refugees. The local Registration Service petitioned to have CERP dissolved. The case is pending.

Organizations that work on sensitive issues or receive foreign funding have been subjected to inspections for noncompliance with tax codes, software licensing, or other regulations. Organizations that work on Chechnya are especially vulnerable. For 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 Russian government made clear that the 2006 law aims to control and monitor foreign funding of NGOs, which it has viewed with intense suspicion since the so-called color revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. It was also the latest of a series of government measures that weakened checks and balances on the Kremlin. Beginning in 2000, the government obliterated independent television, established considerable control over the print media, marginalized the parliamentary opposition, and ended the direct election of regional governors.

“We’re not saying the Russian government is trying to shut down civil society, but it has certainly narrowed the space for it,” said Roth. “Russia’s NGO community is large and vibrant, and this is thanks to its own resilience and to Russia’s foreign partners, who have kept up pressure for freedom of expression. Now the government has to act, and Russia’s partners have to work with Russia to make sure this happens.”

Human Rights Watch calls on the Russian government to amend the 2006 NGO law by implementing regulations that remove the most restrictive and intrusive provisions, and reorient the Registration Service’s relationship with NGOs from punitive to cooperative.

Human Rights Watch also said that Russia’s international partners, particularly the European Union and the Council of Europe, should seize every opportunity to call on the Russian government to take concrete steps early in the new political cycle to foster an environment in which civil society can operate freely.

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