Over the past eight years, the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has engaged in efforts to weaken beyond recognition the checks and balances inherent in a truly democratic political system. A recent aspect of these efforts has been a policy to subject Russias vibrant civil society to greater scrutiny and control, through a 2006 law that gives the government broad powers to regulate the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The government has also used other measures, such as the amended 2002 anti-extremism law and a variety of administrative regulations, to target organizations that work on controversial issues, may be capable of galvanizing public dissent, or that receive foreign funding. This report documents the corrosive impact the 2006 law and other government measures have had on civil society in Russia. It demonstrates how these policies are aimed at weakening critical voices in Russia and have profoundly undermined independent activism.
The crackdown on civil society must be understood in the context of growing authoritarianism in Russia. After the Kremlins legal and regulatory changes of the past eight years all of the major democratic institutions remain in place, but they have been largely voided of their capacity to serve as a check on executive power, in particular the Kremlin. The government has obliterated independent television, established considerable control over the print media, marginalized the parliamentary opposition, and ended the direct election of regional governors. The independence of the judiciary has also been compromised.
The Kremlin has 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. There, public uprisings ousted governments following elections that were allegedly rigged. The uprisings were perceived as having been driven by foreign-funded NGOs. President Putin has made several public statements discrediting NGOs as fronts for foreign governments seeking to interfere with Russias internal affairs and weaken the country. Other government leaders have followed suit.
The government responded to initial criticism about the NGO law, which entered into force in April 2006, by arguing that it was doing what all states have the right to doregulate NGOsand that the new law is consistent with European standards. Any state has the right to regulate, and even set restrictions on, NGOs. But in order to be compatible with protections under international law for freedom of expression and association, these restrictions must be proportionate, necessary for a democratic society, and must pursue a legitimate aim. The restrictions must also be sufficiently clear so that those subject to them can reasonably know how to comply.
The restrictions in the 2006 law do not meet these tests. The law grants state officials excessive powers to interfere in the founding and operation of NGOs. For example, the Federal Registration Service may reject registration applications or notifications of organizational and operational changes if the organizations documents are prepared in an inappropriate manner, which can and has been used to reject notifications on petty, minor grounds, such as typos or errors in formatting.
The 2006 law and implementing regulations impose onerous reporting requirements on NGOs, especially relating to any foreign sources of funding. It gives the Registration Service unlimited discretion to request documents for inspection and to interpret them, including for compliance with the constitution, laws, and interests of Russia in the broadest terms. In several cases, Human Rights Watch found that government officials had made burdensome requests for documents, including for confidential records and communications with clients.
The law also allows state officials to conduct intrusive inspections of NGOs on an annual basis. These inspections have become one of several tools for harassing NGOs and obstructing their work. The Registration Service is also authorized to inspect NGOs in response to complaints by citizens, as well as in response to information from state agencies suggesting violations.
The 2006 law has a punitive dimension. The Registration Service may issue warnings to NGOs for a wide variety of violations, many of them quite minor, including not filing timely activity reports, errors in founding documents, and the like. Essential NGO tools such as needs assessment to help with project design have been found, absurdly, to be against the national interest. A project proposal by one small St. Petersburg for a workshop with police, in stating that police do not have sufficient awareness of the rights of refugees, was declared to have discredited the police force and hence undermined Russias interests. Implementing regulations also grant the Registration Service the authority to petition for dissolution of an organization that has received as few as two warnings regarding the same violation. There appears to be no statute of limitations on such warnings.
Although the law provides a mechanism for appealing such warnings and other decisions, court proceedings are time-consuming and challenging, and not all groups have the resources, financial and human, that would allow them to endure lengthy court proceedings. What is more, there is growing concern among NGO activists that they may not be able to get a fair hearing in many Russian courts.
Under the 2006 law, all foreign NGOs operating in Russia must inform the Registration Service about their projects for the upcoming year and about the amount of money allotted for each project. The Registration Service then has the discretion to ban NGO projects, or even parts of projects, on grounds that are not clear. If a foreign NGO implements a banned project, the registration office can close its offices in Russia. Foreign NGOs must provide the Registration Service with quarterly updates on their work plans and notify the Registration Service of any new planned program at least one month in advance and of any essential changes in planned activity within 10 business days of deciding the changes.
The impact of the 2006 law has resulted in long delays and, in some cases, suspension of activities for weeks or months while the paperwork is submitted again and occasionally repeatedly. As a result, organizations must devote ever more time and resources in an attempt to comply with these onerous demands, significantly impeding their ability to do their substantive work. They spend more money than ever to pay lawyers and accountants: a 2007 Moscow State University study found that registering an NGO with the help of a consulting firm in Moscow costs 40 percent more than registering a commercial organization and takes twice as much time.
The NGO law is only one among many tools employed by the Kremlin that create a worsening climate for NGO activities and effectively paralyze the work of some organizations. Organizations that are working on particularly controversial subjects have been targeted for harassing tax inspections, inspections for building code or labor code compliance, and police raids, and some have faced politically motivated criminal charges. In what may be the start of a new trend, at least two NGOs were also inspected by police allegedly to verify whether the software installed on the organizations computers is legal or pirated. Human Rights Watch is unaware of similar inspections of organizations working on issues not viewed as controversial.
In addition, NGOs that work on human rights, are politically active, or that express or mobilize dissent are vulnerable to being targeted under the 2002 Law on Countering Extremist Activity (the anti-extremism law). The 2007 amendments to this law allow any politically or ideologically motivated crime, as well as certain forms of defamation of public officials, to be designated as extremist activity. The law has already been applied in an arbitrary manner against political activists and at least one political commentator, raising serious concerns that the law is being used to marginalize or silence legitimate political dissent.
Some point to the fact that the NGO law has not resulted in the wholesale closure of a large number of NGOsas was initially fearedand have argued that there is no evidence of an intentional government policy to close down civil society or severely limit its scope. These observers sorely underestimate the effect that these combined measures have had on civil society. The onerous and intrusive provisions of the law and its abusive implementation, as well as the misuse of other legislation and regulations, have clearly narrowed the space for civil society and undermined NGOs ability to facilitate checks on government conduct. There is little doubt that in practice the law, the manner in which it is implemented, and the context in which it is invoked are intended to have a choking effect on civil societya state of affairs fundamentally incompatible with a democratic state that fully observes human rights and the rule of law.
The government does not target all NGOs equally. It has focused on NGOs that receive foreign funding and are most outspoken on controversial topics of Russian government policy, such as the war in Chechnya or human rights more broadly, or on organizations that are in some way affiliated or viewed as supportive of Other Russia, the opposition movement associated with the political dissident Garry Kasparov. While it is true that Russia still has a large and active civil society, organizations that are most critical and that would be most likely to challenge government policy are instead preoccupied with fighting administrative interference and fulfilling bureaucratic requirements.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Russian government to end and desist from further arbitrary limitations on the work of independent civil society groups and instead empower NGOs to restore and enhance the prominent role they have played in Russian public life.
The fact that the government dramatically weakened NGOs capacity without abolishing them altogether should not be rewarded by silence from Russias international partners and interlocutors. Russias partners should counter Russian government claims that the 2006 NGO law is no more restrictive than laws regulating NGOs in developed democracies. Foreign governments and international institutions need to make clear that several of the laws provisions and their implementation clearly violate international human rights standards and are intended to prevent the effective exercise of basic civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and association. Partner governments and multilateral organizations such as the European Union and the Council of Europe should call on the Russian government to adhere to its commitments to uphold freedom of expression and association. They should also publicly express support for the work of Russian NGOs and continue to support them financially and otherwise.
This report is based on interviews conducted in six Russian citiesMoscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan (800 km east of Moscow), Voronezh (486 km south of Moscow), Nizhni Novgorod (406 km east of Moscow), and Ioshkar Ola (862 km east of Moscow) between May and October 2007. The report also draws on interviews with groups from Ryazan and Ingushetia that were conducted in Moscow. Human Rights Watch conducted 40 interviews with Russian NGOs (large Moscow-based groups and small regional ones), activists, and lawyers. Follow-up interviews were conducted by phone and by email. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a Registration Service official and participated in roundtables on the NGO law that included Registration Service officials. All interviews were done by a Human Rights Watch researcher who is a native speaker of Russian.
In addition, Human Rights Watch examined official papers from the Federal Registration Service,1 court rulings, Russian officials public statements, analytical reports published by Russian groups, and media accounts. We also monitored court proceedings related to the Educated Media Foundation.
1 An agency of the Justice Ministry responsible for NGO oversight.