Wednesday, February 15, 2006

NGO's in Russia. Again.

Nabi Abdullaev from Moscow Times writes about the new Russian law on NGO’s “How Russia's NGO Law Stacks Up”:

Despite sizzling criticism from leading human rights groups, the new law on nongovernmental organizations is not as restrictive as similar legislation adopted by France, Finland and other developed democracies.

A review of legislation in France, Israel and Finland shows that they indeed are more restrictive. In France, an NGO must report all donations and bequests and can collect the money only with authorization from the head of the local administration, who first must examine the group's activities. Russian NGOs, in contrast, will have to report only donations from abroad.

Also, a French NGO is required to submit on request its accounting records to both the local administration and the Interior Ministry. In Russia, authorities will be permitted to carry out a financial check on an NGO only once a year.

Russia's law empowers authorities to examine whether an NGO is spending money on its declared program, while the French law only allows authorities to review whether an NGO's economic activities are unfairly competing with the commercial sector.

Russian NGOs have complained that the law uses vague language to describe the reasons a Russian branch of a foreign NGO can be denied registration. The list reads "threats to sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and the national interests of the Russian Federation." Most of those terms are left unexplained, opening the door for arbitrary interpretation on the part of bureaucrats.
But the French, Finnish and Israeli laws are nearly identical in their language. In France, an NGO can be denied registration or shut down if it is found to operate "contrary to the law, morals or integrity of the territory or the republic." Finland's law says almost the same thing.

In Israel, an NGO's purpose must not contradict the law, morality or public order. Public associations there are also prohibited from undermining Israeli democracy or serving as a screen for illegal activities.

Council of Europe experts are now scrutinizing the Russian law, and they have already found it to be much less restrictive than the initial version approved by the State Duma in November, Schirmer said. "Still, very much depends not on the wording but on how the law is applied," he said.

The idea is very simple but absurd and irrational. Good countries can have very restrictive laws on NGO’s because they are democratic and nice. Bad countries – like Russia – are not supposed to put any restrictions on NGO’s because these countries are very repressive and not democratic. But wait a minute! Just six months ago NGO’s activities in Russia were not restricted by Kremlin in any way. Still I don’t remember if any "freedom fighting" NGO said, “Thank you, Mr. Putin for your very liberal attitude towards us”. On the contrary, US-financed NGO’s were picturing themselves as being the most repressed in the whole world, suffering beyond imagination from Putin's political terror. Go figure.

20 comments:

Thomas Wicker said...

I agree that the restrictions are less restrictive than had been thought, and I also felt that this was a good and timely article -- since we do need to be reminded that we shouldn't see bogeymen everywhere.

That said, I would respectfully disagree with your description of the idea as "absurd and irrational," for a few reasons.

First, as Schirmer says, "very much depends not on the wording but on how the law is applied." That's going to be the tell-tale sign. For example, the other countries listed take little to no action against NGOs, and they aren't attempting to portray NGOs as destabilizing agents. Putin, however, has specifically used incidents such as the British spying incident to provide a rationale for the law -- specifically portraying NGOs as agents of destabilization. If you want to look at actions, that's a major, major difference. Even Lavrov agrees -- as he states in his open letter, which the article quotes here:

"Lavrov acknowledged in the open letter that parts of the law were open to interpretation by bureaucrats and courts. "But this does not cause any special problems for anyone," he wrote.

"Of course," he added, "a lot depends on the enforcement of the law."

Next, part of the problem is the perceived independence, or lack thereof, of the courts -- because an independent judiciary can keep an overzealous executive in check. With this issue, I found it interesting that you chose to leave out certain paragraphs from the original story. For example, you published the first paragraph, but then skipped the second one, which reads: "What makes it potentially dangerous, however, is a lack of clarity over how it will be enforced at a time when the Kremlin is methodically tightening its grip on every area of public life and courts are not generally viewed as independent."

Now, maybe they are independent; however, with actions such as the Oleg Shcherbinsky trial, it doesn't seem that way to many outside observers. Any more than it seemed that the US Supreme Court was acting independent of political leanings when it refused to review the Florida results in the 2000 US presidential election.

And that brings up a final point: just because other countries have bad laws doesn't mean that it's a good thing for one's own country to have bad laws, nor that the bad laws of other countries provide a defense for bad laws of any subsequent country. It's like saying, "Well, he did it, too!" Doesn't really matter. There's plenty I find fault with in the US government, and we have some truly crappy laws that I hope absolutely no one ever uses as an excuse for similarly awful legislation. Even ignoring the fact that context is king when discussing legislation, producing bad laws results in, well, bad laws.

So -- again, it's good to be aware that there are similarly bad laws elsewhere, and that those laws have had a less-chilling effect than some of the voices from Russian NGOs might lead you to believe. It will -- again, as Lavrov said -- depend on the enforcement that is used. That said, the bad legislation in France, Finland, and Israel doesn't negate the context of the legislation in Russia, nor do they make the Russian law any better. A race to the bottom of the sewer still leads to the same place, even if others have already blazed the trail down.

Tim Newman said...

I was going to make a point regarding the following paragraph:

The list reads "threats to sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity and originality, cultural heritage and the national interests of the Russian Federation." Most of those terms are left unexplained, opening the door for arbitrary interpretation on the part of bureaucrats.
But the French, Finnish and Israeli laws are nearly identical in their language. In France, an NGO can be denied registration or shut down if it is found to operate "contrary to the law, morals or integrity of the territory or the republic." Finland's law says almost the same thing.


But Thomas Wicker has beaten me to it:

First, as Schirmer says, "very much depends not on the wording but on how the law is applied." That's going to be the tell-tale sign.

Absolutely. Both European and Russian wordings have the potential to be exploited by over-zealous officials; the charge being made is that only in Russia is this actually happening.

Konstantin said...

I have to agree with Thomas and Tim but my point in the post was different. Look - the situation is paradoxical. It's ok for democratic countries to have undemocratic laws. But "undemocratic" states should be as liberal as possible because their officials are corrupt, etc. I heard this "argument" from Khodorkovsky a couple of years ago. He said smth like - I'm not against laws that would ban hundreds of loopholes for tax evasion. But Russian taxmen are corrupt. That's why I'm against this law.
Talking about independent judges. De jure in Russia they are absolutely independent. De facto - they are people like anyone else, they are mostly old, they are mostly anti-American, they believe that US-sponsored NGO's is the Western fifth column. You see? Real independence of judges can be many times more dangerous than "repressive" Putin's regime. HAMAS demonstrated that de jure democracy does not always mean de facto source of freedom and peace.

The Poster said...

Konstantin,

You are right. This is not a justification for Russia's illiberalism; whether judges are corrupt, old or just generally politically to the right of Genghis Khan, neither Russia nor anywhere else should worry about NGO's funding anything. Provided of course that you don't keep prisoners illegally in Guantanamo Bay, accept Chairmanships of gas pipelines weeks after leaving office or introduce laws that could be applied to people celebrating Irish independence (Britain - right now). Such laws should be the cause of a sustained attack on the very same illiberalism of mainland Europe, the UK and US.

When politicians have the ability to speak the truth then they will deserve our trust. Before that, draconian laws of this kind anywhere in the world should be overturned.

For any law and order freaks who believe that such laws are necessary to control NGO's, foreigners, Muslims, people with different skins etc - you may want to note that the police/militsia etc already have the necessary powers. Its not our fault that they are inefficient stupid and corrupt - again a global comment.

Alistair of Ruminations on Russia

Thomas Wicker said...

I have to agree with Thomas and Tim but my point in the post was different. Look - the situation is paradoxical. It's ok for democratic countries to have undemocratic laws. But "undemocratic" states should be as liberal as possible because their officials are corrupt, etc. I heard this "argument" from Khodorkovsky a couple of years ago. He said smth like - I'm not against laws that would ban hundreds of loopholes for tax evasion. But Russian taxmen are corrupt. That's why I'm against this law.
Talking about independent judges. De jure in Russia they are absolutely independent. De facto - they are people like anyone else, they are mostly old, they are mostly anti-American, they believe that US-sponsored NGO's is the Western fifth column. You see? Real independence of judges can be many times more dangerous than "repressive" Putin's regime. HAMAS demonstrated that de jure democracy does not always mean de facto source of freedom and peace.

Hi, Konstantin,

Thanks for the clarification, and for the agreement. And it's also always interesting to see the places where healers need to heal themselves ...

As for the paradox: you're absolutely right; it is paradoxical. But I do think there are valid differences in the measures needed in different societies.

For example:
I was reading in today's Moscow Times about Ivanov's response to the hazing incident -- where he placed all the blame on the lower-level soldiers and none on the commanders (Ivanov Says Hazing Not Army's Fault, The Moscow Times, 16 Feb 2006, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2006/02/16/001.html). In fact, he explicitly denied any accusations against the commanders who allowed, and allow, the culture to persist. He even blamed children from kindergarten -- which may be true, but is beside the point when talking about the responsibilities of commanders.
A quote: "The Chelyabinsk case shouldn't be a reason for the baseless accusations against the entire army, and against generals and admirals in particular."

Compare this with the US response to similar accusations at the US Air Force Academy -- similar not only in that atrocities occurred (including sexual harassment of female cadets), but also similar in that numerous previous reports went apparently unanswered.

In the US case, with, I'm assuming, similar laws, the investigation went all the way up to the Air Force Chief of Staff -- the highest-ranking US Air Force general. The commandant of the Air Force Academy was sacked. The US Congress investigated, the Air Force investigated, everyone was up in arms. The assumption was that the generals are in charge of the Air Force, the generals are in command of the Academy, the generals command the bases -- therefore, the generals are responsible.

An even better contrast comes from two quotes.

First, Ivanov, discussing the Chelyabinsk situation:
"The Chelyabinsk case shouldn't be a reason for the baseless accusations against the entire army, and against generals and admirals in particular."

Now, the Vice-Chief of Staff of the US Air Force (the military second-in-command of the Air Force), discussing the sexual harassment cases and stating, in plain language, why the commanders are, in fact, responsible for the well-being of their troops, up to an including the culture -- no matter what outside influences intrude:
"A commander is a commander and is ultimately responsible … for the activities of (his or her) unit and the prosecution of his mission.”

The exact same laws could exist in both places; however, the cultures (in this case, governmental and military cultures) make the reactions extremely different.

So ... while I agree that there is a paradox, I'm not sure that the paradox is unwarranted. That said, I'll withhold judgement on what's going to happen with the NGO law until, as Lavrov alluded, we see how it's enforced.

-- Thomas

DefenseLINK News:
Air Force Academy Introduces Sweeping Changes, Looks to Future
http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Oct2003/n10072003_200310071.html


Air Force Link:
General briefs senators on sexual harassment in Air Force
http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=123007073

Thomas Wicker said...

(sorry for re-posting your post -- I wanted to use a more-robust editor to edit my comments, and just copy-pasted your comments into my editor to keep them available for easy reference. Mi apologia)

Anonymous said...

Thomas,

Respect! In Russia somehow highly ranked officials believe that if they managed to get where they are, they can do no wrong apriori. Otherwise, there will be too many who would want to challenge that and they will not have enough time for anything, but responding to those challenges (allegations, accusations, etc.). It's just different mentality, I guess, where Americans look for positive, Russians look for what is wrong.

Thomas Wicker said...

Thanks, anon.

And, interestingly, I was thinking of this thread this AM, when I was thinking that, much like Ivanov and *unlike* the Air Force response to the sexual harassment, the Bush administration seems to be taking the view that they, too, can do no wrong. Only it seems to have less to do with a simple feeling of entitlement and more to do with their perception that it's literally God-given. The hubris shown by the current US administration is mind-boggling in its totality.

And, interestingly, for me at least, this is why I no longer give them the benefit of the doubt on anything: even though it's the same laws, the context is so radically different from what I would trust that I might just trust the Putin administration more with the same laws -- simply because the Putin administration does seem to understand that all countries operate in a global environment.

Context really is king.

Greg said...

To those arguing over Russia's courts' independence as it may apply to the NGO legislation under discussion, as another data point here is a quote from an article from RussiaProfile.org titled "Russian NGO legislation is a step in the right direction" (http://www.russiaprofile.org/politics/2005/12/9/2864.wbp ) :

“Under the proposed rules it also becomes much more difficult to revoke registration. This process can be initiated only if, upon review, the “goals, tasks, and activities” of the organization are found to contradict the constitution or laws of the Russian Federation, if its actions “aim at the realization of extremist activities,” or again at money laundering. Such a review of NCO activities may take place no more than once a year.

If the registering agency believes that one of these violations is occurring, it must submit a written warning to the organization and provide it with no less than one month to amend its behavior. If this does not occur, the agency may then petition the courts to revoke an organization’s registration. It cannot do so on its own.

According to its authors, Duma deputies Sergei Popov and Andrei Makarov, these elaborate safeguards were put in place precisely to deprive local bureaucrats of any pretext for denying registration. Over the past eight years the number of citizens turning to the courts for redress of grievances has gone from one million to six million, with 71 percent winning favorable judgments in cases they bring against the government. Experience thus suggests that requiring bureaucrats to provide a written justification for a decision is a powerful tool for challenging administrative arbitrariness.”

The same article also provides a telling comparison of the Russian NGO law to the United States’ FARA:

“Presently, Russia is in the unique position of having foreign agents acting on its territory that are not regulated in any way. In the United States, such agents are regulated by FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (22 U.S.C. 611, et seq. ), whose purpose, according to the Department of Justice, “is to insure that the American public and its law makers know the source of information intended to sway public opinion, policy, and laws.” Enacted in 1938 to counter the spread of Nazi propaganda in the United States, it has since been amended to shift the focus away from squelching subversive political activity to controlling the activities of foreign lobbyists.

In its present form, FARA is quite a bit more restrictive than the proposed new Russian legislation. It defines foreign agents as “any individual or organization which acts at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principal.” A foreign principal as any person or organization outside the United States, organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country. In addition, it specifically mentions engagement in “political activities” (http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fara/q_A.htm).

Foreign agents are obliged to file all agreements, including income and expenditures twice a year, rather than just once. It requires that informational materials provided by foreign agents “be labeled with a conspicuous statement that the information is provided by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” and it provides for penalties up to ten years in jail for whoever acts as a foreign agent without prior notification to the Attorney General. Russian legislation, in contrast, envisions no criminal penalties. At the heart of FARA, however, is the mandate to maintain a national registry of foreign agents – precisely the sort of national database that Russia is proposing to create.”

Another interesting article on this site recounts some of the history of NGO’s in modern Russia and the events that led to the Russian government’s actions to come up with the legislation to regulate them:
“A Case of Self-Emasculation” (http://www.russiaprofile.org/politics/2005/11/26/1690.wbp )

Kirsikka said...

Hello Konstantin!

I am Kirsikka from Finland, and have been reading your interesting blog for some time.

The Finnish law states simply that all kinds of associations can be registered, except those whose purpose would be against the law or 'general good morals'. As for the financing, I am not an expert on economics or law, but to my knowlegde, foreign funding is perfectly legal and there's no way the officials could intercept it.

As a Finn, I must say the wording of the Russian law sounds depressing from the ethnic minorities' point of view, especially the "threats to...national unity and originality, cultural heritage... of the Russian Federation." This could be easily used to prevent foreign support to NGO's promoting ethnic cultural projects, eg. theaters and language teaching. And, from what I've read, I've understood that Putin's administration has already been quite harsh on ethnic minorities,for example, the fenno-ugric Maris and Komis, cutting down language teaching, shutting down newspapers etc.

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