Friday, October 20, 2006

Kremlin Puts Foreign NGO’s on Notice

By C. J. CHIVERS
The New York Times
October 20, 2006

MOSCOW, Oct. 19 — Scores of foreign private organizations were forced to cease their operations in Russia on Thursday while the government considered whether to register them under a new law that has received sharp international criticism.

Among the suspended organizations are some of those most critical of the Kremlin, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and others, like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, that have been accused by Russian officials of instigating or assisting revolutions against other former Soviet republics.

The Justice Ministry, which is responsible for registering foreign private organizations, insisted that the suspensions were neither retaliatory nor permanent.

It issued a statement saying the suspended organizations had not properly filed new registration materials or had submitted the required materials on the last day before the registration deadline, which was midnight Wednesday. It said it was rushing to review the applications it had received.

“It is important to note that lack of reregistration does not entail the liquidation of the organization,” the statement said. “The talk here is only that these organizations cannot carry out the activity envisaged by their charters before they are brought into the register.”

The number of suspended organizations is not entirely clear. The statement said the ministry had received applications from 185 organizations, approved 108 of them and continued to review the 77 others.

But the suspensions were the latest chapter in Russia’s pressure on foreign organizations that have offices on its soil. They occurred in a climate of deepening worry about the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society and just days before a planned visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Ms. Rice has expressed concern about the law regulating foreign private organizations, known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGO’s, which was passed earlier this year.

Some Russian officials, including Nikolai P. Patrushev, the chief of the domestic intelligence service, have accused the groups of interfering with state affairs or even harboring spies.

The new law, strongly backed by President Vladimir V. Putin, created extensive new filing requirements, which in some cases the organizations said had been so tedious and lengthy as to be almost impossible to fulfill. The groups have also expressed apprehension over the rules’ vagueness, which could allow any group to be audited, and perhaps closed, on a pretext.

They and their supporters have said that how the law is enforced will be a test of whether Russia will allow foreign organizations that it dislikes to continue to work in the country. The first deadline, and its effects on Thursday, were accompanied by a strong sense of concern, even fear.

“My fear is that their intention is to shut us down,” Josh Rubenstein, a director at Amnesty International, said by telephone. Amnesty International has had an office in Russia since the days of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, he said.

The Justice Ministry posted a list of 73 organizations that were not yet approved, and thus were suspended. At least 38 of those were listed by the ministry as American or had a clear American affiliation, including the American Bar Association, the American-Russian Business Council, the American Trade Chamber and Johns Hopkins University.

The suspended Western organizations also included the Danish Refugee Council and the French and Belgian offices of Doctors Without Borders.

Other news organizations reported that nearly 100 groups had been suspended, but did not provide a list. The Associated Press quoted one Justice Ministry official as saying that 96 groups had been suspended, while the Itar-Tass news agency later quoted the same official as saying the number was 93.

While the ministry said it had approved 108 organizations for registration, it provided a list of only 80.

Forty-one of those were American, including the Ford Foundation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Of the 41, 33 appeared to be child adoption agencies.

As the day passed with offices idled, some of the affected groups declined to comment, saying they worried about antagonizing Russia while their registration documents were under review.

Others described a new posture their offices had assumed on Thursday: they abruptly stopped their work and programs but left their lights on and offices staffed.

Carroll Bogert, an associate director at Human Rights Watch, said by telephone from New York that its employees in Russia were still being paid, “but otherwise we are not operating in Russia.” She said she expected that the office would be registered once its documents were reviewed, and that the organization did not feel that it was a specific target.

The cessation of some organizations’ activities was denounced by their partners in the country.

Elena Panfilova, director of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, an anticorruption organization, said her office was registered as a domestic, not foreign, organization and so was not directly affected by the new procedures.

But she said she had work planned with other groups, which now were unable to meet with her. “It is appalling,” she said. “It is a total disgrace.”

The Justice Ministry said it was working to expedite the registrations and blamed the organizations for not providing required documentation.

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