Global Policy Forum

Foreign Humanitarian Agencies


By Elif Kaban

October 19, 2006

Leading foreign humanitarian aid groups suspended work in Russia on Thursday after failing a registration deadline under a controversial new law they say will allow the Kremlin to intrude in their work.

"We're allowed to go into our offices to pay our electricity bills, but we can't do anything concerning our work," said New York-based Human Rights Watch's Moscow chief Alison Gill. "We've suspended our work as of today," she said, following the expiration of an October 18 re-registration deadline.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, says the law is needed to combat terrorism and stop foreign spies using NGOs as cover. Critics say it gives officials a free hand to crack down on civil society at a time when the Kremlin exerts increasing control over the media and political parties. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Danish Refugee Council -- the only Western humanitarian agency working in the breakaway region of Chechnya -- are among those forced to suspend work until their application to re-register is cleared.

Questions of human rights and press freedom were spotlighted by the Oct. 7 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had stoked controversy with accusations of torture in Chechnya. The perpetrators of the apparent contract killing have yet to be found. "Obviously we are not happy that we had to suspend our work," said Amnesty International spokeswoman Lydia Aroyo in London. "We are seeking clarification. We will continue researching human rights violations in Russia out of London."

The new law requires any foreign NGO operating in Russia to produce endless notarised documents, including passport numbers and home addresses and telephone numbers back in home countries, to a federal agency which decides whether to approve them. "The new law has no clear implementation guidelines. It is very cumbersome. It's given us lots of trouble," Aroyo said.

Natalia Ronina, head of the unit dealing with NGOs at the Federal Registration Service, disagreed. "The process is not very complicated," she told Reuters Television, sitting in her Moscow office next to a desk piled high with thick files stuffed with documents in foreign languages submitted by scores of NGOs.

"We have applications from many countries - Germany, France, Belgium, Ireland, Spain and the United States," Ronina said. "We've had around 400 visitors." Ronina said that as of Thursday, 95 foreign organisations had been approved, 95 were pending and five refused, whom she declined to name.


In one of the more bizarre demands, NGO representatives said they had been asked by the registration watchdog to provide copies of all press coverage of their activities as part of a form they have been asked to fill out running to 100 pages.

"In the case of our organisation, there are so many media articles that refer to our research and indices," said Yelena Panfilova, who heads the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International in Russia. "We just don't know what to do." A keyword search on Transparency International and Russia in the past year on electronic database Factiva turned up 652 articles. Russia ranks among the worst countries in Transparency International indices on corruption and bribe-paying. The prestigious U.S.-based think-tank Carnegie Centre had to provide a notarised death certificate for its founder Andrew Carnegie who has been dead since 1919.

NGOs must also provide a detailed work plan for 2007 spelling out everything they plan to do next year -- including the names, phone numbers and passport numbers of participants of events such as conferences that they plan to organise.

The law gives Russia the right to stop activities or close down groups it considers a threat to national security. Russian organisations are next on the list. "Nobody knows what the new rules will be," said Lena Nemirovskaya, the founder and director of Moscow School of Political Studies, a Russian think-tank.

"This law is all about control," she told Reuters.

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