Russia: Legislating Repression Of Civil Society
Freedom House today expressed grave concern over newly adopted Russian legislation that will further curtail the rights of civil society in Russia. Despite considerable domestic and international criticism of the proposal, the Duma of the Russian Federation granted final approval to the measure on December 23 in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, whose government proposed the measure, is expected to sign the legislation into law.
"This law violates fundamental, universal rights of freedom of expression and association, undermines the independence of existing civic groups and will retard the development of a healthy civil society in Russia," said Freedom House Acting Executive Director Thomas O. Melia. "Because the groups most likely to be affected immediately are those Russian groups that speak out against other violations of human rights, this legislation is even more pernicious than it appears."
The restrictive NGO legislation represents the most recent measure in what is a larger, systematic effort by the authorities to curb independent voices in Russia. A year ago, Freedom House's global survey of political rights and civil liberties, "Freedom in the World", lowered Russia's ranking from "partly free" to "not free" because of the Putin administration's actions to expand state control over the media, to undermine the independence of the judiciary, and to further marginalize the political opposition. In 2006, Russia is due to assume the chairmanship of both the G-8 and the Council of Europe.
"Leaders of the G-8 and Council of Europe must hold Russia to the democratic commitments it made when it joined these bodies," said Melia. "Otherwise, both of these important international institutions run the risk of jeopardizing their credibility during the Russian chairmanship in 2006."
After the bill was first presented to the Duma in November, Freedom House and other NGOs called upon the Russian State Duma to reject the NGO draft law. The text of that letter follows:
November 23, 2005
The Honorable Boris Gryzlov
Chairman, Russian State Duma
2 Okhotny Ryad
Moscow, RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Dear Mr. Chairman:
We write to express our profound concern regarding the proposed law "On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation." We urge the State Duma to reject this draft law because it threatens to undo years of democratic progress in the Russian Federation.
The draft law will likely paralyze rather than stabilize civil society. It will also seriously undermine valuable international cooperation and assistance, including critical humanitarian and health services to the Russian Federation. This draft law violates numerous provisions of the Constitution of the Russian Federation as well as international obligations and, if enacted, will cast doubt on Russia's suitability to lead the G-8 and the Council of Europe next year. The draft law resembles not the legislation of G-8 countries, but the onerous Kazakhstani legislation which was thrown out by its Constitutional Council several months ago.
We are particularly concerned that the draft law will:
- Violate the fundamental, universal rights of freedom of expression and association;
- Establish unified, state control over public organizations with excessive and intrusive regulations;
- Discriminate against foreign NGOs and citizens and outlaw representative branches of foreign NGOs that provide valuable assistance to Russians;
- Create an overly complicated registration procedure for NGOs and permit government officials to deny registration to NGOs arbitrarily;
- Liquidate NGOs that are unable to obtain registration and destroy thousands of jobs, dealing a heavy blow to the economy as well as to civil society in Russia;
- Isolate Russia from the international community.
Mr. Chairman, we hope that you and your colleagues will oppose this draft law and will lead Russia toward a more democratic and prosperous future in a spirit of cooperation with members of the G-8 and the Council of Europe.
Thomas O. Melia, Acting Executive Director, Freedom House
Stephen Rickard, Director, Open Society Institute-Washington, DC
Charles William Maynes, President, The Eurasia Foundation
Douglas Rutzen, President, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
Eric R. Biel, Deputy Washington Director and Senior Counsel, Human Rights First
Holly Cartner, Executive Director, Europe and Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch
Mark Pomar, President, IREX
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.