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NGOs: Bureaucratic Pressure and the Balance of Power

For the second time this year, a Kremlin official has slammed the United States for ‘undisguised interference’ in relation to foreign funding for Russia-based NGOs.  Aleksandr Lukashevich made these statements in response to the U.S. reasserting its intentions to continue funding such NGOs through third-country mediators, which, says Lukashevich, is an attempt to circumvent Russian laws and incite these NGOs to disobey the new laws designed to regulate them.  Whilst the U.S. described the latest wave of pressure on NGOs (state visits to the headquarters of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Memorial) as a ‘witch hunt’, Vladimir Putin dismissed them as mere ‘routine checks’ designed to ensure that the legislation is being followed.

The Economist argues that, in fact:

demanding so many documents on nearly every aspect of a NGO’s work is a means to “collect information and see later how it might be used,” says Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who covers the security services. An organisation may, for example, turn out to have a building code violation or financial irregularity. More likely, records could show that an NGO engages in “political activity” and receives at least some foreign money, giving the state the legal muscle to force it to join the yet empty foreign-agent register. (If an NGO then refuses, according to the law, authorities could halt its activities or close it altogether.)

But this argument is not just an echo of those heard earlier this year – it is a later incarnation of a dispute that begun in 2005, when a regional head of Human Rights Watch claimed that a new law forcing foreign-funded NGOs to provide details of their funding ‘effectively closes down branches and representative offices of foreign NGOs‘.  While this does not exactly seem to have held true, what these periodical crackdowns do in effect is prevent these organisations from carrying out their work.  In response to both last November’s legislation, and the similar laws passed in 2007, anti-Kremlin voices said that Putin was trying to destroy civil society.  In actuality, it seems that what he really wants to do is make foreign-funded rights work unbearable by way of drowning it in paper.  Lev Ponomaryov indicated as much this week:

For the moment, the greatest complaint among NGO workers is that they are being distracted from their main activities. Lev Ponomaryov, the head of For Human Rights, has refused to hand over required material to prosecutors. “What, I should give up all my work and devote my time to gathering documents? I’m not ready to live as a marionette,” he says.

But what is not stated here is that it is not necessarily the ethos of rights work, but the provenance of its rhetoric, that Putin really wants to curb.  In a further indication of this,Putin has just announced that he will earmark the equivalent of $75 million this year for socially oriented, Russia-based NGOs.  If this funding does come through, it indicates that Putin’s project is not to quash the rights discussion at all, but rather to quash rights discourse that is funded by the U.S., which always returns to a hypocritical rhetoric that it is rarely applicable to its own domestic policies.