Sergei Lukashevsky from Demos tells a reporter: “A bureaucratic machine has been unleashed and it strangles everyone, starting with the weaker ones. … I do not believe that the powers that have a desire to stamp out civil society as such, but there is a terrible phobia tied to the ‘colour revolutions.’”
Civil society struggles in Putin’s RussiaBy Ursula Hyzy‘A bureaucratic machine has been unleashed and it strangles everyone, starting with the weaker ones,’ says a civil society researcher.Human rights groups and other non-governmental organisations are struggling to be heard in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has openly professed a clear distrust of their work.NGOs say they are the target of bureaucratic harassment and legal action intended to hamstring them as Russia heads for parliamentary elections on December 2 that Putin’s party, United Russia, is set to win.“This atmosphere is one aspect of a complex set of state measures put in place… to transform people into zombies who will vote for United Russia,” said Nina Tagankina, director of the Helsinki Group in Moscow, Russia’s oldest human rights group dating back to 1976.Putin fired a first warning shot in a 2004 speech to parliament in which he accused NGOs and human rights groups of serving “dubious interests”, suggesting they were mere cover for foreigners seeking to undermine his authority. In January 2006, Russia’s Federal Security Service revealed an alleged spy ring led by British diplomats who were accused of funnelling funds to pro-democracy organisations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group.The scandal erupted as Putin pressed ahead with a new law criticised by rights groups and the West for placing restrictions on the registration and financial reporting of NGOs. “A bureaucratic machine has been unleashed and it strangles everyone, starting with the weaker ones,” said Sergei Lukashevsky from Demos, an organisation that does research into civil society.Since the law came into effect in April 2006, NGOs say they are drowning in bureaucratic red tape and often face legal action if they miss any of the many deadlines imposed on them to comply with the administrative procedures.Some 2,300 NGOs have been charged with violations of the law since it went into effect and could be shut down, according to figures quoted by state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.“I do not believe that the powers that have a desire to stamp out civil society as such,” said Lukashevksy. “But there is a terrible phobia tied to the ‘colour revolutions’” that brought pro-Western forces to power in Ukraine and Georgia, he said. The number of NGOs has grown rapidly in Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, representing human rights activists, education and social assistance groups among others.In a bid to resist growing pressures from the authorities, NGOs are beginning to group together to offer each other legal assistance – a sign for some that civil society is still alive and kicking.“The speed with which this has happened is an amazing example of the existence of civil society,” said Asmik Novikova from Demos. But other observers disagree. “It merely means that civil society is minuscule and that we all know each other,” said Igor Kalyapin of the Committee Against Torture, a group that has been active in enquiring and denouncing police brutality in four regions.Kalyapin noted that despite his group’s successful efforts to put many police officers behind bars for torture, they have not suffered a backlash from police who continue to cooperate with them.But he also said that groups like his are in a precarious situation, citing the case of Stanislav Dmitrievsky, the head of the Russia-Chechen Friendship Society, who was convicted in February 2006 on charges of inciting hatred. Dmitrievsky was given a suspended sentence for publishing texts written by Chechen leaders who criticised Moscow’s policy in Chechnya, but Kalyapin said his ordeal is not yet over.“The authorities will not stop there and if we don’t defend him now, we will be next,” he warned.