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Russia cracks down on non-governmental organizations

MOSCOW—The Kremlin has begun cracking down on private groups that advocate human rights and democracy, the latest move in a government campaign that already has tamed political opposition, stifled business dissent and all but eliminated independent news media.

At least five so-called non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, including a prominent charity, say their futures are being jeopardized by a recent spate of government lawsuits, orders freezing bank accounts and other legal conflicts.

The actions come as NGO leaders await the April 18 start of a law that requires private organizations to report funding they receive from outside Russia and to send government representatives copies of invitations to their organized events.

The new law also will allow government officials to disband a group whose goals aren't in line with "the national interest."

The new law "allows unlimited interference of the state into private affairs," said Lev Levinson, a legal expert for the Institute of Human Rights in Moscow, one of the organizations that will come under the jurisdiction of the new law. "Russia is gaining more and more signs of a police state."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended the new law as a way to protect nation from unwanted foreign influence. In February, he signaled his concern about the NGOs, many of which are dependent on foreign funding, by ordering the Russian secret service to "protect society from any attempts by foreign states to use these organizations for interfering in Russia's internal affairs."

But others see a domestic, anti-democratic motive: to clear the political field of Kremlin critics and opponents ahead of the 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential race to choose Putin's successor.

Among the private, nonprofit organizations already in legal trouble:

_The Russian Research Center for Human Rights, an association of 11 human rights groups. The government has filed a lawsuit to shut it down for not filing financial reports. Executive director Lyubov Vinogradova said that the organization has records that prove it complied with current laws, but that she expects to lose in court anyway.

_The Russian-Chechen Friendship Foundation. Its director, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, was convicted for inciting ethnic hatred for publishing commentaries from two Chechen separatist leaders criticizing Putin's policies in the war-torn republic. The new law bans people convicted of crimes from heading NGOs.

_Open Russia, a charity founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the nation's richest citizen, now serving an eight-year prison term for tax evasion and fraud. The government has frozen the organization's bank accounts. "The current regime projects people's worst fears: NGOs are spies, foreigners should be out of Russia," said Irina Savchenko, Open Russia's director of public affairs.

_Voice, which monitors elections. The government has dunned it for taxes on a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Lila Shibanova, the group's executive director, said the government is demanding 24 percent because the grant isn't registered with the government's Commission on Technical Assistance.

_The Russian PEN Center, which promotes free speech. The government claims it failed to pay a land tax, which the center says it doesn't owe. Bank accounts are frozen in the meantime. "Practically speaking, our work is paralyzed," executive director Alexander Tkachenko said.

Those who've studied the new law say matters are likely to get worse.

"This law is very vague and so broad that anything may go under it," said Yana Leonova, deputy director of the Moscow-based NGO School, which trains nonprofit employees. "It's hard to say what projects will be banned."

Russia has an estimated 500,000 non-governmental organizations, forming what some regard as a last bastion of robust independent thought outside of the Kremlin's control.

Their numbers include groups that push for open government, honest elections and respect for human rights. They visit prisons, orphanages and military bases. They lobby for a clean environment and call attention to social problems and public health crises such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

Levinson traces the government's "propaganda campaign" against NGOs to Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, when a democratic uprising toppled the Kremlin-backed candidate for president.

Russian officials blamed Western-financed NGOs for stirring up dissent and teaching subversive democratic tactics to Ukrainians and others in the former Soviet Union.

"Putin was so shocked by the Orange Revolution, he immediately said, `We will not let foreigners interfere with civil society in Russia,'" said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few opposition deputies in the Russian parliament. "Every dollar given by foreigners will be under much stronger control."

In January, the government accused four British diplomats of spying and said one of them was involved with financing NGOs. Putin seized on the incident as justification for proposing the new law. "This scandal has cast a shadow on non-governmental organizations," he said.

In spite of the new law, Levinson hearkened back to the repressive Soviet Union in expressing optimism that proponents of democratic reforms will persist in Russia.

"The human rights community not only survived, but worked in tougher conditions in the Soviet era," he said.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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