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Can Putin Work With Russia's NGOs?

(Washington, DC--October 18, 2002) A respected Russian human rights leader told a RFE/RL audience last week that the essence of Russian President Vladimir Putin's policy towards non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is to "pretend to have dialogue, establish control, and marginalize" those who are critical of his policies.

Yuri Dzhibladze, President of the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights, a Russian human rights organization based in Moscow, said that the dilemma for Russia's NGO sector, which has consolidated and grown over the last decade, is how to influence government decision-making under Putin. The presidential administration, having centralized power in Moscow, Dzhibladze said, sees the NGO sector as a "resource" and is now attempting to "to take control of the NGO sector and use it to support Putin and his reforms."

The Putin administration says it values civil society and a free press, said Dzhibladze, but it explains that Russia does "not have the luxury to allow it" because Russia needs to accelerate growth during the next decade if it is to compete in the world. "The essence of his [Putin's] government is statebuilding as a modernization--as well as mobilization--project," Dzhibladze said. Although few people in Putin's administration understand the NGO sector, Dzhibladze noted, it still seeks to harness NGOs as a "political resource" to work for Putin rather than for the political opposition.

The Kremlin's first attempt to control NGOs was the "Civic Forum" of late last year, where major NGOs were able to change the event's structure to allow for some genuine dialogue and "negotiation" between the NGO sector and the Russian government, Dzhibladze said. "Putin made a good speech, said all the right things," but the process since then "has been painful," Dzhibladze said. For instance, legislative changes to the tax code, effective 1 July 2002, places limits on grant-making that require donors and recipients to register and limit the number of NGOs eligible to receive tax-free status to those working in the areas of science, culture, sports and the environment. In violation of Russian law, a value added tax (VAT) has also been applied retroactively to services provided by NGOs. The first consequences of these changes will be evident in April 2003, Dzhibladze said, when the annual tax reports of NGOs will be filed.

Dzhibladze also noted that a new law adopted recently to combat extremism uses a "wide and vague definition of terrorist activity" and provides a "simplified procedure to liquidate organizations without a court procedure." Dzhibladze's own organization, which fights racism and xenophobia in Russian society, does not view this new law as providing any new tools for this effort. New laws to limit public debate and media reports during political campaigns and elections have also been adopted, Dzhibladze said.