Russia Tightens Grip on Non-Governmental Groups
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Russia has taken another step toward limiting the activities of human rights groups and charities. Yesterday, the country's parliament voted to give the Kremlin greater control over non-governmental organizations. NGOs say it's the latest step in President Vladimir Putin's drive to crack down on his critics. NPR's Gregory Feifer has more from Moscow.
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
Last July, Vladimir Putin attacked what he called the political activities of foreign-funded NGOs. Putin says, `He who pays the piper calls the tune.' The Kremlin has criticized the support given by the West to opposition groups in countries like Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet states that recently overthrew Moscow-backed administrations. Before the vote yesterday, Nationalist legislator Alksa Mutrifanif(ph) said even groups like Greenpeace should be put under government control.
Mr. ALKSA MUTRIFANIF (Nationalist Legislator, Russia): They try to interfere in the economic affairs of the Russian Federation.
FEIFER: The new law would increase state supervision and require the country's over 300,000 NGOs to re-register with the government. It would also bar foreign NGOs from working in Russia directly and restrict Russian groups' ability to hire foreigners or accept foreign money. The bill supporters say it would only ban groups engaged in criminal activities. Yigori Ugoshin(ph) is a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. He said many NGOs launder money for organized criminal groups.
Mr. YIGORI UGOSHIN (Member, United Russia Party): (Through Translator) If everything's OK and you're not violating the law, if you're not dealing with criminals and you're not laundering criminal money, why would you be afraid to give information about what you're doing? Why would you be afraid to register yourself?
FEIFER: Some legislators called the bill unconstitutional. Liberal member of parliament Vladimir Ryzhkov criticized the legislation from the parliament's floor. He said it's aimed at decimating Russia's civil society.
Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Liberal Member, Russian Parliament): (Through Translator) I'm talking about those organizations that today and every day are fighting AIDS, fighting tuberculosis or trying to preserve the environment. It's precisely those groups that will be destroyed. They will be the ones to suffer.
FEIFER: Before the voting, a tight ring of police surrounded the area in front of the parliament building to stop a planned demonstration.
(Soundbite from demonstration)
Protesters: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: But only eight young protesters showed up to brave the freezing gray conditions outside. They shouted, `We won't allow it,' and, `Freedom of association.' Yvonne Nininko(ph) of the environmental group Graza(ph) was one of the eight. He says the new bill is aimed at helping the Kremlin consolidate power.
Mr. YVONNE NININKO (Graza): (Through Translator) Considering the current political situation, one can imagine that any activity will be controlled from above, including even non-political actions.
FEIFER: Under Putin, the state has taken control over most major media outlets, canceled gubernatorial elections and wrested control of private industries. This week, the government announced it would give selected NGOs over $17 million. Protesters say the move would enable the Kremlin to create the illusion it's actually fostering civil society. Tatiana Lokshina heads Moscow's Demos human rights group. She says Putin's administration has crushed Democratic politics and is now going after what's left.
Ms. TATIANA LOKSHINA (Demos Human Rights Group): (Through Translator) In this case, authorities are trying to destroy any space for public discourse, and that in itself is very frightening.
FEIFER: Other countries have expressed concern. White House officials said US President George Bush raised the issue when he met Putin in South Korea last week. Parliament voted 370-to-18 in favor of the bill, but it must still pass two more readings early next month. Most expect the legislation to take effect in January of next year.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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