10 November 2005, 18:59

Say 'NO' to tightening control over civil society
Statement by Russian non-commercial, non-governmental organisations

We, representatives of Russian non-commercial, non-governmental organisations, hereby express our extreme concern about the bill 'Amendments to Several Laws of the Russian Federation', which has been submitted to the State Duma, and which is aimed at tightening control over civil society institutions. The proposed legislative amendments completely contradict the previously stated support of Russian political leaders for the development of civil society. If passed, instead of the 'stabilisation' and 'equality' proclaimed by the sponsors of the bill, these amendments will lead to the paralysis of public life, destabilisation, and arbitrary application of the law.

Implementation of the bill 'Amendments to Several Laws of the Russian Federation', which was drawn up by a group of deputies from the parliamentary factions 'United Russia', 'Motherland', the 'Communist Party of the Russian Federation' and the 'Liberal Democratic Party of Russia', will curtail the activities of numerous organisations and will be to the considerable detriment of our country's interests. We are convinced that society and the state have not yet fully grasped the scale of work performed by Russian non-governmental organisations. These organisations make a vital contribution to the economic and social development of our country and assume those functions that are not carried out by the state or by market institutions.

Experts unanimously agree that the bill discriminates against non-governmental organisations; substantially and unjustifiably limits citizens' constitutional right to assemble; has an injurious effect on the legal position of public associations and non-commercial organisations; limits organisations' freedom of activity; and reduces their status in comparison with commercial organisations and federal and municipal non-commercial organisations.

The constitutional right of citizens to set up informal, unregistered, public associations, which do not have the status of a legal entity, will be restricted. Now citizens will be forced to notify the federal registration service when they create a public association. The procedure for notification will not be established by a law, but by the Russian government. In addition, the bill contains an ill-defined list of conditions upon which registration may be denied.

The bill provides for an unjustified tightening of control over the activities of all Russian non-commercial organisations, irrespective of the field in which they operate. Its intent is to give the federal registration service additional powers to control organisations' funds as well as the way in which they allocate their resources. The registration service will be able to request the accounts and administrative records of an organisation at any time and without any grounds for doing so. The proposed legislative initiative will not only deprive public associations of their self-regulating status, but will also create conditions for arbitrary and selective application of the law by government officials.

Particularly severe restrictions will be imposed on foreign non-commercial organisations operating in Russia. The bill proposes banning foreign and international non-commercial organisations from having representative offices and branches on Russian territory. The only way in which foreign and international non-commercial organisations will be able to run offices in Russia will be to set them up as public associations and register them as Russian legal entities. For legal reasons, this will be impossible for most foreign organisations. As a result, many foreign non-commercial organisations, working in diverse spheres, including culture, public health, education and environmental protection, will find themselves operating in violation of the law. Furthermore, foreign citizens who do not permanently reside in Russia will lose the right to establish or participate in Russian non-commercial organisations. This directly violates the Russian Constitution, which guarantees everyone (and not just Russian citizens) the right to assemble.

A number of the proposed amendments directly contravene the norms of international law as well as obligations assumed by our country, including several articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which was ratified by Russia. The bill undermines Russia's reputation as a guarantor of international law. Passing the amendments will severely damage Russia's reputation, an act that will be felt all the more keenly on the eve of Russia's chairmanship of the G8 Summit of industrialised nations as of 1 January 2006.

Experts believe that civil society will feel the grave consequences of this bill within months of its passing. All Russian non-commercial organisations will have one year in which to bring their organisational statutes into accordance with the new requirements and to register with the Ministry of Justice registration service. The penalty for non-compliance is liquidation. These requirements will affect hundreds of thousands of organisations. Given the bill's unclear, unlawful and extensive grounds for refusing registration, it is inevitable that non-commercial organisations will find themselves paralysed. All kinds of non-commercial organisations will be affected, including those dealing with charities, arts, disabilities, youth, human rights, and environmental issues. Re-registering hundreds of thousands of non-commercial organisations at the same time, while maintaining constant state control over their activities, will be very costly and will come from the state budget. The sponsors of the bill have intentionally kept quiet about the financial resources required to support the provisions in this bill.

Despite statements made by the Russian government that there must be a dialogue between the authorities and civil society, there was no consultation or discussion of the bill with non-commercial organisations. The secretive manner in which the bill was prepared indicates that its sponsors are fully aware that it runs contrary to the interests of civil society, and that it would not be considered acceptable were it to be the subject of a genuine, open, public discussion.

We are convinced that what civil society needs is not 'stabilisation', but intensive development. Total control will not promote development. Considering the bill's discriminatory nature, that it contradicts the Russian Constitution as well as Russia's international obligations, that it presents a very real danger that it will be applied arbitrarily by government officials, that the inevitable reduction in the activities of non-commercial organisations will have negative economic and social consequences, that implementing the law will be expensive, and that there are no reasonable arguments in its defence, we appeal to the government and the parliament to reject this bill.

We declare: 'NO' to tightening of control over civil society, and 'YES' to its unhindered development for the good of our country.

Initiators of the statement:

Lyudmila Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group
Manana Aslamazyan, Autonomous Non-commercial Organisation 'Internews'
Alexander Auzan, National Project Institute — 'Social Contract'
Lyudmila Vakhina, Human Rights Centre 'Memorial'
Valentin Gefter, Human Rights Institute
Lidiya Grafova, Forum of Migrants' Organisations
Leonid Grigoriev, Association of Independent Centres for Economic Analysis
Galina Grishina, Regional Public Organisation 'East-West: Women's Innovation Projects'
Alexander Daniel, International Society 'Memorial'
Yuri Dzhibladze, Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights
Svet Zabelin, International Social-Ecological Union
Oleg Komarovsky, National Project Institute — 'Social Contract'
Ida Kuklina, Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia
Tatyana Lokshina, Demos Centre
Arseny Roginsky, International Society 'Memorial'
Yelena Rusakova, Youth Center for Human Rights and Legal Culture
Natalia Samover, Historian
Natalia Taubina, 'Social Verdict' Foundation
Mikhail Timenchik, 'Tochka Opory' (Support Point) Foundation
Yelena Topoleva, Agency for Social Information
Grigory Shvedov, International Society 'Memorial'
Lev Levinson, Human Rights Institute

The statement is open for signing by all concerned citizens and organisations that support it.

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