By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 20, 2006
MOSCOW, Oct. 19 -- Russia on Thursday suspended the activities of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Republican Institute and more than 90 other foreign nongovernmental organizations, saying they failed to meet the registration requirements of a controversial new law designed to bring activists here under much closer government scrutiny.
Across the country, foreign grass-roots organizations that investigate human rights abuses, promote democracy and work with refugees folded their tents until further notice, informing staff that all operations must cease immediately. The only work officially authorized was the paying of staff and bills.
The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin at the start of the year, drew broad criticism as part of a general rollback of democratic freedoms in Russia. Activists said it was intended to rein in one of the last areas of independent civic life here; Putin called it necessary to prevent foreigners from interfering in the country's political process.
On Thursday, officials said the suspensions resulted simply from the failure of private groups to meet the law's requirements, not from a political decision on the part of the state. The groups would be allowed to resume work once their registrations are completed, they said.
"No political order has been given . . . to tighten the screws," said Vladimir Lukin, Russia's federal ombudsman, speaking at a Moscow forum hosted by the Council of Europe, a 46-country human rights organization based in Strasbourg, France. "Colleagues from international NGOs are not in the habit of keeping their affairs and documents in order."
Many nongovernmental organizations fear that the current bureaucratic tangle might be the beginning of a larger crackdown on activism that is not controlled by the Kremlin. They note too that successful registration would not end their dealings with the Justice Ministry. After that, they would have to report on planned activities for the year, and they worry that officials could reject their plans or penalize the groups if they deviate from the plans because of unexpected events.
Many of the suspended organizations are American, including adoption agencies, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The latter two are funded by the U.S. Congress but act independently to promote democracy.
Other suspended groups include two branches of Doctors Without Borders, the Danish Refugee Council and the Netherlands-based Russian Justice Initiative, which helps Russians bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
Under the law, Russian nongovernmental organizations are also subject to new regulation. But a Wednesday deadline to meet the paperwork requirements or stop operation applied only to foreign groups.
Russian officials stressed that the suspensions, which went into effect at midnight Wednesday, are temporary. "We are not speaking about closing organizations; that is out of the question," said a senior Justice Ministry official, Natalia Vishnyakova, in a telephone interview. Concerning the registration process, she said: "We are working properly, and put all our efforts into making it even faster. It is not at all complicated, believe me, absolutely not. It's really their own headache. On our part, we provided all necessary conditions."
Activists complained, however, that the requirements of the law are so vague and cumbersome that meeting the deadline was extremely difficult. Russian officials, they said, nitpicked their way through the submitted documents.
The local Human Rights Watch operation, for instance, called itself the "Representative Office of the Non-Governmental Organization Human Rights Watch in the Russian Federation." Officials at the registration office rejected that description and said the group should call itself the "Representative Office of the Corporation Human Rights Watch Inc. (USA) in the Russian Federation."
That change, among others, required Human Rights Watch to send its submission back to its headquarters in New York to have the document revised and re-notarized, then retranslated into Russian and re-notarized in Russia.
Officials at the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow said they could not speak on the record to a reporter because they interpreted the strictures of the suspension to extend to news media interviews. The law says that suspended groups can do nothing that would advance the aims and goals of their offices in Russia.
"We are registering, and we are complying with the law," said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview from New York. "But we have been really distracted from our work by the onerous burdens that this law imposes. But this is not particular to us. It's a hassle for everyone."
Other groups, however, said they found the registration office helpful. The American Chamber of Commerce, for instance, said Russian officials there pointed out errors before the organization formally submitted its documents, allowing it to correct them and expedite the registration. In all, the office accepted the registrations of 99 foreign organizations, freeing them to continue their work, officials at the Justice Ministry said. The American groups included the chamber, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Amnesty International said it was exploring whether it could continue field research in Russia by flying in researchers from its London headquarters. "We are seeking clarification," said Lydia Aroyo, a spokeswoman based in London. "But we are very unhappy. There were no clear guidelines as to what documents were required or how to fill them out. The process was very cumbersome and very time-consuming."