In his recent State of the Nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that it is the country's goal to achieve "a mature democracy and a developed civil society." Putin also proclaimed his support for a "free society of free people in Russia." Such remarks were quite fitting for a world leader who was soon to travel to Sea Island, Ga., for this week's G-8 summit.
But that tone was not maintained throughout. The speech also contained clearly threatening language accusing some nongovernmental groups of "obtaining funding from influential foreign or domestic foundations" or of "servicing dubious group and commercial interests." These groups, Putin contended, were ineffective when it came to resolving "the most acute problems of the country . . . violations of fundamental and basic human rights," and the "encroachment on people's real interests" because "they cannot bite the hand that feeds them."
Does this speech herald a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations in Russia? There are currently more than 350,000 registered NGOs in the country. Many of them are "hobby groups" -- amateur bands, sports associations, collectors' societies and so on. Some are charitable and social assistance associations that work with the disabled, veterans, families and orphans. These are the organizations that I believe Putin had in mind when he said that "without a mature civil society, there can be no effective solution to people's pressing problems," and that gradually the non-state sector should take over "functions which the state should not carry out, or is incapable of carrying out efficiently."
So what are the organizations he claims are somehow ineffective and beholden to others? There can be no doubt he was referring to NGOs that seek not merely to provide social and humanitarian assistance but also to protect the rights and interests of certain population groups and to work for democracy and human rights. These include human rights groups; associations of independent journalists; educational organizations that seek to preserve historical memory and foster a knowledge of rights and responsibilities; environmental organizations; groups that act as watchdogs to promote transparency and accountability; centers and think tanks that collect, analyze and disseminate information not to be found in the controlled press; organizations that monitor elections; the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers; and organizations that provide independent information about Chechnya.
The authorities would like to bring such groups under their control. The attempt to control NGOs is nothing new. In November 2001 a huge meeting of more than 5,000 of Russia's NGOs was convened. Fortunately, Russia's leading independent NGOs -- the Moscow Helsinki Group, Memorial, the Consumers' Association, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the major environmental organizations and others prevented the event from being dominated by the Kremlin's agenda. The attempt to establish a state-controlled foundation or umbrella institution that would fund and control Russia's burgeoning third sector failed. Perhaps Putin's latest speech is meant to signal a return to the issue.
The implication appears to be that if the truly independent NGOs cannot be controlled, then they will be outlawed. And the first step -- as always in this type of campaign -- is to cast aspersions on their patriotism, to suggest that they are not working for the good of Russia and ordinary Russian citizens but are "deviating from Russia's historical path," as Putin put it in the speech. An atmosphere of mistrust is opening many benign and independent NGOs to attack either from officials of the tax inspectorate or from thugs and criminals (such as those who ransacked the offices of a human rights group in Kazan the day after the speech).
Putin has also used the NGO issue to criticize his opponents, among them "oligarchs" such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who have provided funds for NGOs. Russia's fledgling indigenous philanthropic sector has been launched and supported by these funds. Now Putin has suggested a "moral equivalence" between them and the "foreign funders" -- the public and private foundations of the countries of his fellow G-8 colleagues. It is hard to know how Putin can square his enthusiasm for wanting Russia to be part of the G-8 club, with the threats to NGOs receiving grants from countries that are members of that club.
Putin should be assured that we share his ideal of increasing prosperity and defending the democratic achievements of the Russian people. But in the end, increasing economic prosperity can best be achieved if the rights of Russia's citizens are guaranteed, as they are in all other G-8 countries -- not only by the government but also by a vigorous independent third sector of NGOs and journalists.
The writer was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and currently serves as president of the International Helsinki Foundation. She is among four Russian democracy activists who will be honored this week with the Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy.