Russian and foreign nongovernmental organizations and foundations are scrambling to fight a draft law that they say could shutter the Moscow offices of such prominent groups as Human Rights Watch, the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Ford Foundation and bring grass-roots activism in Russia under much closer government control.
"Implementation of the draft law will turn back Russian civil society's clock by at least 15 years," a group of Russian nongovernmental organizations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, said in a statement Tuesday. "The draft provides for the unjustified tightening of control over all Russian nongovernmental organizations, regardless of the area they are working in."
A group of parliamentary deputies from all parties introduced a bill this month that would require all of the country's 450,000 nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to re-register with a state body, which would then screen them to ensure they are not engaged in foreign-funded political activity or other work not explicitly authorized in their charter.
Foreign NGOs would be barred from having representative offices in Russia and could operate here only if they became membership organizations, which could require them to recruit local people. Some groups have said the law would also expose them to a heavy tax burden.
Russian activists fear that the legislation is part of a broader trend under President Vladimir Putin to limit political expression. In a letter to parliament, his cabinet said it had reviewed and approved of the legislation.
Some of the bill's sponsors said that they simply want to bring order to the NGO sector and that their critics have overreacted. But other lawmakers see the measure as an attempt to rein in politically troublesome groups.
"Some groups are lobbying for U.S. interests in Russia," said Alexei Ostrovsky, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. " 'Grants' is a beautiful word, but it's a bribe for lobbying."
Foreign NGOs and foundations have been meeting this week to consider how to respond.
"There is concrete concern on the part of many international organizations and foundations that this law would put them out of business," said Steve Solnick, Moscow representative of the Ford Foundation.
At a moment when Russia is about to assume the presidency of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, he said, "to be driving out noncommercial organizations who are working for international cooperation and the Russian people is misguided. One can only hope that this is poor drafting and not the intent of the legislation."
"It's a direct threat that could close us," said Alexander Petrov, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York.
NGOs in Russia have been the subject of increasing rhetorical attacks over the last year. In May, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB domestic security agency, said a lack of oversight of such groups "creates a fertile ground for conducting intelligence operations under the guise of charity and other activities."
In July, Putin said he would not allow political activity by NGOs to be financed from abroad.
The new legislation appears to be motivated, in part, by the fear that NGOs, particularly those that receive funding from the United States, could act as an ideological and financial engine in Russia for the kind of youth-driven popular revolts that toppled governments in Georgia and Ukraine.
There appears to be little support among young Russians, however, for that kind of upheaval.
A June 2005 survey of 2,000 young Russians found that only 3 percent favored a Russian version of last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine, according to the study's organizers, Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and Theodore P. Gerber, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
"About 72 percent of respondents said they definitely do not want an Orange Revolution to take place in Russia, and 17 percent said they probably do not want it to occur," the authors reported in the winter issue of the Washington Quarterly, a journal published by Mendelson's group.
One sponsor of the bill said he never considered the experience of Ukraine and simply wanted to bring some order to an area that is not adequately regulated. He said he had no desire to increase government control of human rights organizations and other Russian NGOs or to adversely affect foreign organizations.
"I know what foreign NGOs do in Russia and I appreciate their activities," said Andrei Makarov, a member of parliament in the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and a director of a foreign NGO in the early 1990s. "I have to say, however, that the state has no way to struggle against extremist organizations that disguise themselves as NGOs. Our aim is not to create any additional tools to control NGOs, but to bring some order."
"If there are any weak points in the draft," he continued, "we'll eliminate them. I'm willing to meet anyone who has a problem with the law to discuss their issues."