Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strongly objected Wednesday to a prospective Russian law that would restrict the activities of human rights groups, democracy promoters and other independent organizations.
"We would certainly hope that the importance of nongovernmental organizations to a stable democratic environment would be understood by the Russian government," Rice said at a news conference with Ukraine's West-leaning president, Viktor Yushchenko.
Democracy is "built on the ability of citizens to associate themselves freely and to work to bring their government into a particular direction," Rice said. Nongovernmental organizations in Russia "are simply trying to help citizens to organize themselves better, to petition their government to make changes in the policies that affect their very lives. That's the essence of democracy."
The draft law would require existing groups to re-register with a state agency that would decide if they could continue operations. It would restrict the ability of Russian nongovernmental organizations to accept foreign grants or employ foreigners. Foreign NGOs and foundations would be barred from having representative offices in Moscow.
Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin called for unspecified changes in the law.
Rice spoke while in Ukraine on a mission to prod the government here to continue on a reform path a year after a street revolt helped put Yushchenko in office. She noted the role of private groups in helping force a new election after fraud thwarted his victory in a runoff. "Here in Ukraine, civil society is active and it is working hard, and it is one reason that we have such hope and optimism for the future of Ukraine," she said.
In defending the draft law, some Russian officials cite a need to crack down on financial graft and terrorist influence in NGOs. Sergei Lebedev, the head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, or SVR, said in an interview that he has evidence foreign spies were using humanitarian groups and NGOs as cover in Russia, the Interfax news agency reported Wednesday.
Critics of the bill suggest that it reflects the Kremlin's fear that NGOs could foment an uprising similar to ones that toppled governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the past two years.
Until now, U.S. officials have been hesitant to publicly criticize the draft. When President Bush raised it with Putin at an Asian economic summit last month, national security adviser Stephen Hadley declined to disclose Bush's message because, he said, some issues are "more productively discussed outside of public view."
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried also did not publicly criticize the law when they visited Moscow last week to discuss it with officials, legislators and nongovernmental organizations. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said after meeting with Burns that he didn't understand the "fuss" over the issue, saying it was part of Russia's becoming a democracy.