On 21 December, the Russian Parliament (Duma) voted on its second reading in favour of a bill that seeks to increase state control over non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The bill met with opposition from only 10 Duma members, against the 376 that voted in favour. The new version of the bill, amended after the first reading caused international outcry, has left out the more controversial articles which obliged foreign NGOs in Russia to register as Russian legal entities and made it more difficult for Russian NGOs to receive foreign money. However, NGOs criticise it for still being too restrictive.
Afraid of another Velvet Revolution
The draft bill comes at a time when NGOs have achieved political prominence in Russia. The boom in NGOs, which are considered the only true mouthpieces of Russian civil society, has been facilitated by the state’s tight control over political parties. But their growing influence on Russian public opinion bothers the Kremlin. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, fears the outbreak of a bloodless revolution in Russia similar to those which took place in Georgia and Ukraine. He is convinced that the revolts in Tbilisi and Kiev were cooked up by these types of organisations. As far as Putin is concerned, the law under discussion would act as a weapon against the foreign interference that “encourages terrorism” and represents “a danger to the country’s internal security”.
The level of support for the bill on its first reading set off alarm bells among the Russian and foreign NGOs that are active in Russia, of which there are around 450,000, and they wasted no time in embarking on an international campaign to denounce the bill. The campaign has already won the support of much of the mass media, international human rights organisations and various European politicians.
Despite this, the EU-Russia meeting held on 7 December in Brussels, attended by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, turned a deaf ear to the international pressure against the bill. Instead of dealing with such a thorny subject, talk centred around the creation of the four EU-Russia Common Spaces and the need for a move towards stability and democracy in Chechnya, forgetting the need to extend such a move to cover the whole of the Russian Federation.
Luckily, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing their concern over the possible restrictions on freedom of association and asking the Duma to have more respect for democracy and human rights. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe himself, Terry Davis, declared that any change in the laws that regulate NGOs must “comply with the European Convention on Human Rights” and that certain aspects of the Russian bill “are too restrictive” towards NGOs.
As a result of the large volume of criticism from outside Russia, Putin admitted that some changes were necessary and, at the beginning of December, he stated that the bill was to be completely revised. However, the changes that have been made are limited, such as foreign NGOs not being obliged to register, and are considered by NGOs as insufficient.
What this shows is that democracy in Russia is paradoxical. While cooperation with the EU is increasing in various sectors, and international organisations appear to have some influence over the Kremlin’s decisions, Russian civil society still complains of its helplessness to affect the opinion of a political leader who only responds to external pressure when it threatens his country’s position and world image.