European Commission reacts to new Russian NGO law

BRUSSELS—The European Commission (EC) has officially voiced its concerns over the stringent new NGO law passed by the Russian government in January to Ella Pamfilova, chair of Russian President Putin’s Presidential Council of the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.

Claire Chevallier, 2006-03-23 11:29

The EC response came in early March at the behest of Bellona friends and Members of European Parliament (MEP), Bart Staes and Satu Hassi of the Greens, who formally put the question to the EC during the European Parliament’s (EP) plenary sitting in Strasbourg on January 18th 2006—a day after the Russian NGO law was passed. Staes is former chairman and a current member of the EP’s Joint Parliamentary Committee with the Russian State Duma.

The importance of the EP directing a question to the EC is twofold. First, it allows the EP to put pressure on the Commission to act on what the EP considers priority items. Second, it forces the EC to make a binding statement and commits it to the statements that it makes. The EC’s reply to Staes and Hassi therefore allows the EC to bring political force to bear on the situation regarding the NGO law in Russia.

The NGO law
The Russian NGO law imposes a new and stricter regime for the several hundred thousand NGOs operating in Russia. In the name of protecting Russian national interests and security, the law allows for investigations into the NGOs’ political leanings, sources of funding, and overall adherence to Russian national policy.

It also imposes a scouring audit process on foreign funding received by NGOs and restricts their ability to have foreigners working in their offices.

The law also contains very restrictive, and in many places, vague language that enables the authorities to make arbitrary decisions. Late last year, before the law’s passage, Bellona approached key MEPs and articulated their concerns over Russia’s proposed law on NGOs and urged them to take action.

Restrictions on funding and employment
MEPs Staes and Hassi therefore asked the EC whether “in view of the estimations that the new registration regime will make it difficult for the NGOs to receive foreign donations, has the Commission evaluated the impact of the new law on the NGOs’ ability to receive EU funding aimed at projects in third countries.”

The EC, like the EU as a whole, expressed its concerns to Pamfilova, in particular on the impacts on NGOs in Russia financed by the EU’s humanitarian aid programme (ECHO). In addition, External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner spoke of the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in early December last year.

EU statement
In a broader statement concerning the enactment of the Russian law on NGOs, the EU presidency “made clear to the Russian Federation its concerns over the possible effects of the draft law on NGOs. It has also underlined the great importance the EU attaches to freedom of expression and association, which are of fundamental importance for a democratic society.”

The EU reiterated “its strong support for the legitimate and peaceful activities of civil society. It is in Russia’s interests that civil society should be allowed to develop freely.”

In addition, while it welcomed the changes made to the draft law before its second and final reading, the EU nonetheless “remains concerned that the law as it has been adopted could have a serious impact on the legitimate activity of civil society organisations in Russia”.

Finally, the EU has pledged to pay close attention to how the law is implemented.

EP active on the issue
This is not the first time the EP takes action on this specific issue. Indeed, in early December of last year, MEP Staes organised a press conference with chess champion turned political commentator Gary Kasparov, who bore shocking witness to recent political and electoral difficulties in Russia.

Kasparov spoke to the European press about electoral fraud and lack of political freedom during the latest round of Russian presidential and Moscow City Council elections, the Chechen and Northern Caucasus conflicts, and the newly proposed bill on reigning in NGO. Kasparov has earlier said that he will support any political party opposing Putin in the Duma and Putin’s possible third term in office.

Enforcement of new NGO law vital issue for justice ministry
Interfax Russia, Russia - Mar 17, 2006

MOSCOW. March 17 (Interfax) - Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that "one of the vital issues facing the Russian Justice Ministry is the enforcement of the new law on non-governmental organizations."

"The Russian Justice Ministry should assist in the development and adoption of a number of by-laws that will regulate the creation and registration of NGOs, including foreign ones," the president said at an extended meeting at the Justice Ministry on Friday.

This work must be guided by "constitutional provisions on the rights and freedom of an individual and citizen," Putin said. "They define the content and application of the laws and the activities of the legislative branch and local authorities," Putin said.