Russia’s Curbs on NGOs

Prague, Czech Republic, 20 May 2009 – In an open letter, a group of Czech NGOs are urging European politicians to call on their Russian partners during the upcoming EU-Russia Summit, on the 21st and 22nd of May, to liberalize Russia’s restrictive NGO law. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, External Relations Commissioner, as well as Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who will function as European Council’s President at the summit, were sent this open letter by DEMAS, an association of Czech human rights and democracy NGOs.

In 2006, a Russian law dealing with NGOs was tightened under then President Putin watch. As a result, registering an NGO in Russia today is “nearly impossible without professional legal advice,” according to DEMAS’s open letter. In addition, it costs up to twice as much money and time to legally register an NGO than it does to register a private firm. A recent report compiled by the Russian office of Human Rights Watch explains that the Russian authorities’ approach to the entire NGO sector is part of a broader campaign aimed against dissent and political opposition.

The Moscow Helsinki Group and other Russian NGOs put together a proposal of changes that would liberalize the NGO law, which was handed over to the Russian Minister of Justice in April. In response, President Medvedev has established a working group to deal with their proposal.

Czech NGOs want to strongly encourage European politicians and policy makers to discuss this issue with their Russian counterparts. “The NGO law amendment would reduce excessive administrative burden and it would also send an important signal from Russian authorities saying that they acknowledge the importance of an independent civil sector,” says Petr Pajas, a DEMAS coordinator.

“Such a signal is essential when independent-minded people, such as journalists, activists and human-rights defenders, are being threatened and attacked on a regular basis, and some have even been murdered,” says the DEMAS open letter.