Russian civil society under ongoing attack

By Prof. Vladimir Petrov, Political Scholar, Moscow, Feb 2006

The recent British spy scandal in Moscow, highlighted by the state-controlled Russian TV, is nearly forgotten, - at, least, no reaction followed from the British government, or other Western governments. The same goes for Russian and Western public, who seem to underestimate the significance of what happened in January.

TV footage did not give clear evidence of espionage – a person called “British Embassy official” was shown from the back, and was not shown as caught on the spot, as they usually do with real spies. But, more importantly, Russian authorities linked the alleged ‘spies’ with the Russian NGO activities, without any substantial justification.

Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed, at least twice, that Russian NGOs are being financed by Western intelligence, - again, without any substantiation. The fact that an Embassy official, accused of espionage, was signing papers authorising grants for Russian charities and public foundations, does not mean that the aid was offered by intelligence organi-sations. Technical assistance, including support to NGOs, has been provided to Russia since early 1990s on behalf British, US, etc. governments, in accordance with bilateral agreements.

Not to say about common understanding among G8 leaders that civil society is an indispensable element of a democratic society and, as such, should not be subject to excessive control. But it looks like Russian authorities, after democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, want to prevent the same developments in Russia by imposing control on any civic activities in Russia.

It becomes evident that the ‘spy stone’ story was used to justify the new Federal Law on NGO activities, which was drafted by President Putin’s administration and pushed through the par-liament, despite wide-spread protests in public and the media. Western leaders have also ex-pressed their concern, but Vladimir Putin has finally approved the law on the eve of the visit of German Chancellor, who was prepared to discuss this issue in Moscow.

The draft Law, which restricts NGO activities legally and financially, was launched after the Director of the Russian Security Service accused International Republican Institute (IRI) of subversive activities in Eastern Europe. This logic implies that all NGOs receiving foreign grants should be labelled as suspicious. In the course of the ‘spy rock’ scandal, a number of well-known human rights advocacy organisations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group, were accused of being financed by Western intelligence.

The proponents of the Law on NGOs say that it contains the same provisions, as in analogue laws and regulations of other democratic countries. But, in the absence of independent judicial system in Russia, and in presence of large-scale corruption and heavy bureaucratic control, this Law will make organised civic activities in the country barely possible.

The restrictions on civil liberties in Russia are being imposed gradually, but more and more tightly. Only public awareness in Russia and abroad could reverse this process. The Moscow Helsinki Group has filed a case in court, accusing Russian TV channel of defamation. And even the Public Chamber, created by the Kremlin as an imitation of true public and parliamentary control, tried to improve the Law on NGOs.

Russian civil society will, hopefully, fight for its rights and freedoms. But the rest should also be aware of what is going on in a country, which is so proud of its oil and gas, and of claimed economic prosperity and stability. In mid 1990s Russia was admitted to the G7 club in advance, to support its transition to market economy and democracy. Now Western leaders, who will attend the G8 summit in Russia, to discuss ‘energy security’ and other things, are expected to remind their Russian partner that it is society that decides a state behaviour in a democratic country, not the vice versa.

Vladimir Petrov,
Political Scholar
This analysis was submitted to FOREF – Europe.
It is free for publication under the condition of setting a link to