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Helsinki Commissioners Release Letter Denouncing Russian NGO Legislation

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Helsinki Commission released today a letter sent by Commission Members to the Speaker of the Russian Duma regarding proposed legislation that would require non-governmental organizations to re-register with a government commission empowered to monitor NGO activities.   The measure passed by 370 to 18, but must go through several further readings and be signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin before it becomes law.

“The proposed NGO legislation is another indication that independent civic and social organizations are not getting the breathing space they need,” said Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS).  “The Members of the Commission simply had to make it clear to the Russian Government that we are deeply alarmed by the implications of this bill.”

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords.  The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

“Unfortunately, this bill reflects the continued wariness of some Kremlin officials, including President Putin, toward the concept of an independent civil society,” said Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). “I hope the Duma will reject such a divisive measure and realize that Russia will only flourish when civil society begins to flourish.”   

The letter, which was signed by ten Helsinki Commissioners and sent to Speaker Boris Gryzlov on November 18, states that the NGO legislation “would have a chilling effect on civil society in the Russian Federation, including the functioning of non-governmental organizations focused on human rights and democracy.”  The letter goes on to state that the bill would “seriously undermine the rights of individuals in Russia to freedom of association….” 

“If this bill passes and causes as much harm to Russia’s NGO community as feared, it will further isolate the Russian Government from the public feedback it needs to respond to the legitimate concerns of the Russian people,” added Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD). 

The proposed legislation would require Russia’s approximately 450,000 NGOs to re-register with a government commission under a complicated registration procedure, and would expand the ability of the government to deny registration permission.   Financial auditing, a tactic currently used to harass “opposition” NGOs, would also become more intrusive under the bill’s provisions.  It would also have a negative impact on foreign-based organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Foundation, while increasing controls over NGOs of Russian origin.

It is expected that President Putin would sign the measure should it reach his desk. Prospects for final passage of the legislation are considered certain since it has drawn support from the four largest factions in the Duma.

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