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Saturday, January 16, 2021
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JOHANNESBURG, Feb 13 2008 (IPS) - With Russia\’s presidential elections — notoriously a time of clampdown on dissent — looming, it is important to ask whether non-governmental organisations (NGOs) there will be able to freely go about their legitimate activities, whether providing services, election monitoring, or holding the government to account, asks Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and Tanzilya Salimdjanova, associate at CIVICUS – Civil Society Watch programme. In this analysis, the author writes that while in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, anti-NGO campaigns and policies were quickly implemented with devastating impact after independence, in Russia there is still time and space to advocate for civil society and support NGOs and human rights activists in their efforts to prevent civil society space from vanishing altogether. As Russia is a gravitational force, its moves towards protecting or suffocating civil society will play a huge role in influencing the policies of surrounding countries. Let us hope that they choose the path of openness, cooperation, and providing space for their vital partners in civil society.
Not so long ago, the people of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan celebrated as the various hues of revolution swept through their countries and opened up new space for public dialogue and debate. Conversely, citizens in neighbouring countries felt the strong grip of their governments grow ever tighter. The most restrictive and, therefore, most fragile regimes in the neighbouring post-Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and also the Russian Federation itself, reacted immediately, launching campaigns against independent citizen groups.
Turkmenistan decided from the very beginning of its independence to restrict citizen activism, allowing only a handful of environmental groups to register. In Uzbekistan since 2003, and in Russia since 2006, the governments have specifically labelled NGOs involved in public mobilisation and protest the major threats to their regimes.
The governments in the region use various justifications for their crackdown on NGOs, including the enforcement of measures to combat terrorism and extremism in the region. NGOs that cooperated with and received funding from international organisations were accused of undermining state security and their staff members were criminalised as foreign intelligence agents. Public speeches were made by the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and government officials in Russia warning citizens of the harmful influence that foreign-funded NGOs could have on internal stability. A documentary was even made in 2005, profiling a conspiracy theory linking human rights groups with British intelligence agents in Russia. The film was re-run several times on Russian public TV, and watched in the neighbouring countries as well. In this way, citizens’ organisations were scapegoated and became the ”enemy of the state”, an easy target for authorities, but the wrong one.
In Uzbekistan, the restrictive decrees of 2003 to 2005 forced all NGOs to re-register and undergo a thorough investigation into their activities. As a result, by 2005 about 2000 NGOs were forced to close, and regulations on foreign grants stopped virtually the entire flow of international funding. The Russian campaign against NGOs appears to have drawn inspiration from these actions by its southern neighbour: amendments to the NGO Law in 2006 made it impossible for many NGOs to re-register, prevented the registration of new groups, and imposed cumbersome reporting procedures on NGOs, especially those who received funding from abroad. This campaign continues, and has led to the gradual closing of space for public dialogue, subjecting civil society and human rights activists to scrutiny and harassment by a range of government monitoring bodies, and severely restricting freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.
In July 2006, President Putin met with a group of international NGOs that raised the issue of the implementation of the new NGO law and its effect on the operations of NGOs in Russia. Noting that the law had some weaknesses, President Putin personally promised that the implementation of the law would be reviewed during 2007. It is already 2008 and so far no moves have been publicly made to begin the review.
In the past year, many of the flaws of the NGO law and its implementation have come to the fore. As highlighted by numerous reports by Russian NGOs, the law has been shown to be unclear, burdensome, and accompanied by disproportionate penalties. This limits the contribution that Russian NGOs can make to their country and its people.
While in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan anti-NGO campaigns and policies were quickly implemented with devastating impact, in Russia there is still time and space to advocate for civil society, and support NGOs and human rights activists in their efforts to prevent civil society space from vanishing altogether.
Here at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, we echo the calls of many in Russian civil society in appealing to President Putin and his successor to listen and act for their citizens and their organisations. They must also act with the region in mind, as Russia is a gravitational force : the moves Russia makes towards protecting or suffocating civil society will play a huge role in influencing the policies of surrounding countries. Let us hope that they choose the path of openness, cooperation, and providing space for their vital partners in civil society. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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