Vienna, April 16 – The end of the grace period yesterday that the Kremlin had extended to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for filing the paperwork the government now requires for them to remain in operation appears likely to lead to the closure of tens of thousands of the remaining NGOs in that country.
Between 2002 and 2007, the Putin government succeeded in reducing the number of these vital elements of civil society from 600,000 to 278,000, and now will be in a position to eliminate even more, a move that will hit non-Russian and especially Muslim regions especially hard (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1212338.html).
NGOs in those regions are less likely to have the expertise, time and money needed to register, and any further reduction in their numbers will both reduce the chances for these groups to play a role in open politics and drive ever more of their members into underground and possibly violent actions.
That is all the more so because in many regions, the government has already wiped out many NGOs that had provided an important link to and check on the authorities and equally important a counterweight to ethnic and religious extremists, many of whom have turned to violence.
Last year, in Ingushetia, for example, the government closed down 25 percent of the NGOs operating there, and now across the North Caucasus an even larger fraction of the remaining organizations of this type face closure or at least the kind of harassment that will make it impossible for them to do their work.
NGOs in these regions say that they lack the time, access to legal advice, and money to comply with the government’s demands for more paperwork, problems that are far less common among NGOs in Russian regions and especially in Moscow and other major Russian cities.
But NGOs in the North Caucasus say that they face an even larger problem: harassment by the FSB and other Russian security agencies. Such government bodies appear to focus on religious and ethnic groups, Kavkaz-uzel.ru reports, with more than one in every three groups these bodies have targeted falling into one of those categories.
As a result, several commentators have suggested, thousands of NGOs will soon be closed by court order, thus bringing to an end yet another aspect of Russia’s latest and all too brief experiment with democracy – and also make it far more difficult for many in Moscow and the West to track what Russian officials are doing in non-Russian regions.
Impressively, some NGOs in Moscow and St. Petersburg are trying to help their counterparts in non-Russian and Muslim regions. During the last week, for example, lawyers in the two capitals have set up both a special “hotline for the defense of NGOs” and a website – http://www.openinform.ru/consult/doc/rosregist -- to assist them.
But this effort, as noble as it is, appears unlikely to stay Moscow’s hand. On the one hand, the lawyers have the resources to operate the hotline – at 8-800-3333-068 -- only for two hours a day, making it highly unlikely that all those who would like to consult it will have the chance.
And on the other, after Radio Liberty reported about hotline, those who visited it found that it was blocked, with callers hearing not the voice of a lawyer but rather music and a man’s voice. The phone company said that this was the result of “technical” difficulties (http://forum.msk.ru/material/news/466919.html).
In many ways, such a musical interlude is entirely appropriate: In Soviet times, the media played music whenever a leader and his era were passing. In this case, the leader, Vladimir Putin, seems set to remain, but what is disappearing – a chance for civil society and democracy across the Russian Federation – represents a far greater loss.