Vienna, April 23 – Eight days after the deadline for NGOs to turn in required registration paperwork or be closed down, Moscow officials have secured an order from the Russian Supreme Court to shut an organization in Vladimir that had been working with refugees and internally displaced persons.
Three aspects of this decision are disturbing. First, by moving so quickly, the Russian government is showing that it is quite serious about “liquidating” the many tens of thousands of NGOs which lack the resources and knowledge base to be able to fill in the registration forms the government now requires (forum.msk.ru/material/news/469422.html).
Second, as many civil rights activists had expected, including AGORA and the Resource Human Rights Center, Moscow is moving in the first instance against those outside the capital, confident that it will be able to set precedents there without international organizations or foreign embassies paying much attention.
And third, by going after an NGO that has been helping refugees, the Russian authorities have demonstrated that they will be highly selective in their approach, closing down at least in the first instance precisely those organizations that have been involved with groups like migrants who have little or no support in the population.
According to Ramil’ Akhmetgaliyev, a legal analyst at the Inter-Regional Legal Defense Association AGORA, what is taking place in Russia today is “a collision between European standards of human rights in the area of freedom of association and [Russian] federal law,” which requires NGOs in Russia to file multiple reports.
International law holds that NGOs and private individuals should have the opportunity to deal with the state under which they live as a single whole, with the state rather than the individual or group being responsible for multiple filings of the same or essentially the same documentation.
And because the actions of the Russian government and the decision of the Russian Supreme Court in this regard are so at variance with international standards, the AGORA analyst continued, supporters of the rights of NGOs there plan an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
That latter body has often been the last place of appeal for those in Russia seeking to defend their rights, but its decisions frequently come months or years after Moscow has acted, allowing the Russian government to continue to use the decision under challenge in other cases. And then when Strasbourg does issue a decision, the Russian government often simply ignores it.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has introduced two other techniques to move against those living in that country the authorities don’t like. On April 16, the Muslim news portal, Muslim-press.ru reported that the Federal Tax Service is demanding that a Samara mosque pay a 250,000 ruble (10,500 U.S. dollar) fine for supposedly hiding an Uzbek refugee.
Mosque officials say that it may be that an Uzbek citizen did take refuge with them. “As you know,” they told Muslim-press.ru, “we do not check the passport of those who come to us to pray. If someone is illegally in Russia, that is the affair of the relevant organs, and not of us” in the religious community.
The Samara mosque does not have the funds to pay this fine, and the imam has been threatened not only with 15 days imprisonment if it does not pay it promptly but also with a doubling of the size of the fine in short order. And consequently, the mosque does not have any plans to pay.
But if it does not, the Russian government appears ready to exploit a principle that is long established in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence – namely, that the power to tax is the power to destroy – although Moscow apparently views this not as a constraint on its activities but rather as another useful weapon against those it views as its opponents.
And yet a third move by Moscow against the public sector was announced this week. Yesterday, “Gazeta” reported that the Russian government has now banned the import of Islamic publications Russian courts have declared extremist, an action that few in the West may object to but one that will further isolate Muslims in Russia (gzt.ru/society/2008/04/22/063003.html).