Russian MPs vote to ban work of foreign charities

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The Russian parliament gave its preliminary but overwhelming approval to a bill that human rights groups have condemned as a Soviet-style assault on freedom of association and expression.

The bill, voted through by 370 votes to 18 in its first reading in the State Duma (lower house), is now expected to be fast-tracked and made law by President Vladimir Putin before the end of the year.

The legislation would in effect ban the work of foreign human rights groups and charities and strictly regulate the activities of domestic organisations, making it easy for the Kremlin to shut down undesirable groups on a technicality at a moment's notice.

The bill's backers argue that nothing sinister is intended and that such action is needed to combat terrorism, money laundering, extremism and potential political manipulation by foreign intelligence services such as the CIA.

But critics say such talk is clever camouflage and argue that the bill is driven by fear, paranoia and an age-old Soviet intolerance of healthy criticism. It is no secret that the Kremlin believes foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in former Soviet republics Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan played a powerful behind-the-scenes role in fomenting velvet revolutions, a scenario that Mr Putin does not wish to see repeated in Russia.

This summer he told human rights groups that he was unhappy that some of them drew much of their funding from unaccountable foreign sources. Criticism of the behaviour of Russian troops in Chechnya from international human rights groups has also been poorly received. If the bill is approved in its current form (and there is still time for it to be amended), all of Russia's 300,000 charities and NGOs, from green groups to medical relief organisations, would have to reregister in the course of 2006 with the justice ministry.

The ministry would approve or reject their registration application within one month. Officials would be empowered to scrutinise financial flows and tax returns, to conduct annual on-the-spot checks and to ascertain whether a group's activity is consistent with the Russian constitution. Foreign groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Greenpeace would no longer be allowed to have representative offices in the country. Instead, they would be forced to re-establish themselves as stand-alone units staffed by Russians with little or no foreign personnel or funding, which they believe would spell the end of their activities.

Government supporters accuse NGOs of exaggerating. "This is an absolutely fine and an absolutely sane law," says Andrei Makarov of Mr Putin's United Russia party. "All these cries from opponents have no relation to the actual law because the law does nothing but establish order."

Human rights groups allege that the bill is the latest in a long line of authoritarian measures which are allowing the Kremlin to assume an unhealthy grip on the print and broadcast media, the legal system, regional and local politics and the parliament itself.

Holly Cartner, of Human Rights Watch, said: "Now that the Kremlin has neutralised other checks and balances, NGOs remain among the last independent voices that can criticise the government and demand accountability in Russia. The express purpose of this law is to emasculate the NGO community."