The Russian government appears to be implementing a plan to bring Russia's non-governmental sector under the Kremlin's control. The idea is to deliver a one-two punch to civil society activists -- first by pushing out Western organizations now operating in Russia and replacing them with Russian entities that are beholden to the country's political leadership.
In contrast to the heavy-handed way in which the Russian government cemented its grip over the country's energy sector during the early 2000s -- underscored by the state's coldly calculated takedown of oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- the Kremlin is moving with velvety ruthlessness against NGOs involved in democratization-related activities.
While no formal blueprint on NGOs exists, or at least none has been made public, the Russian government's intentions started coming into clearer focus in early July. On July 2, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin issued a decree that dramatically rolled back the number of foreign-based NGOs that will enjoy tax-exempt status in Russia. The chief targets of the decree appeared to be NGOs active in areas deemed nettlesome by the Russian government, such as human rights and the environment. NGOs that no longer qualify for exemptions will have to pay a 24 percent tax on all grants made inside Russia, starting January 1.
The 24 percent rate is deemed prohibitive by many civil society activists, who believe the new rules are designed to force Western NGOs to pull out, and thereby throttle the spirit of liberalization in Russia. Tanya Lokshina, a Human Rights Watch Russia researcher based in Moscow, said Putin's decree was "certainly a demonstrative political gesture, which is very illustrative of the climate foreign-funded NGOs and their donors have to deal with in Russia today."
"In making the working environment more and more hostile for NGOs, the Russian government is acting in a similar way as those CIS states with dramatically poor human rights record, such as Uzbekistan or Belarus," Lokshina added.
Among the 89 NGOs impacted by the decree are the International Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, the Ford Foundation and the Eurasia Foundation. Joe Voeller, a press officer at the Ford Foundation, noted that the organization's Moscow office distributes more than $10 million in grants annually. "We are studying the recent decree, but do not have enough information to comment at this time," Voeller said.
Of the 101 NGOs that enjoyed tax-free status prior to Putin's July 2 decree, only 12 stand to retain the privilege in 2009. The new qualifications for tax-exempt status were arbitrarily established by the government. NGOs themselves had no role in the outcome. "We did not lobby for it, but [our organization] remained in the list of institutions allowed to give tax-free grants," said one representative of the 12 organizations that will still enjoy the privilege.
Although the government's methodology in refining the tax-exempt list was anything but transparent, a pattern can be detected in the outcome. Those organizations that will continue to enjoy the exemption tend to be intergovernmental groups, such as the Commission of the European Communities and the Council of the Baltic Sea States, along with several UN-related entities like the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"The [Russian] government likely feels that it can largely trust intergovernmental organizations such as councils of government ministers or UN agencies, since it has a voice in those organizations and other governments tend to understand Russia's wish to
Svetla Marinova is an EurasiaNet editorial associate in New York.