Thursday, October 19, 2006 marked a new era for foreign NGOs in Russia. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International didn't file their paperwork before the deadline set by Russia's new NGO law, and had to temporarily suspend some of their activities. All of these organizations are still allowed to conduct administrative work -- accounting, planning, answering telephones, but they won't be able to get back to their full operations until they complete their registration.
Meanwhile, the Moscow offices for the Carnegie and Ford Foundations, American Trade Assembly, United Families Foundation, Oxfam and many other foreign NGOs have successfully registered and are continuing their work. Yens Zigert, director of the Moscow branch of the German Heinrich Boell Foundation, said: "This was the fastest case of registration I've ever seen in my practice." He also said that the only German foundation that didn't get registered yet is the Friedrich Naumann Fund. Svetlana Brezhneva, head of the Moscow office for the British foundation CAF, said that they still had not registered, but were continuing their charitable activities. "We were promised to get registration next week," said Brezhneva.
Once again, Russia Blog takes a closer look at what the new NGO law is, how it is different from comparable laws in other countries, including the US, and why some NGOs have more problems registering on time than others.
Until October 19, 2006, foreign charitable and non-government organizations were allowed to work in Russia without government registration, which is unique in modern international legal practice. Anatoly Panchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Registration Administration said in an interview with Interfax news agency that as of Thursday, October 19th, 91 foreign NGOs have already registered and 79 other groups were undergoing the process of registration.
According to Gazeta.Ru, Doctors without Borders successfully registered their representatives from Holland in Russia; documents from the Belgian and the French branches are still in the hands of bureaucrats. Amnesty International failed to register by the deadline and had to temporarily suspend its chartered activities. Why did Amnesty International fail to register before the deadline?
Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International's Moscow office, said that the Russian government had required him to present registration and founding documents for the organization in the Russian language -- the originals are in English. Due to the government's request to present the legal documents in Russian, Amnesty did not get the paperwork ready until two days before the deadline.
Many Western media outlets say that this limited suspension of Amnesty International's activities is another sign of a crackdown on democratic institutions in Russia. But the question is: Could you register an NGO or a business in America if all the paperwork were in Russian or Chinese? The answer is "No". Neither would a foreign company with hundreds of pages of documents be able to undergo the bureaucratic process within two days if the filing of the documents was delayed due to the company's failure to translate them on time, whether we are talking about a non-profit or for-profit entity.
The Moscow offices of the well-known Carnegie and Ford Foundations, and many other American groups, were more responsible and did not have any problems complying with the new NGO law. Many Carnegie Moscow scholars are outspoken critics of Putin and the Russian government, but it never came up as an issue during their registration.
NGOs with documents which failed to meet the legal criteria will receive their paperwork back so they can fix any mistakes and refile their applications. The Federal Registration Administration promises no problems or delays in filing the documents of these organizations.
Natalya Vishnyakova, a senior supervisor from the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation said that "there's no panic or crackdown, which had been predicted by many. Those who did not file their paperwork on time will have plenty of opportunities to do so in the nearest future, and in the meantime, they are allowed to exist as legal entities and conduct their administrative work."
Many foreigners wonder - why register non-profits? The first answer that comes to mind is that the United States and other Western countries have similar regulations. In fact, the Russian NGO law is less strict than the current U.S. law, which requires the incomes of non-profit organizations' employees to be publicly available. Guidestar and other services publish this data online. Registration of a non-profit in America involves expensive legal paperwork and an audit to prove that the entity is created for non-for-profit purposes. None of the above is required by the new Russian law.
The Russian NGO law came as a delayed response to complete chaos in this sphere of Russia's civil society. The most outrageous example is the Russian Orthodox Church's business practices during the 1990s. For years, the church exploited its non-profit tax exempt status to trade oil, liquor and tobacco. Many other charities were running major electoral campaigns with foreign financing; these schemes would constitute illegal skirting of campaign finance laws in the U.S. -- imagine if President George W. Bush's re-election had been sponsored by Saudi foundations, or if Senator John Kerry's campaign had been funded by France.
Discovery Institute's Real Russia Project special report states that this NGO law simplifies registering charities, separating non-profits from partisan politics and the for-profit sector. It also restricts direct foreign financing of Russian NGOs because too many of them have been involved in election campaigns or been exploited for espionage. It also eliminates opportunities for advanced money laundering schemes.
Russia is hardly a country with thriving philanthropy, but it is home to some 450,000 NGOs; it is hard to believe that all of them are engaged in legitimate charitable and educational work. Naturally, the Western media boils the issue down to the simplest of contradictions. But why are Americans so concerned with foreigners being able to donate to Russian non-profits? Isn't it time for Russians to learn how to spend their oil money on real human development?
Russia Blog wishes all the best to employees of foreign NGOs in Russia in filing their paperwork. If anyone needs practical advice or legal assistance in getting their paperwork in shape -- please feel free to contact Yuri Mamchur, Director of the Real Russia Project, for a referral to specialists in Russian law who would be able to help with preparing and filing this paperwork.
On Tuesday, October 24, 2006, we received a letter from the Doctors Without Borders Moscow office, which had a few comments about this post. Here's the text of the letter:
Dear Mr Mamchur,
I read with interest your piece on russiablog.org about the NGO registration process. But for the record, I wanted to correct a couple of inaccuracies in your piece in relation to the organisation Doctors without Borders (MSF) for which I work. I would be grateful if you could amend your internet piece.
1. In contrast to your suggestion in the first paragraph, all three MSF offices in Russia (Dutch, Belgian, French) did file their paperwork before the 18.10.06 deadline. This can be seen from the lists that Rosregistr itself published. One office submitted papers on 4.10.06, and the other two on 11.10.06.
2. While you are right in saying that the section based in Holland received registration, you made a small error in suggesting that the Dutch and French were therefore still to be registered. It was the Belgian and the French.
The good news is that as of 24.10.06 the French section has also been registered.
All the best,
Medecins Sans Frontieres Press Officer