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Human rights activists, western countries find checks of Russian NGOs worrisome

March 28, 2013, 15:09 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The ongoing checks of Russian non-governmental organizations by prosecutors have drawn a very sharp reaction from Russian human rights activists and European states. Some experts argue that this situation may cause a cooling in relations with the Western countries, first and foremost with Russia’s main partner in Europe – Germany.

Under the law on NGOs any Russian non-commercial organization that gets money from outside the country and is and participating in political activities at the same time shall have the status of a “foreign agent,” liable to stricter financial and other control by the state. Defiance of the requirements found in this piece of legislation adopted in July 2012 shall be punishable with major fines and even imprisonment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer said that it really mattered, whose money NGOs were using. “As the popular saying goes ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’ This is a hard fact. Nobody ever throws money away just for nothing,” he said.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office launched massive checks of NGOs in the middle of this month. They have continued to this day. According to media reports, on March 27 there were 90 NGOs inspected in 24 regions of Russia. Many NGOs reported inspections by prosecutors: the Moscow office of the international organization Human Rights Watch, the Russian office of Transparency International, and the organizations Civic Assistance, Public Verdict and Agora.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office said back on March 19 that the inspections of NGOs were routine and scheduled ones. The Justice Ministry’s press-service has explained to ITAR-TASS that the Justice Ministry is probing into the NGOs compliance with the law on foreign agents. In part, the NGOs are being checked for conformity with the goals declared in the charter and with Russian legislation.

The presidential council for the promotion of civil society and human rights has addressed Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika with a request for explaining the reason for massive checks of the NGOs. Top PGO officials were invited to take part in a special meeting of the human rights council devoted to that problem.

The head of the human rights organization Agora, Pavel Chikov, claims that for a prosecutor’s inspection to begin there has to be a complaint about legal violations from a legal entity. “I do not believe that the prosecutors instantly received reports about legal violations by the thousands of NGOs they are inspecting at the moment,” the portal quotes Chikov as saying.

The leaders of the fund Public Verdict on Wednesday sent an official query to the Moscow prosecutor’s office asking if it had any evidence about instances of alleged violations by the NGO.

In the meantime, the checks have caused a very strong reaction not only from human rights activists, but also from the European authorities. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherin Ashton said that she was “very concerned with the ongoing actions of the authorities against the NGO community.”

In Berlin, a Russian embassy official was invited to the Foreign Ministry for a discussion. German diplomats said that hindrances to the operation of German funds might considerably complicate bilateral relations.

The French Foreign Ministry invited the Russian ambassador to a meeting to put questions about what was going on.

The US embassy in Moscow has said it is following with great concern the reports about unprecedented checks of the NGOs all over Russia.

Germany’s reaction was most painful of all. In the course of the massive checks Russian prosecutors visited two German organizations. In Moscow, they looked into the activity of the Friedrich Ebert foundation, supported by the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, and in St. Petersburg they visited the local office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has the backing of the Christian-Democratic Union. The inspectors leafed through the charter documents and activity reports. In St. Petersburg, the Adenauer Foundations’ PCs were taken away.

"The work of our office is practically paralyzed. We did not expect such a thing to happen. That they treat in this manner organizations that engage in improving bilateral relations is a very alarming signal," head of Adenauer Foundation Russia, Lars-Peter Schmidt, told the daily Kommersant.

“As for the groundless criticism against Russia’s laws on NGOs are concerned, they were adopted in keeping with the existing international practices. Allegations to the effect Russia is reportedly violating the assumed international human rights commitments are utterly unacceptable. But we shall be always prepared for a meaningful and professional dialogue in a climate of mutual respect,” the Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights commissioner, Konstantin Dolgov, told the daily.