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The Moscow Times, May 27, 2004

NGOs Warned They May Be Next

By Francesca Mereu

President Vladimir Putin issued a grim warning to nongovernmental organizations, accusing them of serving the interests of "dubious group and commercial interests" rather than those of the people.

NGOs expressed fear that Putin, after seeing critical television stations closed and opposition-minded parties forced out of the State Duma in his first term, intends to use his second term to go after NGOs.

They said Putin's remarks, made in the 15 minutes of Putin's state of the nation address devoted to democracy Wednesday, are a warning to NGOs to refrain from opposing the Kremlin and a signal to law enforcement to crack down on them.

While Putin did not name any NGOs, he made a clear reference to organizations like Open Russia, financed by jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which the Kremlin complains criticizes its policy toward Yukos but turns a blind eye to government claims the company doesn't pay its taxes.

"A different objective has been a priority for some of those organizations, namely, getting financing from influential foreign and domestic foundations, while others serve dubious group and commercial interests," Putin said. "But acute problems existing in the country and faced by its citizens go unnoticed.

"Thousands of civil associations and unions have existed and work constructively in this country, but far from all of them are targeted at defending the real interests of the people," he said.

The president said the voices of some human rights groups are often "unheard" when it comes to the violations of fundamental human rights and "infringements upon the real interests of the people."

"Actually, there is nothing strange about that. They cannot bite the hand that feeds them," Putin said.

Putin's comments represent a "worrisome trend or line that the Russian government is pursuing," said Anna Neistat, Moscow director for Human Rights Watch.

They could be interpreted as "a call for action" by law enforcement agencies or an order "maybe for tax inspectors to look closely at what is going on in NGOs," she said.

Putin is warning NGOs not to play an opposition role to the government and is trying "to undermine the work of NGOs in the eyes of ordinary Russians," Neistat said.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few liberal deputies left in the Duma, said Putin's criticism raises red flags. "That sounded like a veiled threat," he told reporters.

Sergei Mitrokhin, a co-leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said Putin gave "a clear command" to crack down on NGOs. "This is an alarming signal. He gave an example of how to build a militarized civil society," he said.

NGOs have accused Putin's administration in the past year of stifling media freedom, in particular limiting access to state-run television to opposition candidates during December's Duma elections and March's presidential vote. They harshly criticized the Kremlin earlier this year when a bill to ban most public demonstrations surfaced in the Duma.

Many NGOs have expressed concern that Putin's Russia is becoming increasingly undemocratic and say Khodorkovsky's detention is unfair and an example of selective prosecution.

"What disturbs Putin the most is that all NGOs are on Khodorkovsky's side and against the Kremlin. In the eyes of the president, this means that they are corrupt, unpatriotic and antigovernment," said Alexei Makarkin, analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

But Putin stressed in his speech that his criticism did not apply to all civil groups.

"Naturally, those examples do not give us cause to make accusations against all civil organizations, and I think that while the problems are inevitable, they are temporary," he said.

Putin also urged political parties to "closely" cooperate with NGOs. "Close contacts with the people, with society, can help improve the quality of popular representation at all levels," he said.

Putin also made cutting remarks about the West and its criticism of his presidency and his policy over Chechnya. He said some countries are trying to damage Russia's reputation by saying it is advancing toward authoritarianism.

"Far from everyone in the world wants to see an independent, strong and confident Russia. On the competitive global stage, all kinds of political, economic and informational pressure have been used. The strengthening of our statehood has intentionally been interpreted as authoritarianism," he said.

Putin said he will not review any of his policies because the "adherence to democratic values has been dictated by the will of the people and strategic interests of the Russian Federation."


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The Moscow Times, May 27, 2004

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