About 40,000 community organizations will be deregistered

Starting a new political party has become an almost impossible task. Now it seems that it will also become difficult to use a community organization as an alternative platform. The Justice Ministry plans to deregister thousands of “inactive” non-government organizations.Two parallel processes have recently begun. A new superstructure for community organizations is taking shape: the Civic Chamber. At the same time, many non-government organizations created at the grass-roots level are being eliminated. A symbolic coincidence: on April 4, President Putin signed the Civic Chamber bill into law; that same day, Sergei Movchan, head of the recently-established Federal Registration Service (FRS), made a public appearance and announced his plans. At a meeting for the heads of FRS regional branches, Justice Minister Yuri Chaika described one FRS objective as follows: to get rid of “dead soul” non-government organizations. According to Chaika, Russia has over 40,000 of these – that’s a quarter of the total.

The arithmetic is simple: following mandatory taxpayer re-registration, completed in 2002, the Taxes and Duties ended up with a register of 107,000 community organizations. But the Justice Ministry has around 150,000 community organizations registered. Chaika stated authoritatively: “That means there are about 43,000 organizations which don’t really exist and should be eliminated.”

We attempted to find out how this culling will be done – and if there is any threat to non-government organizations which still permit themselves to oppose the Kremlin openly. President Putin’s annual address to parliament last year contained some harsh words about human rights groups; and those groups immediately encountered problems afterwards. The Duma and the Justice Ministry started accusing human rights groups of having links with organized crime and working for “the West’s money.” Now there is the prospect of legislation restricting foreign grants to non-government organizations.

The Justice Ministry itself has been affected by restructuring processes for the past year, as part of state administration reforms; but now the FRS has finally been established, and its objectives have been set. Will they be implemented immediately? FRS leaders categorically deny that the FRS is a “punitive” body.

Sergei Movchan told us: “We shall act strictly within the law, and within the framework of the functions prescribed for the FRS by legislation. We have been working on this, and now we shall work on it even more intensively. We have done surveys; in some regions there are several thousand such organizations. There are discrepancies between our data and the figures provided by the tax inspectorate. Therefore, our first task will be investigation; then there will be certain procedures, in which we take legal action to get these organizations deregistered.”

In fact, legal action is already under way – en masse, to all appearances, just like Justice Minister Chaika ordered.

Alexei Zhafiarov, head of the Justice Ministry’s directorate for the affairs of political parties, community organizations, and religions organizations: “I’m signing several requests each day for the court to deregister community organizations. And I’m withdrawing two or three a day, when organization members produce proof that their tax status is up-to-date.” According to Zhafiarov, there is no “definite goal of cutting 50,000 organizations”; but legal action has a remarkable disciplinary effect.

Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights organization, active human rights groups have nothing to fear from the impending “cull.” Since most of them receive grants, they keep their accounts (including their tax records) entirely in order. However, there are numerous regional organizations that “spring to life” on occasion and go dormant again. Ponomarev says: “Some groups deliberately decline to seek registration, due to the bureaucratic red tape involved. In Moscow, for example, any organization with a zero balance in its bank accounts only needs to report once a year. In Bashkortostan, such organizations have to report once a month. For Human Rights is an alliance including over 120 regional organizations and associations. But only a third of these are ‘active’ all the time – the rest become active on occasion.”

With the legislation introduced in late 2004, starting a new political party has become an almost impossible task. Now it seems that it will also become difficult to use a community organization as an alternative platform. Duma member Sergei Glaziev, for example, still hasn’t managed to register his For a Decent Life movement. So community activism, even outside of politics, is also being brought under state surveillance. Community activists will be faced with a choice: either operating within the framework of the new Civic Chamber, or ceasing their activities.