January 18, 2006

Russia’s Lavrov defends controversial NGO law

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday
defended a new law that introduces tight controls on
non-governmental organizations, which activists have called an
assault on their work.

In an open letter published in the Noviye Izvestia daily,
Sergei Lavrov said the law was fully in line with Western
practice, and that much of rights groups' criticism was

He was addressing specific criticism leveled by top Russian
human rights groups and sent to him in December, before
President Vladimir Putin approved the bill to bring it into

Global rights groups and many Western nations raised
concerns over the bill, and the news that Putin had signed the
bill into law a week ago filtered out only on Tuesday.

"The reality is that with the adoption of the new Russian
law there will be no dramatic changes in the activities of
NGOs," said Lavrov in his letter.

"In the law adopted by the Federal Assembly, no limits on
people's freedom and no bans on NGOs' activities are to be
introduced or could be introduced because that would contradict
the Russian constitution."

Activists say the law's limits on foreign funding for NGOs,
a ban on them being involved in "political activities" and an
obligation for them to re-register are unfair curbs.

Many activists say it is an attempt to bring NGOs under the
control of the Kremlin -- which has already cracked down on the
media, businessmen and other rival power bases -- before
elections in 2007-8.

The Kremlin says the law is necessary to stop criminals and
terrorists hiding under the cover of NGOs. But rights groups
have said it hands easy weapons to bureaucrats to shut down any
NGOs that the government disagrees with.

Lavrov admitted a lot would come down to the quality of law
enforcement. But he said: "This will not cause anyone any
particular problems."

The Kremlin was clearly embarrassed by the storm of Western
criticism that greeted the law. Putin ordered it to be watered
down, and his unpublicized signing of the bill was widely seen
as a bid to prevent German Chancellor Angela Merkel bringing it
up at a meeting between the two on Monday.

"In the best of Soviet traditions, the law was published at
the very moment when the head of the German government had left
Moscow," said Lev Ponomarev, head of the "For Human Rights"