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   September 23
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Analysis & Opinion
25.01.10 Money For The Needy?
By Svetlana Kononova

The Russian State Duma has approved a new bill in its first reading that proposes implementing more support for non-governmental organizations. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s initiative could mark the beginning of a thaw in the political climate in Russia. But some critics doubt that the new proposals will really work.

The key idea of the project is the concept of “socially-oriented NGOs,” which means NGOs that are beneficial to the Russian society. The list of “socially-oriented NGOs” in the bill includes organizations working in various fields: from charity, environmental control and the protection of Russia’s historical and cultural heritage, to those providing assistance, such as education and legal advice, for the vulnerable or underprivileged. This list may be expanded in future. A very important aspect of the bill is that human rights organizations have finally been included in the list of NGOs eligible to receive government support.

The forms of government support will vary. According to the draft, NGOs are eligible for grants and other kinds of financial help, tax remissions and free consultations. They will be able to use state or municipal property as well. Moreover, the Russian government promises to help train NGO staff and volunteers. Additionally, the new bill will give some tax benefits to donors who support NGOs financially.

More than 200,000 NGOs in Russia will receive government support if the new bill is approved in the final reading, a State Duma press release claimed. NGO registers will be put in place, so that government support is provided transparently and publically. These registers will include full information on an NGO, such as name, address, reference number, type, and the volume and terms of support. The bill received 390 votes for and 57 against.

Most experts believe that the new draft will have a positive impact on the work of non-governmental organizations in Russia, but critics have drawn attention to the unconvincing aspects of the bill. “Civil society in Russia is young and still undeveloped, and it therefore needs a favorable environment to evolve,” said Nina Tagankina, a representative of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the largest and oldest human rights organizations in the country. “The new bill seems to create these significant opportunities,” she added.

Tagankina said that some positive changes in the law regulating NGOs’ activities in Russia have been made since August. For example, many non-governmental organizations were finally granted the opportunity to extend rent agreements with the owners of state and municipal property. Moreover, reports and audit police have become less strict.

Ekaterina Khmeleva, an environmental legal adviser at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Russia, agreed that the new draft would be potentially beneficial for NGOs. “Only a few non-governmental organizations receive state help at the moment,” she said, “the new bill could potentially establish uniform rules for everybody.”

As environmental and wild life protection is deemed as a “socially-oriented activity” according to the draft, WWF would be in line to receive all the benefits declared in the document. “It looks like the government has really started paying attention to NGO needs,” Khmeleva continued. “But some clauses of the bill cannot work in real life until other drafts are approved. For example, there are tax benefits for donors mentioned in the bill, but they would probably not receive any benefits until the general tax code is amended.”

A representative of human rights organization Amnesty International who wished to remain anonymous was much more skeptical about the new bill: “We need some time to see what happens to see whether it works or not. But generally speaking, intrusion into NGO work by the government should be limited.” According to this point of view,
state support and state control are different sides of the same coin.

Nowadays more than 300,000 NGOs are registered in Russia, funded both internationally and domestically. However, comparatively fewer people are involved in their activities than in Western countries. This could be explained by several factors. Firstly, volunteering is not popular in Russia because of social stigmatization. Many people regard volunteer work as another form of fraud and therefore have no regard for it. Secondly, most charitable and non-commercial organizations have limited budgets with which to hire employees. “Unfortunately, non-commercial organizations do not have any significant impact on the job market in Russia,” said Anna Chukseeva, a spokesperson at, one of the largest job search Internet portals in the country. “Although we provide a free service for charities, they make up for less than one percent of all the vacancies placed on our Web site,” she said.

Nor do jobseekers show a great deal of passion for NGO work. The main reason for this is that salaries in the non-commercial sector are half those offered in commercial companies. And only a few people are interested in volunteering. “The response to volunteer vacancies is very low,” Chukseeva said. Therefore, if the new bill promising financial support for NGOs is approved, it might stimulate the non-commercial job sector in Russia, creating new jobs.

The history of NGOs in post-Soviet Russia is quite short. After the Soviet Union collapsed there were less than 1,000 non-governmental organizations in the country, so there has been some clear progress since then. While in the 1990s charities and other non-commercial associations were located predominantly in the capital and big cities, now they have spread across the whole country.

The structure of NGOs has changed as well. When ten to 15 years ago, most non-commercial organizations focused on human rights and environmental protection, nowadays its activities have become more varied, covering art, culture, education, science and other fields. But can this really be called “development?” At the same time as the new draft bill was being discussed in the State Duma, Russia was downgraded from a “partly free” to a “not free” country by Freedom House, an independent democracy watchdog.

So the question is: will loosening NGO legislation and supporting “socially-oriented NGOs” really make the Russians free?
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