Stifling Dissent? Some Say Russia Pressures Aid Groups

Oksana Chelysheva stood outside the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow trying to look cheery in the blustery late January cold. Just moments before, the court had ruled the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a nongovernmental organization that Chelysheva leads, a terrorist organization.

The ruling, said Chelysheva, is part of a steady campaign by the Kremlin to erode human rights in Russia. It coincided with the one-year anniversary of a new law to limit the ability of nongovernmental organizations, or NFOs, to receive foreign funding and operate independently.

According to Amnesty International, which opposes the ruling, the RCFS, which used to monitor the human rights situation in Chechnya, was closed down last October largely due to the new anti-extremism and NGO laws that made it illegal for an organization to be headed by a person convicted of "extremist" activities.

The executive director of the RCFS, Stanislav Dmitrievskii, had been convicted on Feb. 3, 2006, on "race hate" charges for publishing nonviolent articles by Chechen separatist leaders. He was, said Amnesty International, convicted for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and should not have faced trial in the first place.

"It's evident that a very dangerous precedent has been set right now for other human rights organizations in Russia," Chelysheva said. "It's a warning for all the other NGOs. And it's a warning for Europe and the free world in general, because it's clear that, after this complete neglect for all the support we have obtained from public figures from all the continents, it doesn't matter."

Based in the provincial town of Nizhny Novgorod, where famed Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov spent years in exile, the RCFC is a small operation of fewer than 15 people, 10 of whom who work out of Chechnya.

But the organization has a large impact, monitoring human rights violations in Chechnya and channeling daily news and information out of the war-shattered province. It is the only organization of its kind and, because of its sensitive work, it has attracted the particular ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chelysheva, who runs the organization along with Dmitrievskii, said part of the reason the organization has been outlawed is its focus on Chechnya.

With a mandatory draft still in place, the war in Chechnya remains a highly contentious issue for Russians, and one with particular resonance.

The military is notorious for dedovschina, or extreme hazing and torture. Last year, 16 soldiers were officially listed as killed in hazing incidents and 276 others committed suicide.

The RCFS doesn't just limit its work to providing news out of Chechnya. It also works to help torture survivors.

One woman, a former psychologist in Chechnya who refused to give her name out of fear of further persecution, said the society saved her life.

"I was tortured with electric shock," she said. "They hanged me. They used different kinds of torture. They beat me up severely. If they cease to exist, we will become absolutely helpless and unprotected."

The fate of Russia's estimated 450,000 NGOs remains uncertain. According to the new law, all are required to follow the dictates of a new government agency staffed by intelligence and security agents.

Registration with the new agency is a byzantine process that often allows the agency to reject the legality of the NGO for an obscure technical reason. Once registered, the NGOs are subject to scrutiny. Meetings are to open to agency officers and all foreign funding must be listed.

NGOs that deal with sensitive issues, like the war in Chechnya, are facing the worst pressure, with some no longer being allowed to register.

Presidential adviser Ella Panfilova, who advised Putin on this law, said that while it's not perfect, critics are overreacting.

"Today the law is not worse than in any other countries," she said. "It's not good. I cannot say that it is great or perfect. It's mediocre. But it doesn't have anything terrible in it right now. The problem is how it will be applied. … There are many articles which are very vague."

For many Russians, life has only improved under Putin. With oil revenues driving the economy forward at a rate of 7 percent a year, those living in the bigger cities are finding themselves living at a higher standard of living. The booming economy coincides with Russia taking a larger role in world affairs -- including Putin's harsh criticism of U.S policies.

Paranoia of U.S. involvement is part of the problem for NGO's like RCFC.

In the wake of Ukraine's orange revolution, which was widely regarded as orchestrated by the United States, many Russians have developed what is called 'orange paranoia. Many support Putin's law against nonprofits, and think Russia is already a democratic country and that the law is necessary for maintaining autonomy.

"I think most NGOs are already checked in Russia, but it should be fixed in law because now they are working in other ways [that are] not legal," said Dmitry Lukichyoo, an 18-year-old economics student in Moscow. "Only we should choose our leaders and not do like the Ukraine, where, like we all think, the government was brought by USA."

Ludmilla Alexeeva is Russia's oldest and best-known human rights activist. The vibrant 78-year-old heads the prominent Moscow Helsinki Group, which monitors human rights in Russia.

Alexeeva points out that activists like her managed to work under the Soviet Union, when repression was much worse. But while there are no longer bread lines in Moscow or dissidents being sent off to Siberia, Alexeeva said that the law has created a very familiar atmosphere of fear among human rights activists.

This fear, she said, is the very intention of the new law, a tactic that will undermine the nascent foundation of connections and stability that the country's NGOs have managed to achieve in the 15 years since the fall of communism.

"The real danger is that the law will attack the network of connections between NGOs," she said. "This will be destroyed, of course, and it's very sad because … we worked hard to build such a network. Our human rights activities are successful because we are networked, not separate organizations."

Chelysheva and her colleagues held an impromptu protest after their court date, attended by less than 30 people. Security officers represented more than a third of the attendees.

She said that the group will soldier on, reregistering under a new name in Europe to circumvent the ruling. But she is pessimistic about the future of Russia.

"We are already in our past," she said. "It's not just the time of the Soviet Union. It's not just the Communist Party who is in charge now. People who are in power now, they belong to this military clique. What they are trying to protect is their own self-interest. Right now, we are living in an almost authoritarian state that is run by this military clique."