Vladimir Petrov, "Killing Several Birds With a 'Spy Stone'? Russian Civil Society Under Ongoing Attack"
- KILLING SEVERAL BIRDS WITH A ‘SPY STONE’?
Russian civil society under ongoing attack
By Prof. Vladimir Petrov, Political Scholar, Moscow, Feb 2006
The recent British spy scandal in Moscow, highlighted by the
state-controlled Russian TV, is nearly forgotten, - at, least, no reaction
followed from the British government, or other Western governments. The same
goes for Russian and Western public, who seem to underestimate the
significance of what happened in January.
TV footage did not give clear evidence of espionage – a person called
“British Embassy offi-cial” was shown from the back, and was not shown as
caught on the spot, as they usually do with real spies. But, more
importantly, Russian authorities linked the alleged ‘spies’ with the Russian
NGO activities, without any substantial justification.
Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed, at least twice, that
Russian NGOs are being financed by Western intelligence, - again, without
any substantiation. The fact that an Embassy official, accused of espionage,
was signing papers authorising grants for Russian charities and public
foundations, does not mean that the aid was offered by intelligence
or-ganisations. Technical assistance, including support to NGOs, has been
provided to Russia since early 1990s on behalf British, US, etc.
governments, in accordance with bilateral agree-ments.
Not to say about common understanding among G8 leaders that civil society is
an indispensa-ble element of a democratic society and, as such, should not
be subject to excessive control. But it looks like Russian authorities,
after democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, want to prevent the
same developments in Russia by imposing control on any civic activities in
It becomes evident that the ‘spy stone’ story was used to justify the new
Federal Law on NGO activities, which was drafted by President Putin’s
administration and pushed through the par-liament, despite wide-spread
protests in public and the media. Western leaders have also ex-pressed their
concern, but Vladimir Putin has finally approved the law on the eve of the
visit of German Chancellor, who was prepared to discuss this issue in
The draft Law, which restricts NGO activities legally and financially, was
launched after the Director of the Russian Security Service accused
International Republican Institute (IRI) of subversive activities in Eastern
Europe. This logic implies that all NGOs receiving foreign grants should be
labelled as suspicious. In the course of the ‘spy rock’ scandal, a number of
well-known human rights advocacy organisations, including the Moscow
Helsinki Group, were accused of being financed by Western intelligence.
The proponents of the Law on NGOs say that it contains the same provisions,
as in analogue laws and regulations of other democratic countries. But, in
the absence of independent judicial system in Russia, and in presence of
large-scale corruption and heavy bureaucratic control, this Law will make
organised civic activities in the country barely possible.
The restrictions on civil liberties in Russia are being imposed gradually,
but more and more tightly. Only public awareness in Russia and abroad could
reverse this process. The Moscow Helsinki Group has filed a case in court,
accusing Russian TV channel of defamation. And even the Public Chamber,
created by the Kremlin as an imitation of true public and parliamen-tary
control, tried to improve the Law on NGOs.
Russian civil society will, hopefully, fight for its rights and freedoms.
But the rest should also be aware of what is going on in a country, which is
so proud of its oil and gas, and of claimed economic prosperity and
stability. In mid 1990s Russia was admitted to the G7 club in ad-vance, to
support its transition to market economy and democracy. Now Western leaders,
who will attend the G8 summit in Russia, to discuss ‘energy security’ and
other things, are ex-pected to remind their Russian partner that it is
society that decides a state behaviour in a de-mocratic country, not the
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