NGOs Caught In Visa Limbo

At a recent conference, international relations analysts discussed the likelihood of the United States going to war with Iran. Despite the professional setup of the event, some of the foreign experts, luminaries in their fields, were violating Russian law. In theory, they could have been fined and deported for entering the country for a purpose other than the one stated on their visas.

The problem was that several analysts had arrived on tourist visas, although their busy schedules precluded sightseeing, and others carried visas issued at the invitation of Russian nongovernmental organizations not involved in the conference.

The conference's organizers, two respected international NGOs that asked not to be identified to avoid legal difficulties, said they should not be blamed. The fault, they and other foreign NGOs said, lies with Russia's stringent NGO law.

Federal law makes it clear that a foreigner must stick to the purpose of the visit as stated on the visa. A foreigner who enters for any other purpose can be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($215) and face deportation under the Code of Administrative Violations.

The NGO law, introduced in 2006, stipulates that all organizations have to register under tough new rules with the Federal Registration Service, an agency under the Justice Ministry that controls NGOs, political parties and religious organizations.

Before, foreign NGOs had been registered with the State Registration Chamber, a much smaller entity that handled visa issues for both foreign companies and nongovernmental organizations.

The State Registration Chamber now only assists commercial organizations to get visa invitations for foreign guests.

"They now refuse to help us with visas because we are no longer accredited with them," said Jens Siegert, head of the Moscow office of the Heinrich BЪll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

The Federal Registration Service, on the other hand, also refuses to help because it is not authorized to deal with visa issues.

The only official way that foreign NGOs can now bring in foreigners to their events is by teaming up with a Russian partner organization that has special accreditation with the Foreign Ministry.

But getting invitations in this way is onerous both in terms of paperwork and time, and the process usually takes at least a month, several NGOs said.

The wait for a visa continues even after that because some Russian consulates have started demanding 10 working days to process the paperwork, significantly more time than before. The government has linked the 10-day wait to a visa agreement signed with the EU last year. The agreement actually only stipulates a maximum 10-day wait.

"It is practically impossible to stick to the rules," Siegert said. "When you organize a conference, there is no way to pin down each participant two months in advance."

Many NGOs said they resorted to tourist visas, knowing that they face a legal risk.

"We usually ask the hotels where we hold our conferences to organize invitations," said Christian Forstner, head of the Moscow office of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German think tank linked to Bavaria's ruling party, the Christian Social Union.

To avoid trouble, Forstner said, he sends a cover letter to the embassy that explains the visa is needed so the applicant can participate in a conference or other event. "We always send an extra letter to the consul or ambassador," he said.

Cooperating with a local NGO to get an invitation is sometimes not an option because few groups have the necessary Foreign Ministry accreditation.

"We get many requests, but we have to decline almost all of them," said Yelena Zhemkova, executive director of Memorial, a human rights group that has exposed abuses in Chechnya and elsewhere.

She said that while her organization has the accreditation, it lacks the resources to process the paperwork. Also, Memorial needs to protect its own legal status. "We do not want to violate any laws, even though we do not like this particular law and do not think that it is good," Zhemkova said.

The Federal Registration Service refused to comment for this article. A spokesman for the Federal Migration Service, which tracks all foreign visitors, referred all questions to the State Duma.

Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy and deputy head of the Duma's Social and Religious Organizations Committee, defended the NGO law as a way to ensure Russia's sovereignty. "In a sovereign country, a foreign organization should not have the right to invite foreigners," he said.

He said foreign NGOs in countries like the United States were also barred from offering visa support to foreigners.

Yet, in countries like Germany it is a simple matter for a foreign NGO to invite a guest from outside the European Union. As a registered association in Germany, the group usually just needs to provide a written assurance that it will cover any of the invitee's costs, a German Embassy official said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

The official also said registering an NGO in Germany was "fairly easy."

NGOs have complained that setting up a noncommercial organization in Russia has become more complicated and expensive than setting up a company.

The government has rarely challenged foreign NGO officials over the stated purposes of their visits. In one exception, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth and two colleagues were denied Russian visas in February because they had provided "intentionally false information about the purpose of their visit," the Foreign Ministry said at the time.

Roth, who had intended to attend the presentation of a critical report in Moscow, initially indicated in his visa application that he was coming to Russia as a tourist, but also indicated that he planned to meet journalists and representatives of NGOs, the ministry said. Roth's application was denied. When he and two colleagues reapplied for a business visa, their invitations were issued by the Agriculture Ministry, and they were identified as "managers" of McKinsey Company, the ministry said. Because of the false information, the visas were denied, it said.

Roth accused the government of using visa regulations for political ends.

The government, meanwhile, is busy setting up its own political organizations in the West. One of them is the Center of Social and Conservative Policy, headed by United Russia executive Boris Gryzlov, which is opening offices in the United States and countries in Europe and Asia.

Betrand Malmendier, the center's Berlin-based representative, said working conditions for a Russian organization in European countries might be easier than for a European organization in Russia. "This is undoubtedly a problem," said Malmendier, a lawyer.

He also said visas were not a problem for him because his guests were mostly government officials who do not need visas.

As a solution for foreign NGOs in Russia, Malmendier suggested that the EU press ahead with a proposal for a visa-free regime with Russia.

Moscow has identified a visa-free regime as a priority in its cooperation with Europe, but EU officials say further negotiations must first be carried out on issues of increased security features in passports and the exchange of databases.