NGOs Face Paperwork Hurdle

Twenty-five foreign NGOs must resubmit their registration documents within the next 48 hours or they will be forced to suspend activity, a senior Justice Ministry official said Monday.

The registration deadline, part of a controversial NGO measure signed into law in January, is Wednesday.

Sergei Movchan, head of the ministry's Federal Registration Service, stressed that the foreign nongovernmental organizations still had time to file the correct paperwork. But he added that the documents these groups submitted earlier had been deemed incomplete.

The registration service oversees political parties and NGOs. Russian NGOs do not need to register with authorities.

The NGO law, which came into effect in April, drew sharp criticism from Western governments, human rights groups and NGOs. Critics maintained the measure would cripple Russia's fledgling civil society, adding that it was reflective of the country's growing trend toward authoritarian government.

Russian authorities have countered that many groups posing as NGOs are actually criminal or terrorist organizations. They have also noted that popular uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia were helped along by foreign-backed NGOs.

Missing the Oct. 18 deadline does not mean groups cease to exist as legal entities.

Speaking at a news conference, Movchan explained that NGOs that miss the deadline would have until Jan. 18 to submit their registration applications. If NGOs missed that deadline, they would then be treated as if they had just arrived in Russia and be forced to begin the application process anew.

Movchan refused to name any of the 25 NGOs that must resubmit their paperwork. While speaking at a forum in Dresden, Germany last week, President Vladimir Putin said only two groups had been denied their registration. The president did not identify the groups.

A total of 80 foreign NGOs, including 42 U.S. organizations, had been registered as of Monday, Movchan said. Almost half of those are adoption agencies, he said. Another 82 NGOs have submitted their paperwork and are awaiting word from officials.

A complete list of the foreign NGOs that had been registered or rejected or were still under consideration will be posted Thursday on the registration service's web site, Movchan said.

The registration deadline is not the only hurdle foreign NGOs must contend with.

Movchan warned that the government could also strip groups already registered with the authorities of their registration if those groups failed to come up with financial accounting documents and a 2007 work plan by Oct. 31.

Allison Gill, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, said the work plan requirement was the most disturbing provision in the NGO law.

"We understand that, in general, the government has the right to ask for the balance sheets, but the other requirement means the unnecessary government interference into the work of NGOs," she said.

Movchan promised the state would not probe too deeply into NGOs' work.

"We will be very liberal while reviewing these documents," he said.