NGOs Split On Kremlin Civil Society Congress

As preparations move forward for next month's Kremlin-backed congress of Russian nongovernmental organizations, the country's most prominent human rights groups seem ever more divided on the issue of participation.

According to organizers, the $1.5 million Civic Forum is to help establish dialogue between the state and the fledgling NGO sector. Around 4,000 NGOs are to be invited.

At a news conference Friday, organizers said the Kremlin needed "advice and support from society for the upcoming difficult structural reforms."

"We need a functioning society, not a society of passive channel-surfers who don't believe anything depends on them," said the head of the organizing committee, Kremlin-connected political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky.

This argument seems to have convinced some of the country's most established and respected human rights groups, including Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Glasnost Defense Foundation. After intense negotiations, these organizations, which have often been intensely critical of the Kremlin, agreed last month to take part in organizing the forum.

But last week a group of prominent Moscow-based human rights advocates denounced the forum as a "Kremlin trap" and warned their colleagues that they risked losing their reputation by working so closely with the government.

"We shouldn't engage in dialogue with the government on the government's terms," State Duma deputy and rights activist Sergei Yushenkov said at a round table organized by the Sakharov Museum last Thursday.

Outspoken politician and rights activist Valeria Novodvorskaya accused her colleagues of becoming the Kremlin's "accomplices" in the operation to "mop up the remnants of [Russia's] democratic institutions." The editor of Express-Khronika, Alexander Podrabinek, called on NGOs to "keep their distance from the government" and engage in street demonstrations rather than dialogue. Another rights advocate, Glasnost Foundation head Sergei Grigoryants, said it was "shameful" to talk with the Kremlin.

The groups that opted for participation insisted they have received guarantees from the Kremlin that the forum would not be turned into a "cynical public-relations stunt."

According to Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, they also have received guarantees that there would be no attempts to bureaucratize civil society and pull it into the Kremlin's much-touted "vertical line of power." She also said the funding of the forum would be completely transparent.

The two-day conference, to be held at the Kremlin Congress Palace, is to open with a speech by President Vladimir Putin and continue with myriad round tables and working groups on problems from the juvenile penal system to tax breaks for NGOs and donors.

Pavlovsky said the forum would cost between 40 million and 50 million rubles ($1.4 million to $1.7 million). He said the money would come from unspecified sponsors, "Russian or foreign."

"The only one who will not fund it will be the government," he added.

Another committee member, respected consumer rights advocate Alexander Auzan, said a separate legal entity would conduct forum-related business, and a list of the amounts and sources of donations would be made public.