Kremlin Convinces NGOs to Play Ball

After weeks of low-profile haggling, several of the country's most prominent nongovernmental organizations -- often seen as critical of President Vladimir Putin's policies -- agreed Monday to take part in preparations for a Kremlin-sponsored NGO congress set for November.

Seven representatives of "opposition" civic groups consented to join a working group that is to help plan the congress after Kremlin officials accepted their set of conditions at a meeting Monday.

Critics have warned that the event may be an attempt by the Kremlin to take control of Russia's fledgling third sector. But the NGOs -- which include human rights groups Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group -- put forward a set of rules they said would keep the congress from becoming a tool in the Kremlin's hands. The conditions included transparent financing of the congress and a promise that there would be no election of any "representative organ."

"After our conditions were met, we saw no reason for refusing a dialogue with the president," Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, explained in a telephone interview. She said the NGOs would pull out if the terms were not met.

The congress, called Civic Forum, is meant to bring together the Kremlin and representatives of civil society and help them find ways to cooperate, said Sergei Markov, head of the organizing committee and director of the Institute for Political Studies.

The congress was initiated this summer by several Kremlin-connected groups, including the Public Opinion Fund and Gleb Pavlovsky's Effective Policy Fund, as well as the recently formed Media Soyuz and about 250 regional NGOs.

In addition to these groups, however, Markov said the organizers also wanted to attract "the most progressive and experienced organizations," such as the Glasnost Defense Foundation and Memorial. These groups, which are among Russia's most established, have lambasted the Kremlin for rights violations such as restrictions on press freedom and abuses by the military in Chechnya.

"We were met not exactly with outright hostility," Markov said, "but with a certain questioning attitude."

After the meeting, representatives of the sought-after NGOs said their doubts had been allayed for now.

One complaint, according to Memorial's Arseny Roginsky, had been that the Kremlin wanted to use middlemen to arrange the event.

"If the Kremlin is interested in dialogue with us, it should participate directly in organizing the congress and not through its affiliated think-tanks," said Roginsky, who has represented Memorial in the negotiations.

Alexeyeva said this demand, along with all the others, was met. The Kremlin delegated some of its highest-ranking bureaucrats to the organizing committee.

Other demands included transparency in the work of organizing committees nationwide, as well as transparent financing, Roginsky said.

"The most important demand was that there should be no representative body elected after the congress," he added. "Civil society has no structure and imposing a structure from above would mean hijacking it."

The 21-member organizing committee includes seven government officials, seven members of pro-Kremlin NGOs and seven members of "opposition" NGOs , including Alexeyeva, Roginsky and Glasnost Defense head Alexei Simonov.

But Markov made it clear that one of the congress's aims is to counterbalance established NGOs by giving more support to regional groups.

"The president is interested in how social organizations live all over Russia, not just in the 500 people that have monopolized Western grants," Markov said.

Yelena Topoleva, of the Agency for Social Information, said the event has sparked a flurry of excitement among regional NGOs, which are doing all they can to get to the Kremlin.

Topoleva said the approach to the congress varies from region to region, with government officials controlling the process in some places and grassroots efforts dominant in others.