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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tax Law Squeezes Rights Groups

Virtually nothing has stopped a determined band of women from demanding that the military improve its treatment of troops, as the plastic binders bulging with case records in their dusty office show.

For nearly a decade, the Soldiers' Mothers Committee has withstood the wrath of high-ranking officers, military prosecutors and defense ministers, including the current one, who this month all but accused the group of encouraging soldiers to desert their units.

But the latest conflict with the government has given even the battle-hardened leaders of this organization pause.

A little-noticed regulation issued in November specified for the first time what types of foreign grants are exempt from taxes: those intended to promote culture, improve the environment and advance scientific research or education. Conspicuously missing from the list was any mention of human rights or democracy.

The new rule could allow the government to claim nearly one-fourth of the money given through grants to human rights organizations such as the Soldiers' Mothers Committee.

"It is horrible that activities that promote civil society and help make Russia a democracy are not included on this list of activities that qualify for tax-free grants," said Arseny Roginsky, chairman of Memorial, one of Russia's most respected human rights groups.

Some activists said they fear that the regulation is part of a recent display of anti-Western sentiment in the Kremlin after more than a year of determined efforts by President Vladimir Putin to ally himself with Western leaders.

While the basic thrust of Putin's foreign policy is still solidly pro-West, it appears to be fraying at the edges with Russia's recent decisions to expel Peace Corps workers, a European mission to monitor human rights in Chechnya and an American labor activist.

Roginsky said the regulation on grants is another reminder that Russia's suspicion about foreign organizations lingers even as it proclaims itself the West's new friend.

"The Russian authorities do not sympathize with Western foreign foundations," said Roginsky, whose group is largely financed by the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation.

"They think that Western foundations want something that is not written in their papers ... such as control," he said.

Even if it is not enforced, activists said, the new regulation boosts the government's leverage over human rights groups. "What sources of funds do these organizations have besides foreign grants?" said Mara Polyakova, director of the Western-funded Council of Independent Legal Expertise, which advises nonprofit groups. "For many of them, it is a question of survival."

Galina Zinkova, a Finance Ministry specialist, said the regulation was adopted to comply with the limits on tax-free grants established by the new Tax Code. "It is not that we just took those fields and programs from our heads," she said.

Some leaders of nonprofit groups saw a hint of a more restrictive policy in Putin's remarks to them in June 2001. He told them their dependence on foreign funds "doesn't do us credit."

"Our civil society must develop its own base," he said. "The state in Russia has grown strong enough to provide and support the rights and liberties of its citizens."

The women at the Soldiers' Mothers Committee take issue with that. As they see it, they wage a lonely battle against the abuses of the military against its own, including a widespread pattern of beatings and violence that claims hundreds of lives a year.

The group depends on grants from the Council of Europe -- of which Russia is a member -- and the German government, each of which contributes about $15,000 a year, according to the group's accountant. Private donors kick in about another $10,000.

The group doesn't look to the government for moral support, either. Pavel Grachev, the defense minister from 1992 to 1996, once characterized the group as a public menace.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said this month that servicemen should rely on their commanding officers or military prosecutors, not "the so-called Committee of Soldiers' Mothers."

"Who supports them? What do they live on?" he said.

At the office of the group's Moscow chapter, workers took Ivanov's disapproval in stride.

"Defense ministers come and go," said Maria Fedulova as she punched the buttons on the telephone trying to discover what happened to a 20-year-old soldier who disappeared from his unit in October.

"And we stay. We've been here 14 years, and we're permanent."