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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civil Society Should Not Be Smothered

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President Vladimir Putin's government looks like a democratic government. There is a parliament, there are courts, there are regional governors -- but all of them ultimately answer to the Kremlin. It is window dressing of democratic government, little more.

The same fate, it seems, now awaits Russia's nascent civil society. Instead of civil society, there will be a Public Chamber packed with Kremlin loyalists and celebrities. Instead of nongovernmental organizations, there will be organizations dependent on the government.

A bill that passed in a first reading Wednesday in the State Duma would require all nongovernmental organizations to register or reregister with the Justice Ministry. The government would oversee the organizations' activities and financial records, in addition to checks carried out by the tax authorities.

These measures, which would allow the authorities to keep tabs on every little group, presumably warm the hearts of all those former KGB agents now running the country.

Under the legislation, foreign funding would be illegal for any Russian organization that engaged in "political activities," which conceivably could range from programs that promote the rule of law, a free press or human rights to projects to protect the environment or improve small business practices. Foreign NGOs that operate in Russia would effectively have to leave.

In what seemed to be an effort to compensate for the loss of foreign money, the Duma last week amended the 2006 federal budget to provide $17.4 million for promoting civil society in Russia and defending the rights of Russians in the Baltics.

But only those organizations that support the Kremlin politically would likely be able to count on any government funding. Many others would have to shut down. There is little tradition in Russia of individual charity, and no financial incentive in it. Businesses tend to limit their support to projects that have official blessing.

The concept of nongovernmental organizations is relatively new to Russia, and many people do not understand their social role. In Soviet times, the state was responsible for providing health care, education and all other services, and most people still expect this from the state. Social activism was hardly encouraged. People were unable to hold their leaders accountable or take responsibility for their own lives.

A civil society is only beginning to grow, and it should be nurtured, not cut off at the roots. If the bill before the Duma reflects the Kremlin's fears of an Orange Revolution, then the people in power are more out of touch than they realize: Suppressing a nascent civil society will only make the advent of one more likely -- and sooner.