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Russian civil rights groups see threat in Putin oversight

The State Duma is to consider a series of regulations that could restrict or heavily tax funding for Russia's NGOs.

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Veronika Marchenko spends much of her time locked in struggle with the Russian government.

But she insists there's nothing unpatriotic about her group, Mothers' Right, which provides legal aid and advocacy services to parents whose sons have died in peacetime military service.

"We find ourselves perpetually in a state of opposition," she says. "Our main goal is to make Russian officials work effectively and according to the law. Unfortunately they do not always do so, and without Mothers' Right, many bereaved parents would be left with no legal assistance at all."

Ms. Marchenko's position seems to dovetail neatly with President Vladimir Putin's emphasis, in a May speech, on the need to build "a mature democracy and a developed civil society" to speed Russia's integration with the modern world.

But Mr. Putin sent chills through Russia's small community of human rights, environmental, and independent journalists' groups by adding this proviso: "Far from all [nongovernmental organization] are geared toward defending the people's real interests," he said. "For some [the priority is] obtaining funding from influential foreign and domestic foundations. For others, it is servicing dubious groups and commercial interests."

A package of tax code amendments presently before the pro-Kremlin State Duma would give teeth to Putin's thought by creating a commission to control funding for NGOs. According to the draft regulations, all foreign or domestic donors will have to go through a tough registration process and provide full details of how the money will be spent. Any "unregistered" contributions are to be taxed at a rate of 24 percent.

As with many Kremlin initiatives under Putin, the proposed rules to govern NGOs have triggered a sharp debate between experts who see them as normal government supervision over social institutions, and those who fear it heralds an authoritarian crackdown on independent grassroots activism.

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