Overview of new civil society laws in 2017
The year 2017 will see the introduction of a number of laws that regulate the work of the NGO sector and institutions such as public community councils and chambers. The Agency of Social Information has produced the following brief overview of the main legislation, together with draft legal instruments that could be finalised next year.
New status for NGOs
In December 2015, Vladimir Putin issued an instruction to Russia’s Parliament to amend legislation so that NGOs could be granted the status of “providers of socially useful services”, as well as affording them certain privileges and preferential incentives. The federal law conferring this new status was approved in July this year and will enter into force from the start of 2017. In his annual address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian President urged its members “not to be greedy and whilst not abandoning their normal preferences for public institutions alone” to involve NGOs as much as possible in social services provision. “Let’s just say NGOs never lose sight of the importance of having empathy in their dealings with people”.
Under this law, “a provider of socially useful services” is a socially orientated NGO (SONGO) which has provided good quality services for one year or more, is not classified as a “foreign agent” and has no tax or fee arrears, or any other arrears in payments required under Russian law.
A list of socially useful services has been published in an official Government Order (No.1096, dated 27 October 2016). An NGO which is classed as a “provider of socially useful services” will be included on a register for a period of two years, and will be able to continue as a service provider once this timeframe has elapsed, subject to undergoing a simplified approvals procedure.
Privileges for “providers of socially useful services”
A law will come into force in January 2017 outlining a number of regulatory support measures to be given to “providers of socially useful services”. Providers will receive State financial and material support over a two-year period. In addition, NGOs that are included on the register will be entitled to information support, as well as help with general training and additional vocational training for their staff and volunteers.
The new law aligns the new status and time span of NGO support with one another, said the Bill’s author, Olga Batalina, an MP in the State Duma. The status of “providers of socially useful services” will be granted to NGOs for a two-year period and entitle them to receive a package of support measures. This will ensure that their budget for this timeline reflects the amount of subsidy required to provide relevant services, Batalina stressed.
Regulating the work of Public Chambers
A law will come into effect in 2017 stipulating that regional Public Chambers and the work of their administrators be financed through State budget entities. Those who introduced the relevant amendments to this federal law believe that this new Public Chamber financing arrangement will allow civil society institutions to develop, provide the necessary level of protection of the rights and legitimate interests of the ordinary citizen, as well as “helping to enhance regional socio-economic development”.
A lack of regional authority funding has hindered the work of Public Chambers, according to Natalya Vavilova, Chair of the Presidium of Public Chambers and a member of the Federation’s Public Chamber. “In some regions, Public Chamber budget reserves are very solid (more than 1,000,000 roubles) – in others, it’s only a few thousand. There are so many different approaches to financing across the country which makes it very difficult for us to carry out our allotted responsibilities”, Vavilova added.
The proposed legislation amends the law on “General principles governing the organisation and work of Public Chambers in the Russian Federation” adopted in 2016 and, in particular, defines the aims and objectives of Public Chambers, regulates the way they can be formed, as well as determining the main types of activities in which they can engage and the level of their authority.
The Green Belt in large cities
A new law will come into force in January 2017 that regulates the creation of forest park “green belts” in large cities and guarantees the right of citizens to a healthy environment. However, this measure has been roundly criticised by environmentalists who are adamant that the law will not increase the conservation status of forest areas and that it will result in the legalised theft of forest land in the future.
“In terms of protecting forests and other natural areas in large cities, the law is just a meaningless empty shell. In general, it does nothing to enhance the conservation status of these areas, apart from an increase in a few fines and penalties. However, its effect could lead to the loss of forest areas as a public asset, as well as removing public access for reasons which have nothing to do with the very nature of forests”, said Alexey Yaroshenko, Head of Forestry at Greenpeace (Russia).
Draft legal instruments
Officials and NGOs
In 2017, the State Duma will discuss a law allowing State and municipal employees to “become members of civil organisations, of housing, house-building, garage, horticultural, market-gardening and holiday consumer cooperatives, as well as property owners’ associations. In addition, State and municipal employees will be allowed to participate on a voluntary basis in the running of named NGOs as sole executive authority, or by being part of the organisation’s collective management structure with the approval of their employer as laid out under State legislation and regulations or municipal Act”, says the Bill’s Explanatory Note.
Broadening the list of socially useful services provided by SONGOs
In December this year, the Russian President instructed his Government to submit proposals to amend legislation that will extend the list of socially useful services provided by SONGOs by “establishing international (inter-ethnic) cooperation, social and cultural adaptation and integration of migrants, the preservation and protection of the identity, culture, language and traditions of the Russian people, and the development of eco-tourism”.
During discussions on the package of measures aimed at providing phased NGO access to State funding, experts bemoaned the fact that NGOs provided so few services in the field of culture, said Elena Topoleva. “It was therefore very important that we took this decision because it had to be done. I’m pleased that the list is to be broadened, although I think it will need further refinement at some point in the future”, she added.
Ways of assessing the effectiveness of public councils
Updated methodology and criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of work undertaken by public councils by Ministries and Departments is to be prepared by the Federation’s Public Chamber and the Government’s Experts’ Council. A strategy conference to discuss both methodology and criteria is planned for the beginning of 2017 and will be attended by representatives from public councils and their most active members, as well as those from federal bodies and executive agencies.
“The scope of civil councils’ agenda is rather thin, bringing together public issues and concerns, public scrutiny and improving the effectiveness of authorities by cooperating in problem solving and decision-making discussions. Here, there’s a variety of work that’s linked to the civil sector and sectoral know-how. Evaluating the work of public councils is not the same thing as assessing the interaction between authorities and public councils”, said Mikhail Abyzov, Russia’s Open Government Minister.