Russian NGOs say new bill will hurt cancer care

Russian NGOs Say New Bill Will Hurt Cancer Care, Environment, Businesses

by Kristina Gorelik, Daisy Sindelar

Civil society workers in Russia say a bill proposing new restrictions
on the country’s corps of nongovernmental organizations will have
far-reaching consequences for ordinary citizens.

The bill, which seeks to increase bureaucratic burdens on local NGOs
that receive foreign funding, was passed on July 13 by Russia’s lower
house of parliament, the State Duma.

Russia has seen repeated attempts in the past decade to curb the activities of NGOs.

But many NGO workers say that this time around, the stakes are higher
for ordinary Russians, who have gained a clearer sense of the important
services their organizations provide.

Nyuta Federmesser is the president of the hospice charity Vera, which
provides end-of-life care for elderly patients and enables the purchase
of so-called “orphan drugs” for the treatment of uncommon diseases — a
concept that was virtually unheard of in Russia even a decade ago.

“It was lobbying — and lobbying by NGOs specifically — that led to
laws being passed that allow the legal import of orphan drugs to treat
rare diseases,” Federmesser says. “Our foundation is currently lobbying
very actively for changes to be made to legislation on the circulation
of narcotic medications.

“Apparently our work is political, judging by [the NGO bill],” she
continues. “And all along I thought it was simply aimed at improving
quality of life for cancer patients and people who are sick and dying.”

Kremlin Clampdown

After an emotional season of opposition protests, the Kremlin appears
intent on clamping down on a wide spectrum of perceived critics —
including internationally funded NGOs that under the new legislation
will be branded as “foreign agents.”

??The Duma also passed legislation recriminalizing slander and libel, as
well as a controversial information law that critics say could make it
easier for authorities to censor websites.

But as Russia’s flourishing Internet community of activists and
civic-minded citizens continues to grow, it is unclear if the Kremlin
will be able to put the genie of public engagement back in the bottle.

Sergei Borisov heads the OPORA national organization of small and
medium-sized businesses. He says Russia has already put down too many
global roots to return to life as an isolated and autocratic state.

“We’re already living in a global world,” Borisov says. “We’ve opened
the door to the [World Trade Organization], and soon we’ll be a member
of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe.
We’re working more and more closely with our foreign colleagues. So to
make a watershed decision that isn’t clearly spelled out and is open to a
variety of interpretations is absolutely unreasonable. Why smear our
civil society institutions like this?”

The NGO bill has yet to get the nod from the upper house of parliament,
the Federation Council, and be signed into law by President Vladimir

But few doubt the upper chamber will pass the bill or that the
president, who earlier this week dismissed suggestions that the
legislation required additional clarification, will hesitate before
putting pen to paper.

‘Panicky Fear’

Igor Chestin, the director of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia, says
the rush to pass the legislation is the result of what he calls
lawmakers’ “panicky fear” of NGOs.

He says the bill was so hastily contrived that it even fails to
anticipate the fact that even Russian-funded institutions may be branded
with the “foreign agent” seal.

“The Russian Geographical Society, for example, receives money from
Russian businesses that are registered offshore,” Chestin says. “The
Sochi 2014 [Olympic] organizing committee will also become a ‘foreign
agent.’ So will the Hermitage Museum, whose foundation is actually
headed by a foreigner. The list goes on and on. These are consequences
that people simply haven’t thought about — probably because they’re not
very capable in such matters.”

Chestin, whose organization has been at the vanguard of Russia’s
fledgling environmental protection movement, for now appears to be
adopting a playful approach.

“We’ve decided to turn the phrase ‘foreign agent’ into a kind of mark of
quality,” he says. From now own, he explains, WWF’s materials will be
published with the disclaimer, “We’re not crooks and thieves. We’re
foreign agents.”

Written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Kristina Gorelik

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty © 2012 RFE/RL, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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