Experts: NGOs checks in Russia not to significantly affect EU-Russia visa-free dialogue

April 22, 2013 7:22 pm

Russian checks of non-governmental organizations (NGO), initiated after adopting the law, which reinforces control over political NGOs with foreign funding, might influence the process of EU-Russia visa regime facilitation. This is the opinion expressed by Director General of the European Directorate General on Home Affairs Stefano Manservisi in an interview with Russian news agency Interfax.

“There is no direct connection between these facts and the visa facilitation/service passport negotiations. However, as we said many times, negotiations are done in a context and this context could affect them if it gets worse and worse beyond acceptable limits,” he said.

However, according to Russian First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman, the ongoing activities are planned and do not violate Russian law.

During his recent working visit to Germany, Russian President Vladimir Putin also explained that all of the steps, which are taken, are not about closures and bans, but are about establishing oversight of the money coming into Russian NGOs that are involved in domestic political activity and are being funded from abroad.

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“Over the first four months alone since Russia passed the law on NGOs, these organizations received a total of 28.3 billion rubles from abroad. That is the equivalent of almost 1 billion US dollars in just four months. Such a situation cannot fail to raise some questions, and our public has the right to know where this money is coming from, and what it is being used for. As for these organizations’ freedom, it is in no way restricted. I want to stress this point. All we are asking them to do is to register,” Russian President said and reminded that similar law has been in effect in the United States since 1938.

However, a number of European officials still condemn NGO inspections in Russia. Thus, Dr. Rainer Stinner, foreign policy spokesman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the German Bundestag, expressed concern about tightening legislation on NGOs in Russia.

“The aim of the EU-Russia visa dialogue is to increase the openness for cross-border exchange between Russia and the EU. This includes political, economic, and civil-society exchange. The harsh measures against NGOs with international contacts in Russia work exactly against this aim: they lead to less openness. If Russia demands more openness on the one hand, but takes measures against openness on the other hand, we cannot ignore this policy inconsistency,” the deputy said in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews.”

According to him, punishing NGOs for international contacts is inappropriate in a time of globalization and the declared Russian policy goal of increased cross-border contacts.

“For example, the confiscation of computers of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation affected the work of this organization, even though the computers were released later and no charges were pressed,” Rainer Stinner emphasized.

He also noted that the EU-Russia Visa Facilitation Agreement already makes traveling between the EU and Russia easier since 2007 and added that in the long run the party wants to achieve visa-free short-term travel for Russian and EU citizens.

“Russia should address its policy inconsistency. Openness through visa facilitation and openness for NGOs with international contacts should come together. If Russia takes our concerns seriously, I am confident that we can take further steps towards our common goal of visa-free short-term travel for Russian and EU citizens,” the politician said.

According to Knut Fleckenstein, Chairman of the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee in the European Parliament, the recent searches of NGO offices have raised concerns among the EU Member States because the searches and the new legislation on which they are based reflect a very restrictive view of the Russian authorities about civil society in Russia.

“Russia’s European partners are convinced that this runs counter to the interests of Russia itself. This legislation is widely perceived as being aimed at intimidating Russian NGOs and restraining their opportunities for collaborating with European partner organizations. I was very surprised to find reports in the Russian news that the inspectors were sometimes accompanied by reporters of a TV channel – NTV. The only possible explanation I can find for state authorities to cooperate in such a situation in a close way with media is the aim to expose the organizations being inspected,” the MEP noted.

Meanwhile, the politician stressed that he does not see a direct link between visa issue and NGOs checks.

“Neither have I heard about this interview [of Stefano Manservisi] nor do I necessarily see a link between visa facilitation and Russian NGO legislation. I support visa facilitation and even visa-free travel for citizens of Russia and the EU because I believe that this would strengthen people-to-people contacts. It would give better opportunities for young people from both sides to meet, discuss or even travel together. It would allow EU students to accomplish their studies in Russia and to welcome Russian students at EU universities involving less bureaucracy. It would make it easier for business people to cooperate and exchange experiences,” Knut Fleckenstein explained.

From his point of view, the authorities should continue working on the common steps so that as soon as possible the EU can start negotiations with Russia about a visa-free travel regime.

“It seems that progress has been good so far. Therefore I hope that the remaining work will be done very quickly,” he added.

Stefan Liebich, member of the Left Party (Die Linke) in German Parliament, also suggested that Russia and the EU are in the range of success, since Germany dropped it objections, following numerous interventions in the Bundestag initiated by Die Linke parliamentary group.

According to him, the visa issue is not connected with NGOs inspections.

“From my point of view the EU-Russia visa facilitation process should proceed undisturbed by other discussions. Obviously the EU Institutions try to put pressure on Russia, I think that’s the wrong measure,” the politician emphasized.

However, according to him, the so-called checks on NGOs do not meet international standards. In his opinion, international standard concerning NGOs would be, that they open there accounts to the public, that everyone concerned can ask questions and have an impression where the funding comes from; police raids and stigmatization are not helpful for transparency.

EU russia visa“The EU-Russia visa facilitation process should proceed undisturbed by other discussions. But the situation of NGOs in Russia should also be a topic in a dialogue between European states and Russia. We do have a lot of common challenges and we need a vibrant civil society here and there to meet them. So we should encourage NGOs,” Stefan Liebich noted.

Similar position is shared by Hannes Swoboda, President of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament.

“Visa facilitation was one major topic in my report for the European Parliament on relations between the European Union and Russia. The process of visa validation continues to progress, which is essential, as it can benefit ordinary citizens, and particularly the middle class. I want to see the visa facilitation process continued and completed and to achieve this, a strong commitment from the Russian government, not to use any strengthened cooperation as a justification for increased pressure against independent organizations, foreign or domestic, would of course be helpful. The checks on NGOs in the framework of the new legislation relating to ‘foreign agents’ however is a step in the wrong direction from our perspective,” the politician said.

But though the recent developments in Russia are worrying, this, according to him, does not predetermine the failure of dialogue on visas.

“Indeed, if the Russian authorities decide to crack down on non-governmental organizations, this could have repercussions on EU-Russian relations, but it would not necessarily mean an end of the visa facilitation process,” Hannes Swoboda said.

However, from his point of view, the inspections of NGOs, whether planned or unplanned, relate less to any potential wrongdoings of those organizations than to a new culture of fear.

“When people and organizations fear the government and its authorities, those are indicators that prompt us to question whether democracy and the rule of law are respected,” he noted.

In turn, John Laughland, Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, expressed confidence that visa regime has not been canceled because there is a political hostility to it in Europe in the highest level.

“It would be easy for the current regime to establish a visa-free travel between Russia and Europe but it simply needs will and political decision-making. Repeatedly European leaders have refused to move on this,” he said.

Situation around NGOs checks, according to him, is the example of the problem that we face.

“The fact is that the European leaders and the officials in the Brussels administration are convinced that Russia is a dictatorship and that you cannot liberalize visas with the regime like that of Russia. And there is a constant stream of anti-Russia propaganda in the western media and western political circles. The rules on non-governmental organizations have just given them the latest pretext for these kind of attacks. I am not at all surprised that some officials link this issue of NGOs to the visa regime,” the expert said.

According to him, the problem is that the EU is itself in crisis and that it is too big and too complicated to work properly.

“And because it is basically doomed to failure, European leaders are determined to present Russia as an enemy because they think that by doing that some kind of European cohesion will be promoted in the face of what otherwise would be complete collapse. So the people who benefit from this kind of behavior are the European elite themselves,” John Laughland concluded.

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