MOSCOW, November 25 (RIA Novosti) – Human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) has been forced to appeal to ordinary Russians for financial help in order to continue its work, after financial assistance from abroad was cut off by a new NGO law passed last week.
“All private donations will be used to support the functioning of the organization’s office and website, the current monitoring of the human rights situation and preparation of our annual report on infractions [of human rights], the organization of work in response to individual complaints by citizens and social consultation, legal help for human rights organizations and right campaigners facing harrassment,” the MHG statement said on its website.
The funding problem occurred after the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the largest foreign sponsor of Russian NGOs, ceased working in Russia in October. USAID supported civil society development programs including those involved in promoting democracy and human rights, and was a strong backer of Moscow Helsinki Group in particular. USAID had worked in Russia for 20 years, it said, spending around $2.7 billion in grants, of which democracy support programs accounted for around a third.
The organization was forced to stop its activity in Russia when the Russian government decided its distribution of grant money was having an influence over the political process, including in elections at all levels.
Its response was a new law, which came into force on November 21, compelling NGOs working in political activity and accepting foreign funding to declare themselves as “foreign agents.”
Such NGOs will also have to publish a biannual report on their activities and carry out an annual financial audit. Failure to comply with the law could result in fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($15,900).
The government claims it is not against NGO activity in general, only that dealing with political affairs.
Russia’s Public Chamber refused to support the bill, which was also criticized by the Kremlin’s own rights council. Kremlin human rights council head Mikhail Fedotov said in July the law would be “harmful for our international image.”
MHG is a member of the International Helsinki Group of human rights support organizations, and was founded on May 12, 1976 to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which set out standards of human rights. The organizer of the first branch was a Soviet physicist, Yury Orlov.
The group came under pressure and faced harrassment from the Soviet Union’s secret police, the KGB, from its inception, and from 1976 to 1982 eight members of the group were either arrested or exiled, while six emigrated or renounced their citizenship. On September 6, 1982, three of the remaining free members said they could no longer continue maintaining their activities for MHG in the conditions of repression existing at that time.
The group was allowed to resume its activities freely in 1989 in the move toward political freedom known as perestroika brought in by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.