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Across the Former Soviet Union Russian Bill on Nonprofit Groups Could Harm Jewish Organizations

Some Russian Jewish activists are concerned that a new bill on nonprofit organizations may harm their operations. But larger Jewish nonprofits working in Russia remain calm about the legislation, which could limit the ability of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to accept foreign funds.

The bill received preliminary approval in State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, last week.

Much of the criticism comes from the human rights community, which blames the Kremlin for pushing amendments to the bill through the State Duma. The amendments are widely seen as targeting human rights organizations that often criticize federal and local authorities.

“The authorities are often irritated by the criticism that is coming from NGOs,” said Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, a group that monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Russia. “The new law will help the authorities to use registering organs when they want to shut down the activities of the NGOs that criticize the authorities.”

The bill would place nonprofits under stricter state control and could shut foreign nonprofits currently operating in Russia or indigenous nonprofits that use foreign funds. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, approved it by a 370-18 vote Nov. 23.

In its current version, the bill requires nonprofits to re-register with the Justice Ministry and empowers authorities to check that nonprofits do not use foreign grants to finance political activities.

Some foreign nonprofits — especially those that promote a civil society in Russia — have warned that the bill would shut them down.

The bill must pass two more readings in the State Duma — expected by the end of the year — before going to the upper house of Parliament, a body controlled by supporters of President Vladimir Putin. After that step, the bill would go to Putin to be signed into law. Some have speculated that Putin could veto the legislation to raise his standing in the eyes of the international community.

On Nov. 24, Putin responded to worries of a looming crackdown on nonprofits by saying that foreign funding of any political activity in Russia must come under state control. But he stressed that the legislation must not damage civil society.

Backers of the bill say it’s aimed at fighting extremism and money-laundering by nonprofits, and deny that it seeks to clamp down on the groups.

But critics insist that the bill was proposed by a Putin administration seeking to minimize ways for foreign money to finance political activities in Russia, a sensitive issue for the Kremlin after three former Soviet republics — Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan — changed their leadership as a result of mass public protests using pro-democracy slogans.

Brod said he wasn’t ruling out the possibility that officials may create an unofficial blacklist of nonprofits — especially from the human rights sector — and deny them re-registration. His own group may be at risk, he said, since it receives most of its funding from foreign sources, particularly the European Commission.

“They may reject the financial paperwork we provide during re-registration on some formal grounds and eventually close us down, along with dozens of other groups,” he said.

Most Russian nonprofits that provide services to the Jewish community are not involved in direct political or human rights activism. But the lion’s share of current funding for Jewish causes in Russia comes from overseas charities.

Does the proposed legislation endanger these groups? For two of the major Jewish organizations operating in Russia, the tentative answer would appear to be no.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, whose American fund-raising branch recently made it onto a list of the 400 largest philanthropies in the United States, operates in Russia as an indigenous nonprofit organization.

For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee uses different statuses for its work in Russia, including as a representative office of the American JDC. Still, its financial activities in Russia usually are managed by another Russian nonprofit that uses the JDC’s name but is formally unrelated to its overseas parent group.

None of the major Jewish groups that work with foreign donations — including the local branches of the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel — agreed to comment publicly on the new law.

JAFI has long operated in Russia as a local nonprofit called the Jewish Agency in Russia, which at least on paper is not linked to the Israeli-based organization.

Officials at some smaller Jewish nonprofits say they’re worried about the bill.

“Our organization was founded by foreign founders. How should we operate now?” asked Svetlana Muterperel, general manager of an independent, Moscow-based charity that spends much of its funds on Jewish causes.

“I’m sure the law will multiply the difficulties of the NGOs here,” said Muterperel, who asked that her group’s name not be used. “The Russian legislation provides no financial incentives for charity giving. If this law is enacted, many of us will find it even more difficult to operate.”

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