Mr. Speaker, I rise in support and as a cosponsor of H. Con. Res. 312, to urge the Russian Government to alter or withdraw the proposed legislation affecting nongovernmental organizations, NGO's, operating in Russia. The Russian legislation would severely restrict foreign assistance to NGO's in Russia and would also force existing Russian NGO's to reregister with the government.
The draft Russian bill raises a number of serious concerns, and may violate Russia's commitments to the OSCE. Several hundred thousand nongovernmental organizations currently operate in Russia, representing all sections of society. By forcing all NGO's to reregister, the Russian Government will have the power to subjectively deny registration to some organizations and limit the activities of others. This legislation strikes at the heart of basic democratic freedoms: the right of individuals to freely associate and participate in society. Some of the provisions in this bill would also increase the oversight of financial auditing of NGO's, which the government could use to place restrictions on opposition groups.
Just months ago, the Russian President Vladimir Putin outlawed any foreign funding of political parties in Russia. This legislation goes further and affects human rights groups and other NGO's who are only seeking to improve the nature of Russia's civil society. Foreign organizations would be required to register as legal Russian entities, seriously hindering their attempts to promote democracy and accountability in Russia. Many organizations which have conducted prominent and important human rights work in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union would see their activities curtailed under the Russian bill, which may lead to the partial or complete closure of critical offices inside of Russia.
Last month, the State Duma in Russia approved the first reading of the bill by 370 to 18 votes, despite more than 1,000 NGO's appealing for the Duma to reject it. This Friday, December 16, the Duma has scheduled a second reading of the bill. As the ranking member of the Helsinki Commission, I have worked closely with Commission Cochairman CHRIS SMITH in opposition to this bill. The Helsinki Commission sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter in November--which I cosigned--to the Chairman of the Russian State Duma urging the rejection of this legislation. In particular, the letter emphasized the importance that nongovernmental organizations play in civil society and in fulfilling Russia's obligations as a democratic state and member of the international community.
Russia has made great strides since the end of the Cold War. There were serious concerns that Russia would not have a smooth transition to a fully functioning democracy. I am gravely concerned about recent developments in Russia. President Putin himself has said that "modern Russia's greatest achievement is the democratic process (and) the achievements of civil society". I therefore call on President Putin and the State Duma to be true to their word and reject this bill, to reaffirm their commitment to the democratic process and civil society.