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Olga Gnezdilova on civil society organizations and the law

Olga Gnezdilova, barrister and expert on the right of association in Russia who works with Lawyers for Civil Society in Voronezh, talks with Rights in Russia about the current legal framework for civil society organizations in Russia.

Rights in Russia: How do you see the current situation for NGOs in Russia?

Olga Gnezdilova: I can’t say that violations of freedom of association are very serious at the moment, but we see significant new problems arising in the future. On the one hand some positive changes may well take place, but on the other hand there are also some negative changes expected.

As for the negative changes, from 1 January 2013 new amendments to the Civil Code of the Russian Federation are to be introduced. These will reduce the number of legal forms of non-profit organizations to six kinds. All other kinds, like autonomous non-commercial organizations, non-commercial partnerships, and public movements will cease. Organizations that have these legal forms will probably be given time to reregister.

If the organizations do not manage to reregister in time they will be closed down. And we think that many organizations will be closed. Many organizations do not have lawyers on their staff, and they do not keep up with the latest changes in the law. If they do not do anything, these organizations will be closed down.

It must be borne in mind that to reregister costs an organization money. The cost of registering an organization has gone up from 2,000 roubles to 4,000 roubles. And there is a charge of 800 roubles for changing the statute of an organization – and add to that the charge of 200 roubles for a notary. These sums are very significant for a small organization. It’s especially hard for small organizations that don’t have money. And without computers they have to struggle with all the paperwork. So to register or change their statute they need both technical and legal help. And it has to be borne in mind that in 2010 more than one third of all applications for registration were rejected.

And a final point on this, the Ministry of Justice is still not obliged to give consultations. This is an issue because they are much needed. NGOs should also be given more time to do the things they are obliged to do by law.

RiR: How many human rights groups use the forms of non-profit organization you mentioned that are to be discontinued? How many organizations do you think will be affected?

OG: A great number will be affected. Russian law distinguishes between ‘non-profit’ and ‘public association’ (obshchestvennoe ob’’edinenie) – the ‘public association’ is a kind of civil society organization not classified under Russian law as a ‘non-profit’. At one time it was easier to register as a form of non-profit than as a ‘public association’. The non-profits were registered first with the municipal authorities, and then with the tax inspectorate. The public associations had to register with the Ministry of Justice. That had been the case until the new law came into force in 2006 when all organizations had to register with RosRegistratsiya, although in 2008 the responsibility was returned to the Ministry of Justice.

We chose the non-profit form for ourselves because it was difficult otherwise to register an organization the purpose of which was the protection of human rights. The Ministry of Justice just crossed out these goals from an applicant organization’s draft statute. Many human rights organizations that wanted to promote observance of international human rights standards were refused registration on these grounds.

RiR: Was this legal?

OG: In my view these refusals were not lawful. Today as well human rights groups organizations continue to be refused registration on the grounds that the protection of human rights is the duty of the state. The officials say: ‘You don’t have the right to do these things, only the state does.’ The officials say: ‘This is not your job’. So as a result many organizations nowadays write that their mission is not ‘protection of human rights’ but ‘promoting the protection of human rights’. The Ministry of Justice officials regularly insist on this change of wording.

The changes will also have an impact on income generation by non-profits. By law non-profits are able to engage in commercial activities so long as they use the profits for the registered purposes of the organization. However, under the new legislation, organizations that want to engage in commercial activities will need to have at least 500,000 roubles in the bank.

This means that if a non-profit is selling copies of its newspaper for a small sum in order to earn, say, 1,000 roubles for the organization, under the new rules to do this the non-profit will need to have at least 500,000 roubles in the bank. This is just not realistic for an organization.

RiR: And the positive changes?

OG: Among the positive changes, the Ministry of Justice has prepared a draft bill in line with which the responsibility for registering non-profits and overseeing their work would be handed over to other bodies. So far this bill has evoked only negative reactions from other ministries and departments, so this issue has not yet been decided. Until now, the Ministry of Justice would check an organization for violations, and where it found any, refer them to the tax inspectorate or to the public prosecutor. Now the registration of civil society groups will be the responsibility of the tax inspectorate. We think this is a very positive change. And the prosecutor’s office will be responsible for investigating violations of the law, not the Ministry of Justice. The prosecutors will not get involved with insignificant ‘violations’ by NGOs, such as the failure to hold a meeting of its general assembly on time, as the Ministry of Justice regularly does. The Prosecutor’s Office will investigate NGOs when there is evidence that they really have violated the law.

I think these are positive changes. There will be fewer problems for NGOs. The Tax Inspectorate wll not be looking at the NGOs in such detail. They have less time for this.

There is also going to be a reduction in the length of time that the official body has to either accept or reject an application for registration (it is currently 30 days).

RiR: Looking back, many of the difficulties faced by civil society groups seem to stem from the 2006 law on NGOs. Is that a fair perception?

OG: After the passing of the 2006 law all non-profits and NGOs had to report to a new body, RosRegistratsiya, instead of the Ministry of Justice. The reporting was onerous and RosRegistratsiya conducted many inspections of civil society organizations. Before 2006 there were not many inspections of NGOs. Afterwards, this happened systematically. In Voronezh region each year about 300-400 organizations (10% of the total) were inspected. These inspections were very detailed, checking all aspects of an organization’s work, its activities, reporting, donations, expenditure. Those groups that didn’t report, that hadn’t paid enough attention to the new changes, RosRegistratsiya would simply close. They would be closed down, their bank accounts closed, and so on. We helped many organizations successfully appeal in the courts against the decision to close them down .

RiR: And when Medvedev became President, there were positive changes?

When Medvedev became President there were positive changes. He listened to what civil society groups were saying. In 2008 a presidential commission was set up on NGO reform. There were new approaches to inspections, and organizations had ten days’ warning. One aspect of the change, I must say, although it sounds very significant, had no real meaning. This was the transfer of the registration functions from RosRegistratsiya back to the Ministry of Justice. In Voronezh this was the same people in the same building, they just changed the sign on the door. So this in itself meant nothing.

But the reform began anyway, the commission held meetings. As a result there were new rules on the inspections. The procedures for reporting were simplified. They quite reasonably wanted to pay less attention to small organizations, and they were able to make things simpler and more straightforward for them. From 2010, if an organization had no foreign donations, and less than 3 million roubles a year in income from Russian sources, then there was no need to report at all. Just a simple letter was enough saying that they were continuing their activities.

Now, since 2010, the reporting to the Ministry of Justice can be done over the Internet. Of course many small groups don’t have computers or access to the Internet, so this does not help them.

RiR: So the picture is a complex one. There have been some recent positive changes. But some of the proposed amendments to the Civil Code may have a negative impact on civil society groups in Russia. Thank you.