MOSCOW The Kremlin eased some restrictions on Russian NGOs on Friday ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, in the first major move to strengthen civil society since President Dmitry Medvedev took office. The move was applauded by human rights activists, who said that the reforms cover only a third of NGOs and a lot more remains to be done to improve Russia's human rights record.
Medvedev, who was elected just over a year ago, proposed in May relaxing restrictions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) imposed during the presidency of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom rights groups had accused of hindering their work.
Obama will meet human rights groups during his July 6-8 visit, which is expected to focus the spotlight on Russia's civil rights environment.
"These reforms are an important step as they address some issues, registration being one of the biggest roadblocks for NGOs, so this is a great step that he (Medvedev) has taken," said Matthew Schaaf, the NGO liaison of the Moscow branch of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"But it is limited, it remains to be seen how it will be implemented."
In 2006 Russia introduced some laws which it said were designed to stop terrorists, money launderers and foreign spy groups using NGOs as their cover. Rights groups criticized them for being laden with unnecessary paperwork and for enabling the authorities to close down the organizations.
The amendments to the laws were approved by a wide margin in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, on Friday. Most changes will come into force on August 1, with some on January 1, 2010.
The changes will restrict the bulk of paperwork state structures are allowed to demand from NGOs and will mean NGOs will be inspected once every three years instead of annually. Also the reasons behind rejecting registrations will now be explained instead of being turned down with no explanation.
The reforms do not mean that state control over NGOs has ended, activists said.
"This is an important political step forward but in substance we have lost the battle," said Yuri Dzhibladze, the president of the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow.
Dzhibladze, also a member of the working group that engineered the review of the law, said ambitious requests, including completely abandoning the paperwork that needs to be submitted to the government, were overlooked.
Medvedev's powerful first deputy chief of staff and a close Putin ally, Vladislav Surkov, oversaw the review.
"Many of us were concerned when we learned that Surkov was in charge of this. It shows that the government does not want to go forward and it still has an interest in having control," Dzhibladze added.
Medvedev has carefully cultivated an image as a liberal since his election, though analysts say he has made very few substantive changes so far. Some believe he is little more than a figurehead installed to appease the West with promises of liberalism and change that are unlikely to materialize.
"Medvedev has said he is going to make it easier for life and civil society in Russia. So far, little has changed," said HRW's Schaaf.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman)