The Russian Public Chamber proposed on Monday to regulate the country’s grassroots volunteer movement, which is burgeoning away from the watchful eye of the authorities.
The move prompted allegations that the government wants a tighter hold on volunteers, though a political analyst doubted that it was part of a state crackdown on independent activism allegedly ongoing in Russia.
The chamber’s outline of a bill on volunteers, available online, requires them to register with organizations managing charity work, as well as with local authorities. Now activists can work without any paperwork if they choose to.
“This is hell,” photographer and noted charity activist Dmitry Aleshkovsky wrote on his Twitter about the bill.
The bill is yet to be drafted, but the Federation Council is expected to file it with the parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, during its autumn session, Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper said.
The proposal is aimed at helping charity groups and NGOs legalize their relationships with volunteers, the bill outline’s co-author, lawyer and Public Chamber member Daria Miloslavskaya, said on Ekho Moskvy radio on Monday.
But opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov said the bill would mire the volunteer movement in red tape, giving the authorities a better control of it.
The bill was a reaction to the situation in Krymsk, a southern Russian city hit by a deadly flood on July 7, Ponomaryov said on his blog. Thousands of volunteers gathered in the city, and many of them accused local authorities of neglecting their duties during the cleanup.
Miloslavskaya denied all allegations and said the bill is aimed at boosting the number of volunteers by creating a comfortable legal environment for them, Moskovskiye Novosti reported.
“This was a pragmatic, not a political decision,” said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
Actions of volunteers need to be regulated to prevent them from conflicting with rescuers, firefighters and other governmental services they are helping, Mukhin said.
He denied that the proposed bill on volunteers was part of a political crackdown ongoing in recent weeks, when the Duma imposed new regulations on NGOs and the internet, and criminalized libel. Kremlin opponents claimed the laws were to give the government more leverage for pressuring the political opposition, which has staged a string of mass protests in Moscow since December.
The legislators will have to co-draft the document with the volunteer community in order to dispel their fears, Mukhin said, echoing Miloslavskaya.
It is too early to judge, but so far the proposal looks “excessive and unnecessary,” said Grigory Kuksin of Greenpeace Russia, who coordinated volunteer efforts when wildfires swept central Russia in 2010.
Legislative amendments passed in recent years already provide all the legal framework that NGOs need to work with volunteers, Kuksin said.
Meanwhile, an attempt to regulate volunteer firefighting, launched after the 2010 wildfires, de-facto outlawed grassroots help to firefighters and crippled the movement, Kuksin said.
“I’m afraid that the authorities want more control over volunteers, who are well organized and see a lot of what’s happening in the country,” he said.