The government struggles to hush NGOs that could spur society to protest
Sociologicalsurveysshowpublictrustforvariouscivilinitiativeshassoared. According to a survey by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Ukraine (IFES), 76% of Ukrainians think of NGO activities as necessary, compared to only 44% in 2005. 66% of those polled claim NGOs deal with problems the government ignores. Fueled by frustration with central and local governments, it is the NGOs that manage to mobilize Ukrainians for street rallies. Public activists complain the government is reluctant to listen to NGOs while it looks for new ways to oppress them. Those in power are trying especially hard to prevent NGOs from further mobilizing protest-inclined citizens critical of the government.
In dealing with the most riotous demonstrations, the Party of Regions (PR) has pursued a strategy of partial appeasement, a practice previously tested on the “Tax Maidan” protests. First, they allow the protesters to vent their frustration. Then, they meet with their leaders and take into account the protesters’ proposals in their next bill, if only partially. This worked well for the PR when dealing with Chornobyl victims who had stormed the Verkhovna Rada twice before the government condescended to a dialogue with them and the protesters eventually announced the rally was over.
Meanwhile, those in power collect data about all potential protesters. They can use it to exert pressure on them later, if necessary.
According to the New Citizen, a union of over 50 NGOs, oblast and county state administrations are sending out instructions to local authorities to increase control over local NGOs. The Ukrainian Week has seen a few.
The Internal Policy Department of the Khmelnytskyi Oblast State Administration, for instance, has ordered county administration heads and mayors to “immediately intensify monitoring of planned protests filed with local authorities by civil and political associations and individuals” and report all planned public actions and their outcome to the Department at a given telephone number. According to these orders, “the report should contain a comprehensive description of the action and its outcome, including names and jobs of organizers, the number and categories of participants, slogans, flags, the reaction of local authorities, the outcome, further planned actions, and Members of Parliament and oblast leaders who participate in the protest, rather than general information.” Local authorities in Kamianetsk-Podilskyi County have also received similar orders from the County State Administration. The latter demands digital scans of political print materials distributed at protests in addition to reports on them.
The Tax Administration has also begun collecting data on NGO activists. County tax administrations are distributing questionnaires to local NGOs inquiring after details of their personnel data and activity, last names and contact data of their leaders and most proactive representatives, key focuses and certification details.
A district tax authority in Kyiv explained the purpose of the questionnaires to The Ukrainian Week as setting up a database of NGOs in order to facilitate further cooperation with them. Supposedly, this means that the authorities will explain some provisions of the tax legislation to NGOs and introduce the public to the way the State Tax Administration works. “The tax service is not going to oppress NGOs; we have no power to do so even if we wanted to,” said a TA employee interviewed by The Ukrainian Week. “They are non-profit organizations, not businesses.”
Yet, the Tax Administration’s initiative hardly comforts representatives of NGOs who received the questionnaires.
“We don’t deal with tax issues so why would they want to know all these details about our activists,” Taras Shevchenko from the Media Law Institute says. “The information they request is not necessary for tax purposes.”
Oleksiy Khmara, President of Kirovohrad-based TORO Art Association, also speaks critically of the questionnaires. “They already have a huge database about us and they want to know even more but offer nothing in exchange,” he complains. “So far, we have no idea what good or bad the new Tax Code will bring to NGOs because there have barely been any consultations on this issue. We don’t know how some controversial provisions will be enforced. We’ve never been introduced to local tax administrations in our county. They’ve never told us how they envision friendship with us.” According to Khmara, the TA would have to turn to public councils set up under their authority if all this were about improving cooperation with civil society.
NGOs that have received the questionnaires assume the data requested by the TA for its campaign to survey the proactive part of civil society is actually bound for the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service. Civil activists fear the data can later be used against NGO leaders that criticize the current government harshly and participate in public protests.
Lawyers claim the questions run counter to the law on personal data protection that bans processing of personal data without an individual’s consent.
NGOs assume the data collection rush is also a result of the upcoming parliamentary election. The government is thus trying to find out which NGOs are going to monitor the election process and receive financial support from abroad to do so. “The TA gets to us before every election campaign,” Mr. Khmara says. “They have tried to cancel our non-profit status because we monitor elections, offer explanation of the election process and use international support.”
RESTRICTED BY LAW
Those in power are seeking ways to immobilize NGOs through legislature. In late April 2011, the Verkhovna Rada put bill No.7262-1 on its agenda. Drafted and sponsored by NGOs themselves, the bill was supposed to simplify registration procedures for them. The public hoped the parliament would pass the bill back in spring but at that point it had only passed the first reading. By the time it gets to the second reading, the bill might end up with totally different content.
According to Maksym Latsyba, an expert at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research who took part in drafting the bill, MPs want to add a few provisions to the bill that will only make life worse for NGOs.
The first would return the power to supervise statutory activities of NGOs to the Ministry of Justice, which will essentially allow authorities to ban inconvenient organizations. Mr. Latsyba believes the government will always find a way to use this provision against organizations that plan to monitor the 2012 election. The second provision would remove the clause that allows NGOs to conduct business activity. “An NGO that wants to publish a book once a quarter will have to set up an enterprise, keep records and pay taxes,” Mr. Latsyba comments. “This is extremely burdensome. It will push NGOs further into poverty.” Also, MPs might cancel the provision that allows NGOs to set up legal entities, essentially preventing them from creating business associations.
Moreover, Party of the Regions MPs are seeking to pass a ban on funding of Ukrainian NGOs by international foundations. They could accomplish this either by adding the initiative to the new bill on NGOs or by passing it as yet another amendment to the Tax Code. NGOs interpret this initiative as an effort to curb funding for organizations that can damage the government’s reputation.