Russia: A Law to Regulate Volunteer Efforts

Last week, Russia's Public Chamber [en] announced that it is preparing the foundation for a draft law designed to regulate volunteer activities. The latest in a series of controversial legislative efforts, the Public Chamber's initiative seeks to “regulate legal responsibility” between volunteers and volunteer organizers. Critics of the idea claim that the law — like recent bills raising fines for illegal demonstrations and ‘blacklisting’ parts of the RuNet — is another government attempt to suppress the political potential of civil society (specifically the strengths of Internet-enabled activists).

The Public Chamber's Idea

In the text of the draft law's “concept” (published [ru] online by opponent [ru] Ilya Ponomarev), the authors describe its “fundamental idea” as follows:

[…] установление системного и полного правового регулирования общественных отношений, возникающих в сфере деятельности волонтеров (добровольцев), повышение эффективности деятельности социально ориентированных, в том числе благотворительных, некоммерческих организаций, содействие развитию гражданского общества в России, совершенствование законодательных основ, обеспечивающих эффективное функционирование и развитие волонтерского движения в современных условиях, развитие благотворительности и гуманизация российского общества.

[…] establishing a systematic and complete legal regulation of public relations arising in the volunteers sphere; raising the effectiveness of the socially-oriented's activities and the activities of charitable, noncommercial organizations; refining the legal framework to ensure the efficiency and development of the volunteer movement today; and developing philanthropy and humanism in Russian society.

Particularly worrying to oppositionists is language found later in the document, where the Public Chamber seems to imply that Russian society's faith in nongovernmental organizations has waned. (This sentiment, of course, was the engine for a recent law that requires politically-active NGOs to advertise prominently any foreign funding, as well as be subject to heightened police scrutiny.) The draft text on the volunteers law reads:

[…] принятие закона о волонтерстве призвано сыграть важную роль в решении следующих важных задач: […] 5. Восстановление общественного доверия к власти; 6. Повышение доверия к НКО и другим институтам гражданского общества; 7. Повышение общественного престижа НКО, добровольчества и благотворительности.

[…] adopting the law on volunteerism would play an important role in addressing the following issues: […] 5. Restoring public confidence in the authorities; 6. Raising confidence in noncommercial organizations and other civil society institutions; 7. Raising the social prestige of noncommercial organizations, volunteerism, and philanthropy.

Another controversial aspect of the law is the idea that a legal contract would be required for any cooperation between volunteers and volunteer organizers. Yesterday, Daria Miloslavskaia, the draft text's chief author, appeared [ru] on Echo of Moscow to defend her proposal, arguing that critics are mistaken when they claim that the law would necessitate a formal written agreement for all instances of volunteer work. She explained that the law is a chiefly an effort to facilitate the legal status necessary for certain nonprofit tax exemptions, which currently do not extend to situations where formal organizations reimburse volunteers for logistical expenses, except (thanks to Russia's underdeveloped legal norms) in narrow charity cases and work relating to the 2014 Olympic Games:

Хочу сказать, что нам нужно регулировать взаимоотношения волонтеров и организаций, которые готовы компенсировать их расходы. Если они компенсируют их расходы, страхуют их жизни, проводят им какой-то технический инструктаж, покупают им необходимое оборудование, на это будет распространяться законопроект. Если это просто 25 человек, 25 тысяч человек, которые пошли искать бабушку в лесу, закон не будет распространяться.

I want to say that we need to regulate the interactions between volunteers and the organizations that compensate them for their expenses. If they compensate their expenses, buy them life insurance, provide them with some kind of technical training, or buy them necessary equipment, then this is where the legislation would apply. If it's just 25 people, or 25,000 people, going into the forrest to search for an old woman, then the law would not apply.

The Public Chamber drafted the legislative concept with the nonprofit group “Lawyers for Civil Society,” which in a post [ru] on its website reiterated Miloslavskaia's point that the legislation would be limited to situations with “monetary relations” (specifically addressing the income and social insurance tax exemptions for money spent on volunteer work).

The Public Chamber & the Public

In the press and online, reactions to the volunteers law has been almost universally negative. Much of this is undoubtedly due to the timing of the announcement (coming just days after the Duma approved the RuNet ‘blacklist’ law and reinstated an anti-libel statute). The newspaper Vedomosti published an editorial [ru] slamming the legislation as an “obvious continuation of the spring-summer series of laws addressed at Russian civil society” that would “make it even more difficult [for citizens] to assist one another.” Bloggers have drawn similar conclusions, with Anton Nossik calling [ru] the law a “muzzle for volunteers” and Mikhail Solomatin declaring [ru] the “strangulation of civil society.”

Others have expressed a certain desperation with Russia's legal climate. Saying she has known her for years and believes that her original intentions were pure, journalist Irina Yasina writes [ru] in her LiveJournal that the endorsement of the authorities effectively means that Miloslavskaia's work will be used for “dark purposes.” In a separate blog post [ru], Roman Khakhalin expands that pessimism, arguing that Western legal norms in general have no potential for good in the hands of Russian officials:

[…] опыт показывает, что наша власть, когда берет в европейском или американском законодательстве условный «микроскоп», четко осознает, что сама будет использовать его исключительно как тупой тяжелый предмет для убийства.

[…] experience shows that our government, when it puts some European or American legislation ‘under the microscope,’ is perfectly aware that it is going to use it exclusively as a blunt object for murder.

In her Echo appearance, Miloslavskaia took the opportunity to mention a July 16 blog post [ru] by activist and entrepreneur Alena Popova, who has recently been coordinating volunteer work in Krymsk, where thousands have been displaced by flooding. That Miloslavskaia cites Popova's article is peculiar, given that it has little if nothing to do with the monetary relationships supposedly at the core of the volunteer law. Popova writes, for instance, that “democracy in an emergency situation is the worst possible thing,” and goes on to explain how her on-the-ground experiences have convinced her of the necessity for military discipline during humanitarian operations. While Popova also advocates the need for control over supply deliveries (to protect against marauders and profiteers), she does not address tax obstacles to facilitating volunteer work. More than anything, Popova complains that the state should have been more active in training and coordinating volunteers, who often arrived without the tools or information to maximize their effectiveness.

Volunteers bring drinking water to Krymsk residents, Krymsk, Russia (11 July 2012), photo by Maria Pleshkova, copyright © Demotix.

That Miloslavskaia offers Popova's sentiments as an endorsement of the volunteers law is as curious as it is confusing. Does Miloslavskaia wish that the legislation required the state to equip, train, and coordinate volunteers? Did she only mention her because Popova has worked with Ilya Ponomarev, who published the law's concept text online and initiated its negative publicity? (Consider, also, that Miloslavskaia was debating Gennady Gudkov, a member of Ponomarev's political party and another oppositionist deputy in the Duma.)

Volunteerism Then & Now

While it seems more explosive today than at any time recently, the political and social dilemma of volunteerism in Russia is not new. Back in November 2010 (a full year before Russia's “snow revolution” protest season), former Global Voices editor Gregory Asmolov addressed [ru] precisely the opportunities and dangers associated with cooperation between Internet-organized volunteers and the Russian state:

В идеале, государство должно относится к сетям как к ресурсу, который можно подключать к решению проблем. […] С другой стороны, возникают ряд вопросов. Во-первых, мотивация самоорганизации в российском случае частично базируется именно на ощущение бездействия государства. […] Ну и кроме того, конечно, в российской политической ситуации трудно поверить, что государство действительно начнет искать конструктивные (а не политизированные) механизмы сотрудничества с сетевыми структурами.

Ideally, the state should consider [volunteer] networks to be a resource, which might be utilized in the solution of problems. […] On the other hand, a series of questions arises. First, the motivation for self-organization in the Russian case is in part based precisely on perceptions of the state's inertia. […] And, of course, in the Russian political situation it is difficult to believe that the state is really going to start looking for constructive (and not politicized) mechanisms for cooperation with online structures.

The Public Chamber's text is expected [ru] to enter the Duma as draft legislation in the next few weeks. Will the bill be whittled down into the tax policy revisions that Miloslavskaia describes, or is the parliament preparing another disruptive state intervention into the mechanics of civil society? The month of August, historically a time of troubles for Russians, promises answers, but for many remains far from promising.

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