Kremlin Pushes Measure to Curb Private Groups
MOSCOW, Nov. 23 - Russia moved Wednesday to impose greater government control over charities and other private organizations, including some of the world's most prominent, in a move aimed at restricting foreign support for political activity in the country.

The lower house of Parliament gave preliminary approval to legislation that would require tens of thousands of Russian organizations to register with the Ministry of Justice. It would also impose restrictions on their ability to accept donations or hire foreigners and prohibit foreign organizations from opening branches in Russia.

The legislation could yet be significantly revised, but as now written, it would force organizations like the Ford Foundation, Greenpeace or Amnesty International to close their offices here and reregister as purely Russian organizations. But the legislation was unclear about how the groups could accomplish that and includes some restrictions that would make it difficult.

Although some of the bill's supporters defended it as an effort to bring order to the registration of 450,000 private groups, others have said it was aimed at preventing foreign efforts to support political opposition movements, like the one that swept to power after the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine last fall. The legislation follows sharply worded remarks by President Vladimir V. Putin and the director of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's successor, that foreign organizations often undermined Russian interests. Russia has already moved to close some groups that it accuses of extremism, like the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.

"Let us resolve the internal political problems of Russia ourselves," Mr. Putin said this summer, criticizing nongovernmental organizations involved in what he called political activities.

Mr. Putin has long faced criticism for strengthening his political authority, despite his avowed commitment to democracy, and the legislation prompted still more criticism.

"This is the last sector of civil society that has not fallen under government control," Aleksandr B. Petrov, the deputy director in Moscow for the international group Human Rights Watch, said at a news conference held Tuesday in hopes of persuading the Parliament to reject or at least amend the legislation.

The critics of the law say that Russia's restrictions would go beyond those imposed on nongovernmental organizations by most of the developed world, including the other members of the Group of 8, of which Russia is a part.

A legal analysis by the nongovernmental groups says that the law would put Russia in line with countries like Turkmenistan, and mentions that even Kazakhstan tried to impose such restrictions, but was ultimately blocked.

Thomas H. Casey, a State Department spokesman, said: "We have made our concerns known to the Russian government on this issue and remain in close contact with them. This is only the first step in a multistep process before any proposal could become law."

Earlier this year, the director of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai Patrushev, accused Western organizations - including the Peace Corps and the British medical charity Merlin - of being fronts for espionage. "Under the cover of implementing humanitarian and educational programs in Russian regions, they lobby for the interests of certain countries and gather classified information on a wide range of issues," Mr. Patrushev told members of Parliament in May, referring to private organizations.

His remarks prompted unusually strong public rebukes from the United States and Britain, but the legislation he called for at the time became the basis for what Parliament adopted Wednesday despite a further outpouring of criticism once the bill appeared on the agenda. It passed by a vote of 370 to 18. Three members abstained, while 56 did not vote.

President Bush raised the subject during his meeting last Friday with Mr. Putin in Pusan, South Korea. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said at that time that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had raised the issue when she was in Moscow. "I raised it when I was in Moscow recently," he added. "It was a subject of discussion today. And as I say, that legislation is still pending, and I'm confident it will continue to be a subject of discussion with the Russian government."

Pressed for details, he said it was "a confidential discussion between the two leaders, and sometimes there are issues" that can more "productively be discussed outside of public view."

Two former members of Congress, John Edwards and Jack Kemp, who together are overseeing a task force about American policy on Russian issues for the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote to Mr. Bush last week urging him to protest "in the frankest possible terms."

"It would roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies," they wrote.

Under Russia's legislative process, any bill must pass three "readings," or votes. Amendments are often introduced between the first and second, scheduled for Dec. 9.

Sergei M. Mironov, the chairman of the upper house, which must also approve the legislation for it to become law, said there was justification for restricting foreign influence on Russian organizations and political activities, but added that the bill as written needed revisions. "It is important not to throw out the baby together with the bath water," he said in an interview in his office.

Steven Solnik, the representative for the Ford Foundation, said in a telephone interview after the vote that he remained hopeful that the restrictions on foreign organizations would be lifted. The foundation, he said, distributed roughly $10 million a year in grants in Russia, mostly to Russian organizations and government institutions in a variety of fields, including education, AIDS and the arts.

Even if the restrictions on foreigners are removed, the main components affecting Russian organizations are likely to remain. Leaders of Russian groups said the legislation would subject them to constant scrutiny by officials, who would have new powers to demand documents at any time proving they are not engaged in political activity or other work not specifically allowed in their own charters.

"I think the whole bill is a misguided attempt to bring order, in their minds, to an N.G.O. sector that doesn't need to be put in order, but rather developed," Mr. Solnik said. "It needs a cooperative, mutually trusting environment with the government and not a new law to put it under intrusive government control."