People in Need gain the right to work in Russia after two-year ban

Tchétchénie, photo:

This weekend, in an unexpected move, Russia granted People in Need, one of the Czech Republic's biggest NGOs, the right to operate once again on Russian soil. This is after a two-and-a-half year ban from the country, imposed on the grounds that People in Need were, according to the Russian Administration, funding terrorist groups. People in Need's work in Russia has traditionally been in the south of the country, in the breakaway regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia. The organization now plans to take up where it left off, providing training and support for those affected in particular by the Chechen conflict of the 1990s. Simon Panek is the head of People in Need:

"Clovek v tisni or People in Need, as we are known in English, has been given after almost two and a half years a new license to work in the Russian Federation. This is a bit of a surprising development for us, after being rejected so many times. The Russian registration office, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Justice in the country, decided to give us a new registration to work in the country as part of a change in their laws regarding NGOs."

Isn't this very much against the current trend in Russia of really clamping down on NGOs?

Logo of the foundation People in Need
"Well, I don't know, I haven't been there since spring or summer 2005. We will see how our work will pan out. It could be a coincidence, that some people get licenses to operate there and some people don't, because it is a very big country, and it's possible that not everything is orchestrated from the centre. But again, I think that we will get a much clearer picture when we start to work there, because it is one thing to get registered, and quite another to operate there on a daily basis, which could be very complicated."

So how much freedom does this registration give you? Are your movements going to be monitored and limited in some ways, do you think?

"Well, our movements might be monitored, but basically we don't care, because we don't do anything that is against the law. So it is up to the Russian special services to decide who they want to monitor, and who they don't. But access to Chechnya could be difficult, because foreigners still need special permission to go there - a special visa - and a few of us are definitely on some list which makes this harder. I was denied access to Russia twice a few years ago, finally they granted me a visa, but I am definitely somewhere on some database."

"And then, the work generally in the Northern Caucasus is difficult. In Ingushetia, it's a very tense situation. So, let's see once we have opened the office and started the normal work. With this kind of work, and on this scale, you should do everything completely openly."

What sort of work are you going to now go back and do there?

"We think that the field which is most open for us, and where the need for us is highest, is continuing to help Chechens recover from the wars there. We want to support economic and sustainable development, mainly on a family level, not on a big-business level, which means small-income generation projects, vocational training, and definitely psycho-social work."