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Russia flood brings volunteer spirit, and new law

A stooped woman in her 70s dropped off a kettle and about $600 in cash in Moscow, while a thick-necked businessman unloaded an SUV packed with brand new strollers and jumbo packages of diapers.

It was part of a spontaneous wave of charity for flood victims in the town of Krymsk, jumpstarted by social networking sites and through a handful of independent radio and TV stations. It was also part of a growing penchant for independent action that unsettles the powerful.

A week after the unprecedented flood volunteerism emerged, a Kremlin-linked body proposed a bill that regulates charity drives. Critics suspect the move is aimed at keeping a tight leash on popular movements that could snowball into anti-government protest.

In the wake of the massive opposition protests that erupted over the winter, officials are uneasy with signs of newly energetic independent initiatives. Recently passed laws put non-governmental organizations under intimidating scrutiny and impose ruinous fines on participants in unauthorized demonstrations.

While the eagerness of Russians to rise to the flood cause was seen by many as a heartening advance for civil society, it also appeared to be tacit criticism of Russian authorities as untrustworthy and ineffectual.

"The government is terrified of an awakening civil society," Genady Gudkov, an opposition member of parliament, said Monday on Echo Moskvy radio. "Volunteers and mass volunteerism have only just appeared, and there is a genuine fear that this volunteer movement will morph into something else."

The bill, to be taken up by Parliament when the lower house reconvenes in September, does not block volunteer efforts. It concerns itself only with the legal and financial liability incurred by volunteers and the organizations they work with.

But activists are concerned that it will add a laborious layer of paperwork that could bog down quick and effective response to disasters like the one in Krymsk. They complain that the vagueness of the legislation creates an ominous atmosphere of government supervision that could have a chilling effect on Russia's budding volunteer spirit, at the same time as President Vladimir Putin intensifies his squeeze on the opposition.

At least 171 people died in Krymsk and nearby parts of southern Russia when flash floods triggered by extraordinarily heavy rains inundated the area on July 6-7.

Thousands of volunteers traveled to the area some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) south of Moscow to help dig houses out from mud and aid the estimated 5,000 left homeless. Across the country, activists set up donation points for contributions of food, clothes and money.

The response was unusual in a country where the volunteer spirit is far less developed than in the West. In communist times participation at mass rallies and involvement in social groups was mandatory. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russians turned inwards, focusing on family and their jobs instead of on the public sphere.

Developers of the legislation say its intent is not to stifle volunteerism, but, in fact, to add clarity to the process.

Darya Miloslavskaya, a member of the Public Chamber and author of the bill, said that it was designed only to establish a more formal relationship between volunteers and the organizations they worked with.

"We have nothing to do with politics. There was no intention of saying that the government is bad and volunteers are good, or vice versa," Miloslavskaya, who had been drafting the legislation since April, told Echo Moskvy.

The Public Chamber is a state oversight body that monitors parliament and drafts legislation. It consists of members appointed by the Kremlin and representatives of public associations.

The bill would require volunteers and the organizers they work with to sign a contract if participants hoped to receive compensation for any expenses incurred.

Particularly in a country where many look suspiciously on government officials and corruption-riddled state institutions, Russian activists worry that the new law will only deter ordinary people from getting involved at all.

"If the first thing that a volunteer does is get in a car and go to look for some children who are lost in the forest, now according to this bill you'll have (the volunteer) talking to some bureaucrats and filling out papers," said Maria Baronova, an opposition activist who was one of the main organizers of the Krymsk relief effort.

"People will stop getting involved, because in general people don't want to be connected with either government officials or with bureaucracy," she said.

The Krymsk relief effort attracted scores of contributors to the collection site in Moscow, where Russians from all walks of life hauled boxes of food and clothes on buses bound for Krymsk.

"It's better to participate in something independent rather than something that belongs to any kind of party, so that no one can make PR out of such a tragedy," said 28-year-old Anastasia Kayumova, a choir teacher who came to the volunteer site in the morning and ended up staying until dark to help.

"Already on that evening (after the flood), I was telling myself that civil society does exist here," said Maria Baronova. "People have to understand that you have to do two things in life: go to work, and defend the place you live, that if you don't do that with your own hands then nothing will change."

In a public discussion Wednesday that brought officials and authors of the bill together with activists, charity organizers insisted that, while some kind of regulation of nascent volunteer movements was necessary in Russia, the law would go too far in giving the government oversight.

"There is a lot that needs elaborating," said Grigory Kuksin, leader of the volunteer programs of Russia's Greenpeace, during the public discussion. "But it doesn't demand a new law that will narrow the definition of volunteerism."

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Alexander Roslyakov in Moscow contributed to this story.