Two human rights monitoring groups operating in the former Soviet Union, the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews from the former Soviet Union (UCSJ) and the Moscow-based Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), have been jointly nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The two groups, formed in 1970 and 1976 respectively, were at the forefront of the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, and advanced human rights in the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the groups transformed into monitoring organizations that keep a close watch on human rights in the FSU. "It's an important and good initiative," said Natan Sharansky, one of the founders of the MHG and - as he puts it jokingly - a "beneficiary" of the UCSJ's activism during his time in prison. "There's no doubt these groups played a central role in advancing the release [of prisoners in the Soviet Union]," he continued, saying the "two organizations conducted grass-roots activism, each in its own way. The UCSJ connected housewives with international activism, and refuseniks with the international community." The Moscow Helsinki Group, meanwhile, turned the articles of the Helsinki Accords, including their human rights commitments that were initially considered mere lip service by Soviet leaders, "into a central element" of activism, he said. The HMG tracks former Soviet republics' compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, particularly articles seven and eight of the "Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States," which call for "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," and "equal rights and self-determination of peoples" among signatories. The UCSJ is a coalition of eight local councils throughout North America that was founded to help in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. It has bureaus in FSU countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Latvia, Georgia and Belarus. It publishes reports on anti-Semitism, xenophobia, the rise of fascist political forces and human rights abuses throughout the FSU, and from 2004 to 2006, it ran an EU-funded campaign in the Russian Federation in cooperation with the MHG, which included: nationwide monitoring, a hate crime hotline, national and regional legal defense clinics and the development of curricula for schools and the criminal justice system on the subject of racism and xenophobia. In cooperation with other groups, the UCSJ is now beginning a similar initiative in the Ukraine. While the Nobel nomination comes for the two groups' past successes in advocating for Soviet Jewish refuseniks and human rights generally in areas under Soviet influence, it also seeks to shine the spotlight on the troubles human rights NGOs are currently experiencing in the FSU. Reached by phone, UCSJ president and author of the popular Peoplehood.org blog, Yossi Abramowitz, told the Post this week that the two organizations were "putting up a good fight" to attempts by Russian authorities to discredit and limit the actions of NGOs in Russia. This was evidenced most recently by the claim of Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev that there was a "sharp increase" of foreign spies working under the auspices of international NGOs operating in Russia. Over the past few years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been widely criticized for measures seen as "anti-democratic" by some, including the cancellation of the popular election of regional governors and reported persecution of journalists who come out strongly against government policy. Nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize are due by February 1 each year. The winners are usually announced in mid-October, with the annual ceremony held on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896. For this reason, sources familiar with the process told the Post it was too early in the nomination process to predict a nominee's chances of being selected.