Last Friday, Russia’s Kommersant, a leading newspaper, reported that United Russia, the ruling political party, is about to submit a bill in the Duma that would tighten the activity of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) financed by foreign funds. This step is likely to severely curb freedom of speech in Russia.
Under the new law, NGOs that receive any foreign support—state or private—would be classified as “foreign agents.” The government could carry out unannounced inspections at their offices, shut them down, punish their officers with hefty fines of up to 1 million rubles ($30,000), and initiate criminal charges against them for failing to abide by the new rules. The sponsors of the new bill are anxious that Russia is vulnerable to “revolutionary influences” from abroad, writes Kommersant.
Last December, amidst massive protests against the tainted parliamentary elections, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin famously accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating the anti-state rallies. Putin said that hundreds of millions of dollars in “foreign money” was being used to influence Russian politics.
This new NGO bill is yet another measure following Putin’s re-election this spring aimed at containing the growing opposition sentiments in Russia. On June 8, the Russian president signed a bill imposing heavy penalties on organizers of unsanctioned mass protests. The draconian fines are clearly designed to deter most Russians from participating in rallies.
The new anti-NGO bill would supplement a 2005 law that provided the authorities greater options to deny of registration for organizations. The West strongly criticized the 2005 law, as it forced thousands of NGOs to suspend their activities, including such prominent organizations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders.
Although the authorities relaxed some of the rules, the recent anti-regime protests and the allegations of Western funding have intensified the Kremlin’s fears of foreign influences. Xenophobia in Russia has a venerable history.
Despite pervasive anti-Americanism, the drafters of the new anti-NGO bill referred to “western standards” in legislation, citing the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA, passed in 1936, requires individuals and groups receiving foreign government funds and lobbying on behalf of foreign bodies to register with the Justice Department and file periodic disclosures on their activities and finances.
The big difference is that FARA does not stifle people’s right to protest government policies. There is nothing in FARA that prevents foreign-funded lobbyists, or even foreign citizens, from speaking about—or against—U.S. policies, as massive criticism of U.S. involvement in Iraq showed.
Under the pending Russian law, political criticism by NGOs could precipitate jail times of up to three years. This would force most organizations to think twice before saying anything critical against Russia’s political order, law enforcement practices, or the repressive regime.
This is yet another reason why it is so important for the West to continue support for democratically minded Russians. One such initiative resulted from the outrage when Russian law enforcement failed abysmally to prosecute individuals involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered multi-million-dollar embezzlement from the Russian treasury, was arrested, and was murdered in custody. The pending Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would ban Russian officials linked to Magnitsky’s death from entering the U.S. and using U.S. financial institutions.
As we wrote last month, America should not ignore the weak rule of law in Russia or its connection to violations of individual and human rights.
It is likely that the future disagreements about individual rights and Moscow’s high-handed policies will chip away at what is left of the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy with Russia. The sooner the Obama Administration understands that, the more realistic and unflinching U.S. policy toward Russia will become.