The Kremlin’s plan to curb foreign-funded civil society groups is “the most ruthless attack the authorities have waged against NGOs in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says a leading opposition figure.
“Politicians are hurrying to put the last finishing touches on President Vladimir Putin‘s policy of tightening the screws on the opposition and nongovernmental organizations,” writes Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, and a co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom:
Last week, for example, United Russia members Alexander Khinshtein and Pavel Krasheninnikov introduced an amendment that would make defamation a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of 500,000 rubles ($15,200) or up to five years in prison. Less than a year ago, then-President Dmitry Medvedev had removed this very article from the Criminal Code, making defamation punishable by a fine of only 3,000 rubles ($90). This removal was part of Medvedev’s efforts to liberalize and “humanize” some of the more outrageous leftovers from the Soviet period that remained in the code. But now, the authorities will have a virtual carte blanche to use libel and slander charges to intimidate and prosecute human rights activists, opposition figures and journalists.
The proposed NGO rules are “yet another front on its war against dissenters,” Ryzhkov writes in the Moscow Times:
Since Russian businesses do not support NGOs because they fear government reprisals, and since legislation does not encourage this form of charitable giving, nearly all funding for Russian NGOs comes from abroad. Under such conditions, foreign funding is the only way that thousands of NGOs in Russia can fulfill their function of charity, protecting and defending fundamental human rights and building a civil society. They are the only organizations in the country that, among other things, monitor elections, protect the environment, defend innocent political prisoners and reveal cases of corruption and other abuses by government officials.
The new bill “will deliver a crushing blow to NGOs,” he suggests:
First, they will all be stigmatized as “foreign agents,” a term that is unquestionably synonymous with “foreign spy” in Russian. The legislation burdens NGOs that receive foreign funding with onerous reporting requirements and inspections. This burden will prove unmanageable for many NGOs, forcing them to shut down operations in Russia. Third, key personnel in NGOs charged with failure to comply with these rules could face severe fines of up to 3 million rubles ($91,000) or three years in prison.
Vladimir Ryzhkov is an executive member of the World Movement for Democracy.