A bill requiring all foreign-funded civil society groups to register as “foreign agents” was today submitted to the State Duma by the pro-Putin United Russia party. The proposal is the latest sign of a crackdown on the country’s political opposition described by a former Kremlin insider as “counterproductive” and having “no real justification.”
Foreign-funded NGOs deemed to be involved in political activity “face hefty fines and jail terms if they fail to register on a state list,” the Moscow Times reports, suggesting that the proposed amendments to the existing NGO law “open a new front in the struggle between the government and civil society groups”:
The proposals, drafted by United Russia Duma Deputy Alexander Sidyakin, would require all non-governmental organizations receiving funding from abroad and engaged in “political” activities to register on a special list as “foreign agents”. These NGOs would also have to publish a report of their activities every six months and undertake an annual financial audit.
Any organizations failing to register within 90 days of the law coming into force would be liable to civil and criminal penalties, the deputy told RIA-Novosti on Friday. The penalties included a maximum prison sentence of four years, fines up to 300,000 rubles ($9,128) or 480 hours of mandatory community service.
The legislation “falls in line with quite a few more such measures that can broadly be described as a crackdown on the opposition”, Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Financial Times:
A number of NGOs, such as election monitoring organisation Golos, receive funding from US and other western agencies such as USAID. Supporters of the Russian bill say it is similar to a US law requiring registration of “foreign agents” working in the US.
“The bill has formally been submitted and we, its authors, believe there is no hindrance to its passage. It is completely obvious that it is useful both for the society and for NPOs themselves,” Irina Yarovaya, head of the Duma Committee for Security and Combating Corruption, told Interfax news agency.
“The current repressive measures only prove that conservatives won the upper hand in the Kremlin after the elections,” said Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development, as he announced his departure from the Presidential Council on Civic Society and Human Rights.
“They think that they don’t need a dialogue with the opposition, which they should ignore as they strengthen the regime and march forward,” he said, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.* “They have a wrong idea what democracy is all about.”
The Kremlin is trying to suggest that civil society groups hold the “threat of a coup d’etat, which is allegedly funded from abroad,” said Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of the Golos election monitoring group.
“They put themselves in a ridiculous position, inventing such idiotic laws,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva (above), head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who said that many NGOs rely on foreign funding because domestic donors are politically intimidated.
“The human rights activists will not find the funding in Russia unless an independent business appears that will be not afraid of the authorities,” she noted.
The Vedomosti daily cites a claim by Veronika Krasheninnikova, the pro-Kremlin director of the Institute of Foreign Political Studies and Initiatives that the National Endowment for Democracy alone funds “thousands” of Russian non-profits.
Golos and the Moscow Helsinki Group are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
*Why did you leave the presidential council on human rights?
The newly proposed rules to compose the council [by a public Internet] vote will most likely change the quality of the council for the worse. These rules provide a possibility to manipulate the process. The council members would often tell the truth the authorities wouldn’t like…. We voted for the liberation of [imprisoned tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. Such people in the council obviously don’t suit the Kremlin, which wants other people, more obedient.
It is a known fact that you and your colleagues insisted that Medvedev should have stayed in the Kremlin for the second term and that you encouraged him to do so. Has Russia won or lost with Putin making a comeback?
The way Putin returned to the Kremlin raised many concerns and made thousands of people take to the streets and protest. All this could have been avoided if the country had continued its course of reforms under the leadership of Medvedev. Now Putin has significantly corrected the modernization paradigm we prescribed. Putin’s favorite word is “stability.”
Opposition protests continue and grow more and more aimed personally against Putin. What will become of the protest movement? Can Putin find a way to make a compromise, or will he have to crack down harder on the protesters?
Putin is a lawful president elected by a majority of the population, whichever way one may look at the poll figures. And the visible irritation of some part of the population is not a national factor yet. As for the protest movement, it will … itself soon become less united as it can’t hold together for long in one movement: nationalists, communists and liberals. They may reach some provisional goals, like stay together until some regional and maybe urgent parliament elections, but they will have to part company afterward.
The radical part of the protests blames Putin for everything. We warned Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] in the past more than once that people get tired of one face even regardless of politics in general. Twelve years is a cycle of development in Russia. Once every 12 years or so we always had some sort of a crisis with people getting tired of their leader. This is why the radical protest is so focused on Putin, whereas the moderate opposition talks about the crisis of institutes and systems.
What do you make of the growing pressure on the opposition from the law enforcement agencies: Apartments of protest leaders are raided and searched by the police, documents and sums of money seized; several activists are hiding abroad and one already is asking for political asylum in the Netherlands; dozens of people are arrested?
This crackdown, for which I see no real justification, is counterproductive. Protesters in the streets behaved themselves in accordance with the constitution and laws unless they were provoked by the police. The current repressive measures only prove that conservatives won the upper hand in the Kremlin after the elections. They think that they don’t need a dialogue with the opposition, which they should ignore as they strengthen the regime and march forward. They have a wrong idea what democracy is all about.