Russia’s lower house of parliament today passed a bill imposing new restrictions on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations.
The regulations are reminiscent of Soviet secret police methods, the head of the Council of Europe said yesterday.
“Although the bill, which is almost certain to pass the upper house and be signed into law by the president, does not prohibit any organization’s operation, it is likely to create a chilling effect on groups’ activities,” reports suggest:
The bill requires any NGO that receives foreign funding — from governments, groups or private citizens — and engages in political activity to register itself as a “foreign agent,” provide detailed reports of its finances and identify itself as a foreign agent in any material it distributes. “Foreign agent” is a loaded term for many Russians schooled in the country’s longstanding self-image as an exceptionalist nation beleaguered by foreign malefactors ranging from Napoleon’s troops to Nazi Germany. If an organization identifies itself as a foreign agent, that could undermine its credibility among Russians…..
Although he won a new term as president in March, Putin is under increasing criticism in Russian society and even in the once-submissive parliament. The bill appears to be an attempt at limiting future challenges.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said state funding would be increased for NGOs whose activity “as a whole is deemed useful and positive for our country”.
Veteran dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that “as soon as this law comes into effect, from that day we will refuse foreign grants” rather than register as a foreign agent.
“The law about meetings, the law on NGOs, the law on libel, it’s all one train and they’re probably thinking up something else,” Alexeyeva told the Interfax news agency.
Pro-Kremlin commentators defended the measure, claiming that democracy assistance and civil society funding for Russia from the US State Department, US Agency for International Development and private funders, including the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, and Open Society Institute represent efforts to win Russian hearts and minds in order to foment color revolutions.
“Western funding does not contribute to strengthening Russian democracy. It only extends the battle field for pro-American forces against patriotic forces,” writes Veronika Krasheninnikova, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives.
“Like steroids, Western funding is injected in the weaker spots of the targeted civil society,” she claims. “Like steroids, it is addictive. Like steroids, it corrupts the mind and body of the political organism.”
The new NGO laws are a telling indicator of the Kremlin’s strategic failure and political frailty, says a leading Russian analyst.
The political scientist Adam Przeworski once noted that “authoritarian equilibrium rests mainly on lies, fear or economic prosperity,” notes Vladimir Gelman, a political science professor at St. Petersburg’s European University.
“Russia is no exception,” he writes in the Moscow Times. “Its authoritarian regime has relied on all three elements to varying degrees.”
Rapid economic growth from 2000 to 2007 allowed officials to buy voter loyalty, powerful state propaganda was largely able to create the illusion that Putin was building a “great Russia,” and the widespread fear of political change helped the Kremlin preserve the status quo. …But the wave of protests from December to June showed that the old model of authoritarian rule no longer works. It has become increasingly difficult for the government to buy voter loyalty, especially as incomes have fallen and the demand for good governance has risen.
“The real problem is that Putin can’t rely on the siloviki as an effective weapon to repress the people on a mass scale,” says Gelman. “That is why Putin is resorting to his customary tactic of provocation and intimidation.”
This strategy will clearly fail if Russians respond to this threat with an even stronger organized resistance or if enough NGOs simply refuse to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” It will also fail if media outlets continue to criticize the regime without fear of criminal charges for defamation and if enough people — perhaps 70 or 80 percent — vote against United Russia and Putin to make falsification of election results a near impossibility. If these things happen, selective application of fines or even jail sentences will have no effect, and the authorities will rightfully shrink from applying repressive measures on a mass scale.
“More Russians are realizing that the Kremlin’s ‘politics of fear’ is a sign of its acute weakness and its instinctive fear of an open and transparent political system,” Gelman concludes.
“When the policy of tightening the screws encounters open resistance from society, the last thread that the current authoritarian regime is hanging onto will be severed.”