Russia’s NGO law branding overseas-funded groups as foreign agents is impeding the country’s civil society development, says a former Finance Minister.
“The law on NGOs as foreign agents that the Duma has passed is a clear restriction of civil society,” said Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Fund for Civil Initiatives.
His statement coincides with reports that “Russia’s only independent polling agency may have to close after prosecutors targeted it for ‘political activity’ under a law spearheading President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on civil society”:
Levada Center published a letter, dated last week, from prosecutors who said its polls and publications are “aimed at shaping public opinion on government policy” and demanded it cease publication until it registers as a “foreign agent” under a law passed last year.
Levada receives between 1.5 and 3 percent of its funding from foreign sources, including longtime bêtes noires of Putin’s foreign policy like the National Institute for Democracy [sic] and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, according to center director Lev Gudkov (right).
Gudkov said prosecutors had not only threatened the organisation with sanctions but had undermined its authority, the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg reports from Moscow.
“The warning puts the Yuri Levada Analytical Centre in an extremely difficult position, in effect forcing it to cease its activity as an independent sociological research organisation, carrying out systematic polls of public opinion in Russia,” the statement said.
Although many observers initially viewed the new NGO provisions as “a surgical attack against a few undesirable organizations, it has now become clear that the authorities are intent on completely eradicating all remnants of civil society,” says a prominent analyst.
Meanwhile, it has stepped up funding of Kremlin-friendly NGOs by allocating grants through the Public Chamber and money through regional budgets to create a wide network of NGOs that are completely dependent on the authorities for their existence. Since Russian businesses do not fund NGOs unless they have been directed or given approval to do so by the authorities, independent NGOs will disappear altogether, leaving only those that are loyal to the authorities.
Thus, Kremlin-friendly NGOs will be added to the Kremlin’s vertical-power arsenal, along with the courts, the siloviki, mainstream media and the State Duma.
A “huge special operation” involving the Kremlin, State Duma, Prosecutor General’s Office, Justice Ministry, other government agencies and the siloviki is underway “to eliminate all independent NGOs,” Ryzhkov (left) writes for The Moscow Times.
“’Foreign agent’ is a term taken directly from the Stalinist era, when the authorities induced mass paranoia by claiming that the country was ‘surrounded by enemies’,” he says, noting that the authorities have not only targeted high-profile rights and democracy groups, like the Golos election-monitoring organization, the Memorial human rights foundation, Transparency International, which fights corruption; Agora, which provides legal assistance to wrongfully imprisoned protesters; and even the Levada Center polling group.
The law “has also been applied to harass organizations that protect children and used against groups that work in the fields of education, health care and environmental protection,” says Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, and an executive member of the World Movement for Democracy:
Civil society is beginning to realize the scale of the unfolding disaster. The Presidential Council on Human Rights has appealed to Putin to repeal the law or to urgently introduce mitigating amendments to it.
But there is little hope. The Russian state cynically speaks about the need for modernization and a strong civil society, while it works methodically to destroy its very foundation.