President Vladimir Putin said today that Russia’s law on non-governmental organizations is more liberal than similar provisions in other countries, but said he may recommend changes to a controversial measure requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’, AFP reports.
“I agree with our colleagues … about the need to analyses the practice of how (the law) is applied,” Putin said in televised remarks. ”We should think about improving this legislation so that it does not bother anyone,” he told representatives of the Civil Summit of the Group of 20 major economies.
“But our legislation is more liberal,” Putin claimed. “In the United States, any organization that works in any area and receives money from abroad … is supposed to register as a foreign agent. In our country, [that concerns] only organizations that are engaged in domestic political activity.”
His comments came shortly after a Moscow court upheld fines imposed on the Golos independent election monitoring group for refusing to register as a foreign agent. The authorities fined the organization itself another 300,000 rubles ($9,400) and its leader Liliya Shibanova 100,000 rubles ($3,150).
In advance of next week’s meeting between Obama and Putin, a former US ambassador for the former Soviet Union says the US has been lacking in its response to the crackdown against Russian civil society.
“The administration seems uncertain about how to handle the internal politics of Russia,” says Stephen Sestanovich (right), an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The administration has not looked for opportunities to condemn the rollback of human rights and the rule of law and democratic protections,” he said:
There seems to be a kind of unresolved debate about how much attention to give it, and I imagine they will continue to struggle with that for a while. Putin is surely aware that he can use the lure of cooperation on issues like arms control and Syria to get the administration to lower its rhetoric on domestic issues. But even apart from that, the administration is just plain divided on how much attention to give the issue.
The Kremlin’s “foreign agent” NGO law is a “crude attack on civil society” that puts Russia at odds with European values, Sestanovich told a US Senate panel.
NGOs “at the interface between civil society and politics” – such as public opinion polling groups and independent election monitors – were in an especially precarious position.
The election monitor Golos, which has produced evidence of electoral fraud, and the Levada Center polling group, which has reported on Putin’s declining popularity, have both been targeted as “foreign agents.”
“The Russian government has tried to create the idea that these are political activities and that any groups involved in these activities are political actors,” he said.
“America’s concern for the state of Russian democracy is sometimes portrayed as an intrusion into another country’s affairs,” said Sestanovich. “The truth is different. Our concern reflects a strong commitment to partnership between the two countries.”
Russia expelled USAID last autumn after the agency had invested “more than $2.6 billion toward Russia’s social and economic development” since 1992. But called for the US to enhance its commitment through a US-Russia Civil Society Fund, which could possibly be managed by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an independent nonprofit on whose board he sits.
“Would the Russian government dislike that reality? Yeah, no question about it,” he said. “But the Russian government is on weak ground.”
Other western governments also came under fire at the hearing for adopting a ‘realpolitik’ approach to Russia’s deteriorating democracy.
“Attempts by some in the West, including in the United States, to adopt a realpolitik approach and to conduct ‘business as usual’ with the Putin regime contradict the most basic values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of ex-president Boris Yeltsin.
Washington’s attempts to partner with Russia’s was “counterproductive, since the Kremlin considers it as a sign of weakness and, therefore, as an invitation to behave even more aggressively, both at home,” he told the Senate panel.
The crackdown on civil society has three significant implications, said Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:
First, the prospects for U.S.-Russian relations seem bleak. Any substantive reset with the U.S. would contradict the regime’s dominant domestic narrative of propaganda and repression, with the U.S. as the key alleged threat to Russian security and domestic stability…. Dictated by the considerations of regime survival, the worsening of relations with the United States may be seen as a boost to the domestic legitimacy of the regime which presents itself as the defender of Russian sovereignty against the plotters from abroad, aided by paid traitors at home….
Second, what we are witnessing after a year of authoritarian consolidation, following Putin’s reelection in March of last year, looks more and more like a significant change of the regime from a relatively softer authoritarianism to a much harder and malignant version. The harassment and self-exile of a leading Russian economist and establishment reformer Professor Sergei Guriev has signaled a unilateral re-negotiation of the longstanding social compact with the liberal public opinion leaders…..
Finally, and most damagingly in the long run, the assault on civil society is a tragedy for Russia because nongovernment organizations are, first and foremost, a school of democracy that teach personal responsibility, self-organization, peaceful dissent and compromise. …
“Left in the ruble of civil society are only stagnation, hatred, and radicalism,” said Aron. “Left behind is scorched earth, incapable of upholding democratic institutions, when this regime falls or implodes – just as happened after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Despite its crackdown on NGOs Russia is currently trying to present itself as a champion of civil society champion, says a prominent activist.
“On June 13-14, Russian and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are meeting at a civil society summit to discuss issues in parallel with this year’s Group of 20 meetings,” writes Elena Panfilova (right), Executive Director of Transparency International Russia.
“The even greater irony is that some of the organizations invited to participate, including Transparency International, are currently under threat from controversial legislation designed to close down civil society space,” she writes for The Huffington Post:
How are we supposed to interpret this Gogolesque scenario? On the international stage, the government is endorsing our contributions stating: “Civil society … significantly contributes to transparency, review and evaluation processes as well as to monitoring the outcomes and commitments” of the world’s leading economies. But in practice it is suing us for tens of thousands of dollars for doing this job.
Why would a government that showcases civil society on the world stage persecute it at home? Was it an oversight by the government that it invited organizations it suspects are “spies” to be part of the civil society summit or simply a daring move to deflect criticism during an international event where global media are present?