MOSCOW (IPS) — NGOs working in Russia are facing more repression in the form of even tighter legislation on foreign funding as part of what some rights activists say is a concerted campaign to “liquidate” civil society in the country.
Under legislation proposed earlier this month in the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, NGOs receiving foreign funding could be registered as “foreign agent” without their consent.
"People feel that they have to go into exile or exercise self-censorship."
The legislation would strengthen an existing law which forces such NGOs to register as “foreign agents” – a controversial term with cold war connotations which affected NGOs says makes it almost impossible for them to work with local partners or government bodies – or face stiff fines and possible jail sentences.
The new proposals have met with stinging criticism from local rights activists who say they are part of a concerted plan by the Kremlin to stifle civil society.
“NGOs are facing legislative restrictions on their work and they are being smeared in media that are trying to create a view of foreign NGOs in Russia as being dangerous to society,” Damelya Aitkhozhina, a researcher for Amnesty International’s Moscow branch, told IPS. “What is happening at the moment is, essentially, an attempt to liquidate civil society in Russia.”
The original “foreign agent” law, introduced in 2012, has been criticized by international rights bodies as well as local campaigners as being unconstitutional and illegal.
NGOs have refused to register, and many are fighting court cases over the legislation. Many say they would rather close than have to declare themselves foreign agents.
The Kremlin has justified the original law and the latest proposals as a necessary step to protect the state against foreign organizations interfering in Russian politics – a claim rejected by critics who say the government is making no distinction between public interest advocacy and political activity.
The proposed amendments to the “foreign agent” law were made as President Vladimir Putin stepped up rhetoric against foreign NGOs, publicly warning of the dangers such third sector groups pose to Russian security.
At a meeting with heads of the state security service (FSB) earlier this month, which was widely reported in Russian media, Putin said security forces must not allow NGOs to “be used for destructive goals” as had been the case in Ukraine earlier this year.
He said that NGOs had sponsored neo-Nazi organizations which had led an unconstitutional overthrow of the legitimate government in Russia’s western neighbor
Many observers believe that fear of a similar protest movement in Russia is driving the Kremlin to crack down not just on civil society but civil liberties themselves.
Yuri Vdovin, a prominent Russian human rights campaigner, wrote on the St. Petersburg-based Bellona NGO’s website this month of the proposed amendments to the foreign agent law: “The amendments cannot be considered in isolation from [current] trends [of restricting rights].”
In the last two months there has been a raft of laws proposed which would severely restrict freedoms of assembly and expression.
These include proposals to ban the dissemination of any negative information about the government and Russia’s military, not just in mass media and on websites, but potentially also in books, films, documentaries and even video games.
Meanwhile, proposed amendments to already strict laws on protesting would see a potential five-year jail sentence and increased fines introduced for minor offenses related to unauthorized protests.
These come after the arrests of hundreds of peaceful protestors in recent months at demonstrations against the annexation of Crimea and at trials of anti-government protestors.
Rights campaigners say that detentions of protestors are becoming more frequent and that prosecutions for minor protest offenses which would previously have not even been considered are now being processed through courts.
The Kremlin has also recently moved to have the websites of independent news outlets as well as political opposition websites blocked.
Aitkhozhina told IPS that while the situation with human rights in Russia had been deteriorating for some time since the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012, things were rapidly becoming “much worse”.
She told IPS: “There are restrictions on civil liberties, on freedom of assembly and speech. People feel that they have to go into exile or exercise self-censorship and there are serious concerns over the arrests of peaceful protestors. Recently proposed legislation will only make this situation worse and what is happening at the moment is highly alarming.
“To compare the current situation in Russia with the Stalinist regime would be an exaggeration, but at the same time the way it is developing and the direction it is moving in is deeply, deeply disturbing.”
It is not just human rights campaigners that are concerned about a government crackdown on rights. Many ordinary Russians are becoming increasingly aware of how their civil liberties are being curtailed.
“It would be wrong to say there was no freedom of speech at all in Russia, but the situation needs to be improved,” Sherzod Kayumov, 39, an engineer in Moscow, told IPS. “People in Russia want more freedom of speech, and it is something we will demand. But it is a constant challenge.”