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Bill tightening rules for foreign-funded NGOs may cause public discontent

July 03, 2012, 16:06 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Yet another legislative initiative by the ruling party United Russia, following the law that has tightened punishment for abuse committed at rallies, is fraught with the risk of catalyzing public discontent in Russia.In focus is a bill that will attach the label of “foreign agents” to non-governmental organizations involved in political activity and receiving funding from outside Russia. Both human rights activists and oppositional politicians have been warning of major political implications of such a step.

As it is expected, the State Duma will consider the bill in the first reading on July 6, and its final version may be adopted in the autumn. The government has approved of the bill, authored by a group of legislators, including Alexander Sidyakin – the initiator of the controversial bill on rallies. Also, the future law has been given a go-ahead by the Supreme Court.

The bill that may make life considerably harder for Russia’s non-governmental organizations, was submitted to the State Duma last week. In case of its adoption those NGOs which get funding from abroad and engage in political activity will be put on a special list at the Justice Ministry, and their activity will proceed under far harsher rules than that of other organizations.

Since 1991 a total of five billion dollars has been invested in Russian civil society since 1991, but the real sum is impossible to estimate,” the daily Vedomosti quotes the general director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Veronika Krasheninnikova, as saying. In Russia there are 260,000 NGOs and the US National Endowment for Democracy directly finances thousands of Russian organizations. Of late, the list of recipients of such assistance has grown. The money goes not so much to federal structures as to smaller organizations in the regions and the mass media.

The Justice Ministry will open a special register of organizations operating as “foreign agents” (as follows from what the authors have said, the terminology has been borrowed from similar laws operating in other countries, including the United States). The organizations that are involved in politics and at the same time get funding from abroad – donations from individuals and grants from international organizations – shall voluntarily enter their names to that list. From that moment on they will have to abide by special rules of activity. For instance, they will be obliged to mark their publications, reports and other media products in compliance with their new status.

Failure to abide by this requirement is punishable with a fine of up to one million rubles. Financial accounting shall be presented twice a year, and annual tax inspections and external auditing will be mandatory. Abusers of the rules of accounting will have to brace for a fine of 200,000-300,000 rubles for officials. Habitual abusers may face a prison term of up to three years, and the organization itself, the suspension of its activity.

In the meantime, all organizations that will be legally considered in Russia as political agents of foreign countries have never concealed the very instance of getting grants from abroad. And the Russian authorities have constantly monitored their activity.

The Kremlin has welcomed the bill. A source in the presidential staff has told the daily Kommersant that such a bill is crucial, because “there are principles of openness: the people have the right to know who pays.” As the head of the Fund for the Development of Civil Society, former chief of the presidential staff’s foreign policy department, Konstantin Kostin has said, US legislation was used as an example. He recalled the United States” Foreign Agents Registration Act – FARA, which controls not only political activities of non-governmental associations, but also lobbying by corporations.

A source in the Kremlin, quoted by the electronic periodical Gazeta.ru, has hinted it was not legislator Sidyakin who had really authored the bill. According to the same source, the bill will apply to such organizations famous for their criticism of the authorities as the association Golos (Voice), which is the most professional monitor of the quality of Russian elections, and also Transparency International and Greenpeace.

The Mikhail Gorbachev Fund is another potential candidate for the status of a “foreign agent,” however in this particular case United Russia does not deny this is really so. “If the Gorbachev Fund matches the new bill’s criteria, and we manage to prove that they get funds from abroad, naturally, they will begin to be called an organization operating in the interests of a foreign state,” United Russia’s legislator, Robert Shlegel, told the daily Izvestia.

A former Gorbachev Fund expert, Valery Solovei, has said that such laws declaring NGOs as lobbyists for foreign interests exist in many countries, including the United States. “But in the Russian context these rules may work as a stick against dissenters,” the political scientist said. “Those whose activity will be not to the authorities’ liking will be listed as agents.”

Human rights activists and representatives of non-governmental organizations have responded to the authorities’ latest initiative very emotionally. They have warned of its dire political implications. Both suspect that after their introduction Russian society will run the risk of finding itself without human rights campaigners independent of the authorities, because many organizations will be unable to support themselves, have to go “undercover” or close down.

“The idiotic laws that they invent merely put them in a laughable position,” says the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeyeva. The human rights campaigner believes that the law, if it is adopted, will influence the strength of the NGOs. ‘Human rights campaigners will be unable to have sources of as long as there are no independent businesses feeling no fear of the authorities,” she said.

Alexeyeva has already declared that the Moscow Helsinki Group will refuse to have itself registered as a “foreign agent”, if the State Duma finally adopts the law. The leader of the Movement for Human Rights, Lev Ponomaryov, is going to follow suit.

The chairman of the presidential council for human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, has said that he does not support the bill and is going to discuss it with President Vladimir Putin.

The director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Boris Kagarlitsky, is quoted by the Rosbalt news agency this is not the first time the NGO legislation is about to be tightened. He believes that “a far harsher blow on the NGO’s was dealt by the law of two years ago, which changed the rules of taxation and disorganized their activity.”

The new law, if it is adopted, will not work to the full extent, says Kagarlitsky. In his opinion, the bill is being adopted as “some instrument of political pressure and blackmail, and if it begins to be used in the end, it will be applied selectively, inconsistently, and as a result, ineffectively.” The law will be a great problem for the authorities, because it will cause many NGO’s, hitherto not involved in politics and quite loyal to the state, to join the political activity and go into opposition,” Kagarlitsky said.

Apparently, the Russian authorities see the engine of protest not in the internal causes, but in foreign ones, says political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov. But in his opinion such measures will merely enhance the mobilization of the protest potential.

Moscow, July 3