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Duma OKs first reading of restrictions on NGO activities

July 07, 2012, 0:56 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

A bill restricting the activity of Russia’s non-governmental (non-commercial) organizations funded from abroad has passed the first reading in the State Duma, as everybody had anticipated. The bill, initiated by the ruling party and giving the status of “foreign agents” to foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activity, drew an angry response from human rights activists, some non-governmental organizations and the out-of-parliament opposition. The State Duma on Friday evening approved the bill by a 323-majority vote, with four nays and one abstention. The A Just Russia faction did not participate in the voting.

The controversial bill triggered a tide of emotion as high as the one caused by the recent legislative initiative of United Russia to tighten punishment for abuse at rallies. According to the bill, those non-governmental organizations which are partially or completely funded from outside the country and involved in political activity will be listed in a special register and will have to regularly report their activities to the authorities. In case of defiance of the law they will have to brace for harsh sanctions - a fine of up to one million rubles. Habitual abuse of the rules may entail a prison term of up to three years.

The authors of the bill say they have used the United States, in particular, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, adopted in 1938, on the eve of World War II as an example. In reality there is a certain discrepancy with the U.S. law, the daily Kommersant quotes the director of the Russian branch of the Public Interest Law Institute, Dmitry Shabelnikov, as saying. FARA regulates the activity of a special group of persons who act on behalf of or on instructions from foreign institutions. “In contrast to the American law the Russian bill links the NGO’s ‘foreign agent status’ exclusively with the instance of foreign financing, regardless of the purpose. The authors of the bill do not care whether the group pursues its own aims or acts on orders from the principal.”

The bill’s critics say that the term ‘political activity’ is applied to any effort for changing social conditions. As a result the very existence of many non-governmental organizations and charity funds will be under threat. Many funds helping sick children, homeless and prisoners do get foreign grants, because they cannot find donors in Russia. If one approaches the issue in this formal way, after the adoption of the bill it will be possible to apply the term “foreign agent” to the Russian Orthodox Church, said the head of the presidential council for human rights, Mikhail Fedotov.

Russia’s Public Chamber has refused to support the bill in its current shape, because, in its opinion, some articles of it are unconstitutional. The Public Chamber points to such major flaws of the bill as the unreasonably loose interpretation of ‘political activity’ and vagueness of the terms ‘political action’ and the ‘shaping of public opinion.’ Public Chamber experts have emphasized many doubtful provisions of the document, such as the Russian people’s negative perception of the term “foreign agent,” because quite often the word agent in Russian is a synonym of spy.

The presidential council for human rights, for its part, has urged the State Duma to remove the bill from the agenda and launch a public discussion “in order to rule out the engrainment of unconstitutional norms and practices.” The human rights council’s chairman, Mikhail Fedotov, is certain that if adopted, the law will begin to be applied not only to non-governmental organizations, but also to universities, hospitals, libraries and state corporations. “All non-profit organizations are NGOs,” he said.

“The real purpose of the bill is to discredit and, in fact, to ruin the largest civil organizations in our country that are independent from the authorities,” the human rights council said. Its authors are certain that the new law will be used selectively – for the persecution of non-governmental organizations that are not to the officialdom’s liking. “Our organizations are not going to agree to recognize themselves as foreign agents under any circumstance,” said some human rights council members, including the leader of the Moscow Helsinki group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the committee Civil Cooperation, Svetlana Gannushkina, chairman of the Sakharov Public Center, Sergei Kovalyov, leader of the movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomaryov, executive director of the association Golos, Liliya Shibanova and head of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Center, lawyer Yuri Shmidt.

Alexeyeva said that after the adoption of the law the Moscow Helsinki group and other human rights organizations would have to refuse to accept foreign funding and to curtail some programs for the protection of people’s interests. “Apparently after the adoption of this treacherous act the sole chance of retaining one’s good name and honor (and these are most important of all to us) will be to reject foreign financing, and this is precisely what I am going to do, if there are no other opportunities,” Alexeyeva said at the round table meeting Open Rostrum, organized by the United Russia party on Thursday.

The MHG leader explained that Russian NGOs have to rely on foreign money, because the Russian government will never agree to finance them, and Russia’s entrepreneurs deny support to them out of the fear of losing their businesses, should they agree to support “organizations that the authorities do not like.”

Alexeyeva promised to campaign for putting the authors of the bill on the ‘Magnitsky list.’ “We shall address (the authorities of other countries) with a request for adding the names of the six legislators to the Magnitsky list (envisaging sanctions against some Russian officials), and we shall make public the names of the other legislators who will vote for it,” Alexeyeva said.

This “repressive law” is necessary to “foment a spy mania,” said the co-leader of the RPR-PARNAS (Russian Republican Party-Party of Popular Freedom), Boris Nemtsov. He believes that a “great threat” is looming over the association Golos, which campaigns against election rigging, Amnesty International, which protects the rights of prisoners, and also over the anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

The leader of the Yabloko Party, Sergei Mitrokhin, has said that ‘foreign agent’ is a shameful label that some are trying to stick to the NGOs. “Russia’s reserves are invested in U.S. securities. Isn’t this the best prize for the other countries? Most of our businesses are controlled by offshore companies, literally foreign ones. Isn’t this agents’ influence? If so, on the list of the agents there are the president, the prime minister, the State Duma and the entire party United Russia,” Mitrokhin said.

One of the main authors of the bill, Alexander Sidyakin dismissed all criticism as “hysteria and nonsense.” He also remarked that the bill fully matched international practices. He recalled that other countries spent an annual seven billion dollars on the NGO’s in Russia, and in 2011, when the latest State Duma election was held, the share of financing was increased considerably.

Another co-author of the bill, State Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of the USSR’s foreign minister under Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, described the bill as a “moderate way of Russian statehood to defend itself.” In his opinion if adopted, the bill will affect 1,000 NGOs of the 220,000 existing in Russia. “That’s a tiny 0.4 percent,” he said.

Moscow, July 7