MOSCOW (AP) — The U.S.-funded election monitoring group Golos, whose observers recorded widespread fraud in Russia's recent elections, has long been treated like an enemy of the state.
But under a Kremlin-backed bill that won preliminary approval Friday in parliament, Golos would have to declare itself a "foreign agent," a term that is still synonymous with espionage for Russians who lived through the Cold War.
The law would impose harsh regulations on all foreign-funded non-governmental organizations that are involved in political activity, part of a broad crackdown on civil liberties and dissent that has accompanied Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency in May.
"All the cards are in their hands: arrest, shutting us down. ... They have a hundred different ways to render us ineffective," said Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos.
The Kremlin-backed United Russia party, which has a majority in parliament, is expediting the bill and it could come up for a final vote as early as next week. The bill passed Friday with a vote of 323 to four, with one abstention, in the first of three required readings.
Golos, which depends on grants from European nations and the United States, has faced growing pressure since November, when Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the December parliamentary election by funding Russian NGOs. A Kremlin-friendly national television station then aired a program that attacked Golos directly, showing shots of suitcases full of U.S. dollars and claiming that Golos was openly supporting opposition parties.
Golos then became the focus of police raids, detentions and cyber-attacks.
Still, the organization was able to field thousands of observers in December and again in March for the presidential election that gave Putin a third term. Golos also ran a website that compiled evidence of thousands of electoral violations nationwide.
Under the new law, any material such groups distributed would have to come with a warning that it was written by a foreign agent, and organizations would have to file detailed quarterly financial reports. Failure to comply would bring fines of up to 5,000 rubles (about $150) for members, 50,000 rubles ($1,150) for the heads of these organizations and up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) for the organizations themselves. Anyone who continued to participate in organizations that violated the rules could be fined up to 300,000 rubles ($9,000) or sent to prison for two years.
Human rights activists have loudly criticized the law for its sweeping definition of "political activities." A group would be considered political if it aimed to influence public opinion or the government in any way.
"A key problem is that this law asks you to voluntarily declare yourself a political organization. If you don't, you violate the law," said Melkonyants. "But to say we're a political organization goes against the very spirit of what we do."
While the legislation targets democracy-oriented groups like Golos, many in the NGO community worry that such a broad definition of political activity could also threaten groups dedicated to strictly social causes.
The director of Give Life, an organization that helps children with cancer, said she feared they will suffer under the new law.
"Of course what we do can be defined as political, because we do anything that can help improve the health of the most unfortunate people in this country through laws or social action," said Yekaterina Chistyakova.
Most NGOs have said they will comply with the law if it is passed, although they worry that such intensive bookkeeping will slow them down.
Others have taken a more confrontational stance. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 84-year-old activist at the helm of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said her organization would never register as a foreign agent.
"The group was founded in 1976 and we didn't receive our first grant until 1993," Alexeyeva said on Thursday. "We'll find new methods and we'll survive."