MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday passed a bill imposing new restrictions on non-governmental organizations that receive funding from abroad.
Although the bill, which is almost certain to pass the upper house and be signed into law by the president, does not prohibit any organization's operation, it is likely to create a chilling effect on groups' activities. It reflects the suspicion of the West and the fear of rising opposition sentiment held by President Vladimir Putin and his backers in the governing United Russia party.
The bill also adds strain to Russia's relations with Western countries.
WHAT THE BILL DOES
The bill requires any NGO that receives foreign funding — from governments, groups or private citizens — and engages in political activity to register itself as a "foreign agent," provide detailed reports of its finances and identify itself as a foreign agent in any material it distributes.
WHY THIS IS OF CONCERN TO NGOS
"Foreign agent" is a loaded term for many Russians schooled in the country's longstanding self-image as an exceptionalist nation beleaguered by foreign malefactors ranging from Napoleon's troops to Nazi Germany. If an organization identifies itself as a foreign agent, that could undermine its credibility among Russians.
The bill's definition of political activity is so wide and vague that almost any initiative could be considered political, especially if it proposes new legislation or makes even tacit criticism of current conditions.
The financial-reporting requirements could be expensive and inconvenient for organizations with small staffs and shoestring budgets.
In addition, the bill can be seen as a reminder to NGOs that they are under close and probably unsympathetic scrutiny.
WHY THE BILL IS USEFUL TO THE KREMLIN
Putin and his circle have long exploited suspicion of foreign involvement in the country. He accused Western governments of trying to influence last December's parliamentary elections. A state-owned national television channel denounced Golos, the country's only independent election-monitoring organization, showing suitcases full of dollars the group allegedly had received.
After those fraud-tainted elections set off an unprecedented wave of massive protests, Putin accused the demonstrators of being in the pay of Washington.
Although he won a new term as president in March, Putin is under increasing criticism in Russian society and even in the once-submissive parliament. The bill appears to be an attempt at limiting future challenges.
Putin has proposed tripling the amount of state funding given to non-governmental organizations, to three billion rubles ($10 million). Although that could compensate for a reduction in foreign funding for NGOs, it is unclear how the money would be apportioned and any NGO critical of the Kremlin can probably count on little or any of it.
Most NGOs have said they would comply if the bill becomes law. But Lyudmila Alexeyeva, leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the country's oldest human rights organizations, said Friday that "as soon as this law comes into effect, from that day we will refuse foreign grants" rather than register as a foreign agent.
RECENT ACTIONS AFFECTING OPPOSITION
Last month, Putin signed a law sharply increasing the punishment for taking part in an unauthorized protest rallies to 300,000 rubles ($9,000), close to the average annual income in Russia. Although officials gave authorization for several of the massive protests over the winter, authorities historically have been reluctant to give such permission and there are fears the recent relative liberality will be curtailed.
On Friday, Parliament voted to recriminalize libel and slander, just six months after it was decriminalized and made an administrative offense. Although the recriminalization removes the threat of prison terms, it raises the maximum fine to 5 million rubles ($165,000).
Activists worry that the libel law could be used against them
"The law about meetings, the law on NGOs, the law on libel, it's all one train and they're probably thinking up something else," Alexeyeva told the Interfax news agency.
EFFECT ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
Within hours of the bill's passage, Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Dolgov issued an aggrieved denunciation of earlier U.S. State Department expressions of concern about the legislation.
"Such approaches cannot be perceived other than as attempts of absolutely inappropriate and gross interference in the activities of Russian government bodies and a sovereign lawmaking process," Dolgov said in a statement. The accusation of interference in domestic affairs is a frequent Russian response to foreign criticism.
Also Friday, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry summoned Russia's charge d'affaires to express concern about the bill.