Russian Lawmakers Move to Ban U.S. Pro-Democracy Groups

By Patrick Goodenough | July 8, 2015 | 5:18am EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a press conference at the Kremlin in Moscow in December 2014. (Photo: Russian presidency)

( – Russian lawmakers are due to vote Wednesday on a motion to designate a dozen foreign non-governmental organizations, seven of them American, as “undesirable,” the latest move in President Vladimir Putin’s decade-long campaign against foreign NGOs.

The groups are being targeted under a law signed by Putin last spring, which states that any foreign NGO which “poses a threat to the foundations of Russia’s constitutional system, defense capability and state security, can be classified as undesirable.”

Designated groups will be prohibited from establishing subsidiaries, disseminating material or carrying out certain financial transactions in Russia.

“Participation in the activities of an ‘undesirable organization’ will be classified as an administrative offence punishable by a fine,” according to the Itar-TASS state news agency. “People who systemically break this regulation may face criminal charges.” Prison terms of up to six years are applicable.

Among the seven U.S. groups listed is the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, which in a recent report examining “nations in transit” awarded Russia its largest ratings decline in a decade, citing the Kremlin’s suppression of dissent at home and destabilization of Ukraine.

Russia in that report earned a rating of 6.46 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 the worst), with only Azerbaijan and Belarus receiving worse scores.

Freedom House has also rated Russia “not free” in its annual “Freedom of the World” report every year since 2005. (Prior to that, Russia was ranked “partly free” since 1991. Until the Soviet Union’s dissolution, it was ranked “not free” every year since 1972, when the yearly reports began.)

On Tuesday the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, unveiled a draft resolution listing 12 NGOs to be designated “undesirable” and included on a so-called “patriotic stop list.” The measure is due to be voted on on Wednesday.

According to Itar-TASS, the other U.S. groups listed are the government-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI); the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations; and the Flint, Mich.-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

The remaining NGOs being targeted are two Warsaw-based pro-democracy groups, the Education for Democracy Foundation and the East European Democratic Center; the Ukrainian World Congress in Canada and Ukrainian World Coordinating Council in Kiev; and a Ukrainian group called the Crimean Field Mission for Human Rights.

The draft resolution says the list comprises groups “known for their anti-Russian orientation.”

Itar-TASS quoted Konstantin Kosachev, the pro-Kremlin head of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee (Russia’s counterpart to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee), as saying it was “noteworthy” that seven of the 12 identified groups “are linked to the United States.”

Putin’s campaign against democracy-oriented Western and Russian civil society groups goes back to his previous term as president, when he accused U.S.-supported NGOs of fanning the flames in the so-called “color revolutions” that saw Kremlin-backed regimes fall in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005.

In mid-2005, Putin said he would not tolerate foreign-funded political activities by Russian NGOs.

“Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won’t allow it either,” he told a meeting of Russian human rights campaigners at the time, urging them to remain independent of foreign influences.

The following year Putin signed a law cracking down on the non-profit groups, threatening to suspend those accused of “threaten[ing] Russia’s sovereignty or independence.”

Ahead of late 2011 parliamentary elections that paved the way for his return to the presidency in May 2012, Putin – then prime minister – accused representatives of “some foreign states” of funding Russian NGOs to “influence the course of the election campaign in our country.”

“It would be better if they used this money to pay off their national debt and stop conducting an ineffective and costly foreign policy,” he said in a sideways swipe at the U.S.

After Putin returned to the Kremlin, laws passed in 2012 required Russian NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term which the State Department described as “stigmatizing” in that connote treason or espionage.

The laws also prohibits those NGOs from having members with dual-U.S. citizenship.

In its latest annual country reports on human rights, the State Department said the 2012 laws have been used to “harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of NGOs.”

The report cited observers as saying that activities viewed as “political” could include publishing opinion poll results, holding seminars to discuss policy matters, or providing information to U.N. bodies.

“Organizations the government deemed to be ‘foreign agents’ reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals, in addition to losing collaborators and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press,” it said.

Meanwhile reported repression of local NGOs continues. On Tuesday, Freedom House accused authorities of harassing staff of a Russian voters’ rights advocacy group, Golos, after raids on offices and homes.

“There is horrible irony in having authorities use trumped up charges to go after a group whose mission is to strengthen Russian democracy and rule of law,” said Susan Corke, director for Freedom House’s Eurasia programs.

“Rather than muzzle civil society, Russia’s government should seek ways to work with and harness civic activism to strengthen human rights protections and democracy.”

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