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Russia

Russia ready to brand NGOs as 'agents'

In Russia, foreign-funded NGOs that do political work will have to call themselves “foreign agents” if policymakers have their way. A scandalous defamation, say critics both at home and abroad.

It doesn't happen often that a draft law causes a storm of protests both domestically and abroad: "This is an unacceptable attempt to put a negative label on and ostracize Russian NGOs," reads a declaration of the coordinating unit of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Marieluise Beck, a member of the Green Party in the German parliament, calls it a "declaration of war by the Kremlin against its own people." Experts, too, are outraged: "It's scandalous and, in this way, unacceptable," says Hans-Henning Schröder of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in an interview with DW in Berlin.

Police during a 2012 protest rally in Moscow

Vladimir Putin has clamped down on opposition groups since returning to the presidency

The root of all the quarrel lies within the draft law that the Russian parliament, the Duma, is discussing in its first reading on Friday in Moscow. The Kremlin party United Russia aims to use it to restrict the work of non-government organizations. And here the title of the draft law leaves no doubt: It concerns NGOs that "perform the functions of foreign agents." James Bond is not too far off: To most Russians the word "agent" is a synonym for "spy".

Discrediting NGOs

In the eyes of Russian lawmakers, NGOs that receive funds from the West are apparently as dangerous to the nation as foreign secret services - at least according to the ruling party. Nowadays it would be possible to "destroy the constitutional order of a state through NGOs," a delegate said before the reading. Another called the law "a simple form of self defense of the Russian state and Russian sovereignty."

In about 20 pages the draft paper dictates that Russian NGOs that receive funds from abroad and are politically active must be entered in a special register as "foreign agents." This description also has to be visibly displayed in any contacts with the public, including written material.

"This has negative effects on different levels," criticizes Stefan Melle, director of the "German-Russian Exchange" in Berlin and member of the coordinating unit of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. This law would cause additional bureaucracy that would put a strain on the work of NGOs: "Most importantly, however, it lets NGOs fall from grace in the eyes of the public, as the NGO allegedly does not act in its own interest and that of the citizens of Russia, but instead in the interest of some obscure foreign paymasters," Melle said. This "simply isn't true," he said.

Criticism from human rights activists and experts

Whoever refuses to register as a "foreign agent" faces steep fines. In addition, the government will be able to temporarily shut down these NGOs. But that doesn't seem to scare human rights activists like Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow branch of the Helsinki Group. "There's no way we will let them register us as foreign agents - because we aren't," Alexeyeva said. The renowned organization receives funding from the European Union, among other sources.

Russian human right activists see the controversial law as a well-aimed "defamation and factual destruction of the largest independent civil society organizations." By enforcing it, Russia would fall in line with states such as Belarus and North Korea, according to a joint declaration of seven NGOs that are all active in the field of human rights.

Representatives of German NGOs working in Russia have taken a similar stance: "This law is an obvious attempt to intimidate a number of organizations," said Sascha Tamm, former head of the Moscow office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, affiliated with Germany's free-market Free Democratic Party. "For instance, if they criticize fraudulent elections, I believe it is one of the main objectives [of this new law] to say: look, this is paid for from abroad," Tamm said.

'Limit the opposition and its scope of activity'

Schröder believes the new NGO law is connected to the recent wave of anti-Putin protests throughout Russia: "There are quite a number of initiatives aimed at reducing the scope of action of the opposition." Only a few weeks earlier, the Russian parliament limited the right of assembly. Now, he said, the Duma has decided to "shut up for good" NGOs such as Golos, which had documented and criticized cases of fraud during both the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Opposition supporters wave white ribbons at a protest on Red Square in Moscow

The new law follows legislation that restricted the right to protest

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle are having "difficulty responding to the new situation, the availability of information on the Internet and critical members of society within the urban middle class," Schröder said.

Tamm says the new law is aimed at those members of the public whom "Putin likes to address, who know very little of abroad and who have a broad phobia against it." At the same time the law would "not be successful" with the critical elites of the country. But, Tamm says, nothing is yet set in stone: it isn't impossible that the draft law might still be subject to change until it reaches its third reading in parliament.

Author: Roman Goncharenko / ag
Editor: Simon Bone

DW.DE

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