BREAKING: Russian Duma passes controversial NGO ‘foreign agent’ bill in landslide vote

The Kremlin.

Publish date: July 13, 2012

Written by: Charles Digges

In a crunch session before its summer vacation, the Russia Duma on Friday passed with overwhelming support its widely criticized bill obliging nongovernmental groups that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents" or risk heavy fines and jail time.

Of the 378 deputies who voted on the bill in the 450-seat lower house of parliament, only three voted against it and one abstained, the Duma’s website reported.

The bill was passed in both second and third and final readings today, the last working day for the Duma before it goes on summer recess.

The bill will need to be approved by the Federation Council,the Duma’s upper chamber, signed by Putin and published in state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta to become law. The upper chamber’s last plenary session before the summer break will be held Wednesday.

Journalists from some leading Russian news outlets demonstrated outside the Duma against the new libel law, which passed with the NGO law and envisages fines of up to 5m rubles $153,000) for offenders. They warned that it would bring extra pressure on the media.

The bill was passed with amendments, due to what observers, including Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, said was the slip-shod and hasty manner in which the first draft – passed last Friday – was submitted by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

The amendments were not viewable on the Duma’s website until early this morning due to a crash caused by “thousands of visits per minute,” a Duma spokesman told Interfax.

Yet even then, the downloadable amendments (in Russian) are a confusing read published in text format, making it difficult to cross reference the original draft text with the modified version, as viewed by Bellona today.

All 237 members of the party’s Duma faction have signed their names to the bill as authors – a move designed to take the heat off of its primary author Alexander Sidyakin as many foreign governments and NGOs are forwarding the notion of placing visa restrictions and foreign asset freezes on the bill’s proponents.

At a news conference Friday, leaders of prominent human rights groups denounced the bill, calling it unreasonable and harmful to NGOs.

“The toughening of financial and bureaucratic accounting policy is very negative — it suffocates nongovernmental organizations,” said Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, according to Interfax.

The bills passage is bound to bring a firestorm of foreign and domestic criticism in the coming days, as Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the signature initiative against the storm of protest which has accompanied his return to office for a third presidential term.

Debating the bill

At the center of the debate was the kind of scrutiny foreign funded NGOs will undergo for there “political activity,” an as yet undefined term included in the first draft.

Duma speaker Serge Naryshkin promised beforehand that the updated version of the bill will include a clear definition of what constitutes political activity, according to Interfax, but did not specify what new form the language will take. No information is yet available on how the new bill formulates its definition of “political activity,” or indeed if any changes were made in the original formulation.

This is a crutical point for organizations hoping to avoid the potentially damaging label.

Nikitin said this is especially so for ERC Bellona, and Bellona Murmansk, both of which steer well clear of politics.

“If I were to acknowledge being a foreign agent, I would acknowledge that our organization is political,” Nikitin said in remarks earlier this week.

“In that case, we would lose our sponsors because the foundations that fund us don’t want to support a political organization.”

Nikitin said yesterday that he and 20 leading foreign funded NGOs would be meeting in St. Petersburg Monday to discuss how to cope with the new bill, which is expected to receive easy approval by the Federation Council Wednesday.

Nikitin will also be assessing how the soon-to-be law will affect the work of Bellona’s Russia-based staff. While some prominent NGOs, such as Helsinki Watch, have said they will refuse to register as foreign agents, Nikitn earlier this week indicated that Bellona will do what is required by law, but is worried about how that will affect its extensive partnerships with government agencies and the support of Bellona’s Russia work that comes from abroad.

Orthodox Church and Kremlin’s English mouthpiece exempted

Another key amendment that was introduced ­­– at the behest of President Vladimir Putin ­– is one exempting religious and charitable organizations, as well as organizations created by the state or state-owned companies, RIA Novosti reported.

Such a provision not only removes potential embarrassment for the Orthodox Church, which despite being a national icon receives donations from outside Russia, but also for RT, the state-financed English-language TV channel also known as Russia Today.

RT editor Margarita Simonyan said during an interview on Dozhd TV earlier this week that the state television station is registered as an NGO and accepts funding from YouTube and Google, both US-based companies, The Moscow Times reported.

RT is a news station geared toward presenting the Kremlin view to a western audience, which would present something of a difficulty were it slapped with the Stalin-era label of “foreign agent.”

Fine hike to be debated later

Another provision of the bill, mandating a significant hike in fines for violations of the new rules, was said before the debate to have been taken out and shelved for introduction as separate billl in the fall. But according to Russian media, the fine hike appears to have been passed with the rest of the legislation.

Under the new legislation, NGOs would have to publish a biannual report on their activities and carry out an annual financial audit. Failure to comply with the law could result in four-year jail sentences and/or fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($9,200).

Non-profit organizations which fall under the law’s jurisdiction, will be put on the “foreign agents” list what means that an NGO will be required to put a foreign agent label on all printed materials it publishes, including media materials.

In addition an NGO will need to inform the Justice Ministry about any foreign funding transactions greater than 200,000 rubles (about $7,000), it may receive, according to the amendments into the Law against Money Laundering and Terrorism Funding.

Further, the planned regulations envision that  failure to reveal foreign sponsors or to register as a “foreign agent” will be punishable by fines of up to 1 million rubles ($30,600), according to Irina Yarovaya, who chairs the lower house of the Duma’s security committee and heads United Russia’s conservative wing

The same fine can be imposed if an NGO publishes articles in its name without the “foreign agent” label, Yarovaya said, as quoted by Interfax

In an apparent move to soften the upcoming restrictions on NGOs, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said state funding would be increased for NGOs whose activity “as a whole is deemed useful and positive for our country.”

It remains unclear how that promise will be implemented.