Tensions between Russia and the West reached a higher pitch over the weekend when President Vladimir Putin signed into law a vice-like new crackdown on “undesirable organizations,” which further imperils the country’s already beleaguered non-profit sector.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International immediately condemned the legislation as part of an “ongoing draconian crackdown, which is squeezing the life out of civil society.”
The law on undesirables vastly expands on President Vladimir Putin’s hunt for NGOs, which began with his 2012 law requiring Russian non-profits receiving foreign funding and engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents” with Russia’s Justice Ministry. As of July 2014, Putin handed the ministry the power to name agents on its own.
The “undesirables” law takes it a step further by essentially criminalizing associating with international foreign non-profits and their branch organizations, and takes direct aim at freedom of speech, said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the St. Petersburg’s Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona.
The new law gives prosecutors unprecedented leeway to crack down on “undesirable” foreign groups it deems a threat to “state security” or the “basic values of the Russian state.” The law seems designed for targeted implementation, as it gives no concrete definition of “undesirable” activity.
Suspect groups, and people working with them, also risk being banned from Russia and having their bank accounts seized. Violators could face heavy fines and up to six years in prison, Nikitin said.
The Russian Justice Ministry will be responsible for compiling and publicizing a blacklist of undesirables based on documents supplied by Russia’s Prosecutor General.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday defended criticism of the law for being foggy on the point of what undesirable means.
“This does not mean that the legislation is flawed,” Peskov said according to the TASS official news wire, adding that the claims of the organizations targeted by the the undesirable law and the foreign agent law cannot serve as grounds for revising them.
“Undesirable” are those [organizations] that pose a threat to the national security and national interests,” Peskov said. “Agents” do not necessarily pose a threat,” he added. “These are completely different matters.”
Undesirables already being plucked up
Nikitin, who has been in touch with other rights groups in Russia, confirmed that Tuesday the Duma had today sent a list of organizations to the Prosecutor General for investigation as undesirables.
The list includes the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest rights organizations, Human Rights Watch, and the Russian divisions of Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, and Amnesty International. Some news outlets have reported the Doctors Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders, Greenpeace, and the Moscow Helsinki Group are likely next.
“In the wake of the law on ‘foreign agents,’ – which can only be Russian organizations – what this new law means is that the battle against branch organizations of international NGOs has begun,” said Nikitin. “That is, the entire field of civil society organizations will be purged of all but those who are allowed to stay.”
Ivan Pavlov, one of Russia’s most prominent human rights lawyers and head of the St. Petersburg-based Freedom of Information Foundation, told The Moscow Times he thought it would be about another six months before the undesirables law took force.
Campaign of isolation and censorship
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) raised concerns of censorship against Russian media in a statement, pointing out that the law additionally “prohibits Russian mass media and online portals to disseminate information materials produced by these [undesirable] organizations.”
A European Union statement Sunday condemned the law as a “worrying step in a series of restrictions on civil society, independent media and political opposition” in Russia. “”It will restrict freedom of speech and media as well as pluralism of opinion.”
Marie Harf of the US State Department likewise issued a statement opposing the law because it “criminalizes any ‘cooperation’’ with groups” deemed undesirable, and provides another example of the Kremlin’s “intentional steps to isolate the Russian people from the world.”
“Russians, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” said Harf.
Russian Duma deputy Anton Ishchenko, one of the authors of the law, told The Moscow Times that the law doesn’t gag news outlets or bloggers from reporting on undesirables outright. But the law does prohibit the press from publishing slogans from the organizations or publishing Internet links to material they publish.
In his interview with the paper, Pavlov said keeping Russian reporters and editors on edge about what they are allowed to publish is the whole point of the law’s veiled threats against them.
“The authorities are trying to bring self-censorship, a concept that normally belongs in the moral sphere, into the legal sphere in the current political context,” Pavlov told the paper. “Initiatives like these are aimed at increasing the self-censorship of Russian media outlets.”
The day after the undesirables law was signed, rumblings emerged from Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor against the US-based Google, Twitter and Facebook. The agency warned them not violate the country’s internet laws, Reuters reported.
Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky said that the three companies must hand over data on Russian bloggers with more than 3,000 readers per day, in addition to shutting down websites that Roskomnadzor deems threatening law and order by calling for “unsanctioned protests and unrest.”
The plight of foreign agents and undesirables
Russian media have reported that when an organization ends up on the undesirables list, the Justice Ministry is under no obligation to inform it.
Gudkov, one of the three Duma deputies who voted against the law, told Radio Azzatyq that only courts should be deciding which organizations have and have not violated the law.
Pavel Chikov, head of the Kazan-based Russian human rights umbrella group Agora, predicted “a mass of disputes over interpretation of the law.”
“Simply declaring someone ‘undesirable, we don’t want to see him on our territory’ will be a violation of international law and general legal principles, and of the civil legal code,” Chikov said.
The Justice Ministry has currently registered 67 foreign agents, 61 of which were included on the list involuntarily according to a the Tass official news agency. Ten of the foreign agents are environmental groups, including Bellona Murmansk, Bellona’s Murmansk office, and Ecodefense, one of Russia’s oldest anti-nuclear groups.
ERC Bellona’s Ksenia Vakhrusheva underscored that the organization was a Russian organization and not a branch of Bellona Oslo, which should keep it off the list of undesirables.
But she said that “in the event the Norwegian Bellona is named an undesirable organization, then we could not receive any financial assistance from them, which would, of course, reduce our budget.”
Veteran rights activist and Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva, told Russia’s Interfax news agency that, “This law is another step toward lowering the curtain between our country and the West.”