A Russian law that would ban “undesirable organizations” was today approved in its third reading in the Duma in a measure many see as an extreme effort to broaden the “foreign agent” law that, in effect, targets individuals working in the civil society sector.
The law was initiated by pro-Putin Russian lawmakers Alexander Tarnavsky and Anton Ishchenko in a move rights advocates say are aimed at further isolating Russia’s civil society groups from western influence.
According to the law, prosecutors would be able to label some foreign organizations undesirable if they pose “a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country or the security of the state.”
The law would also apply to Russian organizations that receive funding and cooperate with foreign groups.
The Ministry of Justice – which since June has been tasked with naming “foreign agents within Russia’s NGO community on its own – will be responsible for maintaining the blacklist of “undesirables.”
Further, anyone working for these blacklisted groups could face steep fines reaching 500,000 rubles ($10,000) or jail terms of up to six years.
The law leaves the definition of undesirable open to interpretation.
The law passed is second reading on May 15 with a vote of 442 to 3. It was today approved in its third reading by the Duma. It is awaiting then approval by the Duma’s upper house, the Federation Council and president Putin’s signature, but these are viewed as a formality.
What awaits NGOs and other undesirables
Groups labeled as undesirable would see blocks on their bank accounts, and they would be stopped from opening any offices in Russia, while Russian organizations who receive funding from “undesirables” will be held accountable, the legislation states.
The law also imposes a ban on disseminating materials, including through media and the Internet.
“This law is something that we have feared would come, “ said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director. “It’s clear that under the Putin’s regime it will only get worse from here for Russian NGOs – Putin will use any means to stop any independent voices that might appear in Russia, so he can continue his Kremlin stay for years to come.”
What happens to business still a question
The original text of the bill targeted foreign businesses and companies as well. During debate on the bill during its first reading earlier last week, the Duma committee on constitutional legislation and state construction requested it be softened to target only “undesirable” nongovernmental organizations, RFE reported.
But the popular and well-connected daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets asserted targets of the undesirable label are organizations that are “commercial and non-profit alike.”
Dmitry Gudkov – one of just three lawmakers who voted against the law in it’s second reading on Friday – confirmed these fears in a Russian transcript of an interview with Kommersant FM radio.
He warned that the wording of the law meant that businesses in the country could also be hit.
“Prosecutors… could close any company, for example Apple or McDonalds, because prosecutors can read the law just as it sees fit,” he told the radio station.
“The bill is absolutely harmful and unnecessary, it will hurt the investment climate,” he said, “it’s such a vague term, it can have an effect on everything.”
History of spies and undesirables
Under the existing 2012 law, foreign-funded Russian NGOs engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” must register as foreign agents. NGOs who have been snared
with the new designation say it associates them with espionage.
Tatiana Lokshina, head of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, said the new law emphasizes a principle of guilt by association with any group deemed a foreign agent or an undesirable.
“The government doesn’t need a new law in order to shut down Human Rights Watch or any other human rights groups here in Russia – under the existing legislation that can be done in one day by the Minister of Justice without warning,” Lokshina told Deutche Welle.
“What makes this particular law special is that it actually provides for liability for Russian nationals who cooperate with these undesirable organizations,” said Lokshina.
She said the law will tar NGOs with the undesirable label and then target Russian individuals or organizations that maintain ties with it, exposing them to fines and jail time.
“It’s about cutting them off from international organizations,” she said. “It’s about cutting them off from their global partners. It’s about exacerbating their isolation.”
Pavel Chikov, head of the Kazan-based 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.