Russia’s Putin finalizes baffling new NGO amendments by signing them into law

Vladimir Putin. (Photo:
Vladimir Putin. (Photo:

Publish date: June 6, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law amendments to the country’s NGO legislation, which purport to make the term “political activity” clearer as the Kremlin steps up attacks on the non-profit “foreign agent” sector.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law amendments to the country’s NGO legislation, which purport to make the term “political activity” clearer as the Kremlin steps up attacks on the non-profit “foreign agent” sector.

Putin signed the amendments Thursday despite protests lodged by international rights groups. The law confirming their adoption appeared on the government’s official web portal (in Russian) for new legislation the same day.

The new amendments got an easy ride through the Duma. Russia’s lower House of Parliament, which approved them on May 20. The Federation Council, the Parliament’s upper chamber, passed them on May 25.

duma.jpg The Russian Duma. (Photo: Youtube still)

During that period, the Russian Ministry of Justice named five more groups to its list of “foreign agents,” the sharpest uptick in tarring non profits with the label since the ministry was given the power to single out NGOs on its own in 2014.

As of Monday, the Justice Ministry lists 130 organizations as foreign agents on its official foreign agent portal.

The original NGO law of 2012 stipulates that non-profits operating in whole or in part on foreign funding register themselves as foreign agents with the Ministry of Justice if they engage in political activity.

Since the original NGO law of 2012 took force, over a third of Russia’s non-profits have been forced to close their doors.

Russian NGO leaders have long complained that political activity was barely defined in the original law, making compliance impossible.

Putin last October tasked the Justice Ministry with developing amendments to the law that would narrow the definition.

In January, the Justice Ministry published its draft amendments, which ignited a firestorm among rights groups led by the President’s own Council for Human Rights and Civil Society, which said the range of the new amendments was even more impossibly broad than the vagaries that had previously defined political activity.

putin fedotov Putin (far left), Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin (center) and Chairman of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov at a 2012 meeting. (Photo:

The Council’s head, Mikhail Fedotov accused the Justice Ministry of failing to carry out its order from Putin.

On Thursday, one Russian publication, the business daily Kommersant, was bold enough to feature in its coverage of the new amendments some of the more outlandish requirements put to NGOs if they wish to avoid running afoul of the new definition of political activity.

The new amendments assert that, “[…] should NGOs publicize information about public opinion polls “this would be viewed as “influenc[ing] public political views,” wrote Kommersant. Attempts by NGOs to monitor elections is also deemed political activity.

But the mines for NGOs run deeper than that.

According Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental and Human Rights Center (ERC) Bellona: “The list of political activities encompasses practically everything, from defense, to international politics, to socio-economic and national relations, and legislation regulating human rights.”

Some of the more exotic restrictions include prohibitions on the popular practice of sending open letters to Russian politicians at any level of government; participating in gatherings or demonstrations; criticizing laws passed by any level of government; using “contemporary information technologies” to air opinions about any decision made by the government, and any attempts to influence the drafting of legislation.

“In short, the activities of NGOs are maximally restricted,” Nikitin said.

As an example of how convoluted the application of these edicts can become, Anna Kireeva, with the now-defunct NGO Bellona Murmansk cited public praise the organization had received for its environmental work in Northwest Russia.

The NGO shut down in October 2015 when it faced mounting fines for engaging in political activity, primarily the distribution of a report on industrial pollution in Russia’s northwest – a report the group had no hand in writing.

anna3 Anna Kireeva at the Port of Murmansk where coal has become a major pollution source for the city. (Photo: For Bellona)

In an interview last week, Kireeva said the Justice Ministry also considered the the wide-spread approval of the group’s work to itself be proof that Bellona Murmansk had influenced public opinion and was therefore politically active.

Andrei Zolotkov, former director of Bellona Murmansk complained by email that he was exhausted by commenting on ever-evolving iterations of the NGO law’s definition of political activity.

“One could suggest to the honorable Duma Deputies and bureaucrats with their Mercedes and their Brioni suits and Apple gadgets to focus their intellectual activity on how to make all fee thinkers into foreign agents,” he wrote. “All that remains to be added to the law is ‘if you have a visa to another country and foreign currency in your pocket, you are a candidate for becoming a foreign agent with the corresponding restrictions on your rights.’”

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