Russia curtails civil liberty

Seeing red: A string of measures cracking down on civil protests follow widespread opposition to the re-election of President Vladimir Putin in 2012. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

Seeing red: A string of measures cracking down on civil protests follow widespread opposition to the re-election of President Vladimir Putin in 2012. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

Russia’s Parliament has passed a law banning “undesirable” international organisations, raising fears of a further crackdown on voices critical of the Kremlin.

According to the legislation, the prosecutor general and foreign ministry can register as undesirable any “foreign or international organisation that presents a threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population”.

Blacklisted groups will be forbidden from operating branches or distributing information in Russia and banks will have to notify the prosecutor general and justice ministry of any financial transfers involving them. Although the language of the threat posed was vague, the law’s authors suggested that international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) often work in the interests of foreign intelligence agencies.

The legislation was passed in its third and final reading on Tuesday by a vote of 440 to three, with one deputy abstaining. Before it becomes law, it must be approved by the upper house of Parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin, steps that are all but guaranteed.

Putin has frequently named NGOs as a threat to national security. “Western special services continue their attempts at using public, nongovernmental and politicised organisations to pursue their own objectives, primarily to discredit the authorities and destabilise the internal situation in Russia,” Putin told senior officials of the federal security service in March. “They are already planning their actions for the upcoming election campaigns of 2016-2018.”

The goal of the legislation, according to its co-sponsor, Alexander Tarnavsky, was to “denote that there are foreign organisations that are unfriendly to Russia”, state news agency Tass reported.

“Today is such a time when it’s impossible not to notice that some foreign organisations don’t conduct themselves in the best manner,” Tarnavsky said. “They do this for different reasons; some at the request of intelligence services, some on the basis of other considerations.”

‘Draconian attack’
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the legislation as a “draconian attack on civil society” and the presidential human rights council said it was unconstitutional. The terms in the law are also ambiguous enough to be applied to commercial organisations, according to an analysis by the news outlet Meduza.

Although groups such as Human Rights Watch could be declared undesirable under the legislation, the group’s Russia director, Tanya Lokshina, said the law’s real target was not foreign businesses or international NGOs, but the Russian groups and activists who worked with them. She said it was probably being adopted to stem any dissent that could arise surrounding next year’s parliamentary elections.

“The law appears to be designed for select application; it’s likely it will be implemented against organisations that are critical of the government and then their Russian friends and partners,” Lokshina said. “I think the law is aimed at suffocating Russian civil society, cutting them off from their international partners, leaving them in limbo.”

She said an individual found guilty of participation in the activities of a blacklisted organisation could be fined between 5 000 and 15 000 roubles (about R4 000), officials between 20 000 and 50 000 roubles, and organisations between 50 000 and 100 000 roubles. Offenders fined twice in the same year would face criminal penalties, including a prison sentence of two to six years. Something as innocuous as participating in a panel discussion with a blacklisted organisation could be punished under the legislation.

The “undesirable” organisation legislation is the latest in a string of measures that crack down on civil society following widespread opposition protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. He signed a law requiring “political” organisations that received funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”.

At least 60 groups, including leading Russian human rights organisations such as Memorial, were given the demeaning label, which is also often used to refer to spies, and several were forced to shut down. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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