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Reverse Perestroika: Russian Regulation of NGOs

July 27, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Over the course of the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that unleashed a new wave of regulations on the nation’s 220,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Passed by the upper house of parliament earlier in July, the legislation will force NGOs that engage in “political activity” and receive funding from abroad to register with the government and file detailed reports of the organization’s activities. Failure to comply with the provisions carry fines up to $9,000 or 2 years in prison. The measures have revived the controversy concerning the transparency of the Russian government and its commitment to democratic institutions.

A reaction to some of the largest anti-government protests since the fall of the USSR, the law was intentionally designed to restrict and suppress opposition political activity, a long-term goal of Putin’s United Russia party. The government, marred by allegations of electoral fraud and widespread corruption, intentionally designed the policy to restrict certain avenues of political speech and expression. Like the recent NGO bans and regulations in Egypt, Libya, and Zimbabwe, Russia’s NGO law will weaken dissent and the establishment of viable competition in the political arena.

Needless to say, the law has received negative assessments from NGOs active in Russia. As Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of election monitoring organization GOLOS observed:

The law has three aims: First, to make the work of NGOs more difficult. Second, to intimidate … and third, to blacken the image of NGOs and shame them for getting money from abroad.

Supporters of the Russian government hail the new legislation as countermeasure to protect against outside interventionism. According to their reckoning, the U.S. government has flooded Russian civil society with billions of dollars to influence Russians to favor Western interests. They argue that many of the NGOs, such as Freedom House, The Open Society Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy, have close ties with foreign governments, and by that virtue should be subjugated to more intense scrutiny. Accordingly, organizations that receive foreign funds deserve to be labeled as “foreign agents” and face more restrictions.

The Department of State has expressed “deep concern” over the NGO law, arguing that it would undermine efforts to strengthen their political institutions and processes. Moscow promptly rebuked the State Department for “gross interference” in its domestic affairs, restating their need to prevent excessive influence from foreign countries.

Will the new laws aimed at NGOs suppress freedom of speech in Russia?

Already, the law is having a major impact on NGOs in Russia: many organizations have declared their intentions to cut financial ties with foreign donors to avoid the cumbersome regulations. NGOs such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and GOLOS are now only accepting donations from Russia to circumvent the law. It is, however, questionable that they will be able to reach their current funding levels that include international donations. Others, like the For Human Rights group, plan to intentionally disobey the law and challenge its validity in court, a process that may take years.

NGOs have the potential to play critical roles in civil society through the processes of democratization, economic liberalization, and technological transformation. Used appropriately, they can provide governments with improved transparency and accountability, both of which Russia is in dire need of.  Regretfully, Russia has long been resistant to these organizations, using arbitrary tax, labor, and anti-extremism legislation to harass NGOs that criticize the government in any way. Now, it has turned to direct legislation to accomplish that goal.

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