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(Moscow) – The Kremlin’s announcement last week that it was kicking USAID out of Russia is the latest step in a crackdown on foreign-funded civil society groups. It’s a trend that has intensified since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May, with the parliament hastily adopting new restrictive rules for non-governmental organizations. Groups that get even a kopeck of foreign money in their budget will be required to officially register as “foreign agents.” In Russian, that is pretty much understood to imply “foreign spies,” making many here in Russia believe the law aims to marginalize and discredit groups that advocate policy change.

The new law won’t enter into force until late autumn, but you can already see it in action. At least, I did, during a recent trip to Russia’s provinces. While the Justice Ministry is still working out the new law’s implementing regulations, regional officials are apparently already trying to please their federal bosses by exhibiting exemplary exuberance for the new provisions.

A couple of weeks ago, a fascinating internal document started circulating on social networks. It is a photocopy of a letter dated August 9 on the letterhead of administration chief for the Mari El Republic in Russia’s Volga region, addressed to heads of local government agencies and services. The document cites growing concern regarding “activization of foreign and domestic non-profit organizations” and calls on the officials to mitigate these threats. They are instructed in particular to ensure that their staff at all levels “minimize participation in programs and socio-political events funded by foreign and Russian non-profit groups.” To translate from the bureaucratese, this means local officials are effectively ordered to stop cooperating with these groups. As simple as that.

Human Rights Watch sent an inquiry to that office seeking confirmation of the document’s authenticity and status. No answer so far, but  our recent experience in another region of Russia provides strong reason to believe that there have been warnings to officials, and not just in the Volga region, about contact with civil society groups, especially foreign and foreign-funded ones.

At the end of August, a colleague and I went on a research trip to a remote Russian province. We were planning to do a series of interviews on not police torture, nor dispersal of public rallies, nor threats to activists and journalists, nor corruption – none of those issues that the Russian authorities typically define as “sensitive.” We were in fact looking into a healthcare access issue that even the most vigilant official would have a hard time branding “politicized.”

A couple of days into our work, however, local officials demanded to see our accreditation documents to establish whether we were working in Russia legitimately and peppered us with questions straight out of a Soviet spy film. “Who invited you here?” “Who pays your travel costs?” “Where are your headquarters?” “Who funds your organization?” “Who is arranging your meetings for you?” “Where is your authorization [for the visit] from the federal authorities?” And on and on.

We tried to explain that our Russia office has been registered in Moscow for close to 20 years, almost as long as the post-Soviet Russian state has been in existence, and we’ve never been asked for “permission” when we travel to this or that region of Russia for human rights research. We explained that this was one of several ongoing research projects, so we were simply gathering first-hand data to develop relevant policy recommendations. Our efforts proved fruitless. By the next morning, local health care workers had received instructions to stay away from us and to exercise special caution vis-à-vis “foreign” actors in light of “the increasingly tense political environment” – another infamous time-warped cliché. This outcome was especially absurd given that we were actually looking to their region for best practices, and that by denying us access the regional officials essentially would not allow us to tell a positive story.

Once back in Moscow, I asked a friend to share that story with a federal government official knowledgeable about the origins of this law. The official merely shrugged in response: “This is definitely not what we’re aiming at. But one just cannot second guess those regional officials and prevent all their inane initiatives.”

I am inclined to believe that the Kremlin did not directly instruct local bureaucrats to behave that way. Those behind the law most likely meant it to be used selectively, against particularly bold critics of the government. But it is already evident that the adoption of the new law served as a signal from Moscow to local bureaucrats: do whatever you want to put certain groups in their place. And these local officials apparently believe that enthusiastic efforts to “neutralize foreign agents” may earn them some brownie points with the Kremlin.

But they may be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. The fact is that these organizations provide a lot of services that the regions want, from collecting diapers and pacifiers for orphanages to helping hospitals with supplies to rehabilitating under-aged prisoners or helping people in dire need of legal aid. Certainly, they depend on cooperation from local authorities, but the authorities depend on them to fill in the gaps. Important public interest work is now at risk of falling victim to a witch hunt by over-zealous officials. Maybe Moscow needs to send a message to hold off.

Another thing that Moscow should think about is how it’s going to sort out the problems resulting from USAID’s forced withdrawal. After all, most USAID funds in Russia were being spent on programs very far from politics – or civil liberties for that matter. They went towards supporting projects in the areas of HIV and TB prevention, integration of people with disabilities, assistance to orphans, and other socially vulnerable groups. So, will the Russian government pick up directly where USAID left off? Is it actually planning to enable the good work to continue, or is it betting that ordinary citizens harmed by the closure of USAID-funded projects won’t join the ranks of the protesters?

Obviously the United States and other democratic countries will need to ponder these issues as well. They should send a strong message about the need to assist Russia’s vibrant civil society and ensure that this support will continue. It is needed now more than ever, and Russia is a better place for it.

Tanya Lokshina is a senior Russia researcher and the deputy Moscow director at Human Rights Watch.

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