This past Friday, Russia’s lower house of parliament adopted in second reading an “undesirable organizations” bill. The third and final reading is practically a formality, and there is little doubt the bill will be soon passed into law. In recent months numerous journalists asked me, “So, this new draft law now in the works, is it about you? Do you think they want to use this to shut down Human Rights Watch in Russia?” My answer is no. To be sure, this bill is bad news for international groups like Human Rights Watch, but it’s not about us. It’s first and foremost about Russian activists and Russian civil society groups. They are the primary target of this repressive law.
Russia needs no new law to close down Russia-based offices of international organizations– the Justice Ministry can do this with one stroke of the pen, as they did last summer with the Russia office of International Crisis Group on a technical pretext. Nor does Russia need new laws to ban staffers for international rights groups from entering the country – any foreigner can be blacklisted with no explanation whatsoever. The purpose of this new legislative exercise is almost certainly different.
The bill enables the authorities to declare as undesirable any foreign or international nongovernmental organization that it deems “represents a threat to the constitutional rule, the national defense capability or the national security,” and ban its activities on Russian territory. More important, it also allows them to punish individuals – Russian citizens, that is – and local groups for cooperating with the “undesirable.”
Needless to say, the definition of national security under Russian law is very broad and vague. So there’s little doubt that the law is designed for selective and arbitrary application. Nor does the bill clarify what cooperation with an undesirable organization may entail. Distributing their reports and other materials, communicating with their representatives, participating in international events in which they’re involved could all easily be interpreted as cooperation, with severe sanctions. The bill provides for hefty administrative fines for the first two offenses, and more than two offenses in one year can result in criminal sanctions and up to six years in prison.
Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin three years ago, Russia has enacted a web of restrictive laws clearly aimed at suppressing independent voices: like the infamous “foreign agents” law that effectively brands leading Russian rights groups as foreign spies and traitors. When it passes the third reading and receives the endorsement of the upper chamber and the president – in practice a rubber stamp for a measure like this – the bill will be the latest and particularly heavy link added to the chain already binding Russian activists hand and foot. It is also another disastrous step by the government to cut international ties and exacerbate Russia’s increasing isolation.