Today, Russia’s upper house of parliament endorsed a bill on ‘undesirable organisations,’ passed by the lower house just a day earlier, on May 19. The bill will let the government ban the activities of foreign or international nongovernmental groups deemed to undermine ‘state security,’ ‘national defense,’ or the ‘constitutional order.’ There is little doubt that this new piece of repressive legislation will be now swiftly signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
The real targets
Meanwhile, my phone is ringing off the hook: ‘So, this new law the State Duma has just adopted, is it about you? Do you think they want to use this to close down the Human Rights Watch bureau in Moscow?’ Well, to be sure, the bill has the potential to severely damage our work in Russia. The ‘undesirables’ bill is a cause of grave concern for all international rights groups operating in the country.
Nevertheless, I am genuinely convinced that it’s not about us. The intended targets of this new legislation on foreign and international organisations are actually Russian activists and Russian groups. The bill is aimed at cutting them off from their international partners, further isolating them, and squeezing the very life out of Russian civil society.
Just think about it. Why would the government need new legislation to close down Russia-based offices of foreign groups when the Justice Ministry can do this in one swift move simply by de-registering any organisation, no strings attached? And if Russia wants to stop representatives of foreign groups from entering the country, the authorities can simply blacklist them with no explanation whatsoever.
The bill on ‘undesirables’ not only allows the authorities to ban specific organisations’ activities on Russian territory – it also provides for sanctions against Russian citizens and Russian groups for ‘involvement’ in the activities of ‘undesirable’ organisations.
The bill does not specify what ‘involvement’ might include. So anything goes. Distributing -- including by posting online -- the statements, reports, or other materials of an ‘undesirable,’ participating in international events jointly with ‘undesirable’ organisations, or even simply communicating with staffers of ‘undesirable’ organisations could be all interpreted by the authorities as ‘involvement’ in their activities and result in punishment of the Russian groups and individuals. Sanctions include hefty administrative fines for the first two offenses, and more than two offenses in one year can result in criminal prosecution and up to six years in prison.
The bill appears to be designed for selective implementation. The definition of ‘state security’ under Russian law is vague. The prosecutor general’s office can designate an organisation as ‘undesirable’ without judicial review based solely on materials from law enforcement and security services. The Justice Ministry is designated as the keeper of the ‘undesirables.’
There is no requirement for the authorities to give a potential ‘undesirable’ any notice – an organisation may only discover its ‘undesirability’ after it has been already included on the list. Once the law enters into force, any foreign non-governmental group that criticises the Russian authorities, conducts independent activity, and supports civil society in Russia will be under threat of being pegged ‘undesirable.’
An ‘undesirable’ organisation must terminate its presence in Russia and stop participating in any projects on Russian territory. Moreover, it won’t be able to reach out to the public through Russian media or websites – all its information will effectively be banned. And any Russian friends, partners or sympathizers of these organisations should know better than to go near them.
Spreading the trend
These new harsh restrictions follow in the footsteps of the ‘foreign agents’ law passed in July 2012, which has been used to demonise in the eyes of the public close to 60 local non-governmental organisations, including the country’s leading human rights groups, as anti-Russian saboteurs. Several of these organisations chose to shut down rather than bear the ‘foreign agent’ stigma.
The new bill on ‘undesirables’ is indubitably part of the Kremlin’s trend of repression against independent voices but takes it even further. While supposedly focused on preventing foreign and international groups from undermining national security, it is evidently meant to deliver another hard blow to Russian groups and activists. Once the authorities have free rein to bar Russians from ‘involvement’ with their ‘undesirable’ foreign counterparts, the authorities can leave critics of the government in an airless limbo and eventually suffocate them.