Today, the Russian parliament’s upper chamber took a step toward banning 12 nongovernmental organizations – including some leading American philanthropic institutions active in Russia for many years – under the brand new law on “undesirable organizations.”

On the night before the “foreign agents” law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial.

© 2012 Yulia Klimova/Memorial

Once designated as “undesirable,” an organization must immediately end its presence in Russia and won’t be able to reach out to the public through Russian media or websites – all of its information will effectively be prohibited. Most importantly, any Russian friends and partners of the designated organizations must keep their distance. Under Russian law, any “involvement” in the activities of an “undesirable organization” carries a sentence of up to six years behind bars.

The list of 12 includes some organizations that have been supporting Russian civil society groups for many years – Open Society Foundations, the MacArthur Foundation, and several others, and two global Ukrainian associations. The list also includes the Crimea Field Mission – a loose association of human rights activists, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, who travel to Crimea on a rotating basis to report on the human rights situation there. By calling this group undesirable the senators sent a message that among other things, they view human rights monitoring as a threat to “state security,” “national defense,” or “constitutional order.”

Before the list was made public, Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office was flooded with calls from journalists asking, “Our sources said Human Rights Watch will be on the list. What are you doing to do?” The list hadn’t even been made public yet, but it was already having a toxic effect, wearing us out, keeping us on edge. One wonders if that is one of the aims of the law.

Once designated as “undesirable,” an organization must immediately end its presence in Russia and won’t be able to reach out to the public

The law authorizes the prosecutor general to designate “undesirable organizations,” taking into account information received from different sources, such as members of parliament. It is unlikely that all 12 organizations on the senators’ list will be banned at once. The law on “undesirable organizations” appears to be designed for selective use, and its implementation will probably kick off on a smaller scale. Nor is the senators’ list unique. Various, eager members of parliament have drawn up multiple lists of would be “undesirables.” These lists have no legal power, but they do enjoy the very real power to intimidate and incite self-censorship. They have already become an important part of the witch hunt against critics of the government by creating a climate of hostility, fear, and suspicion.