On 21 November, a Kremlin-backed law forcing foreign-funded NGOs engaging in political activities to register themselves as "foreign agents" came into effect. However, dozens of NGOs operating in Russia are refusing to comply with the new law which passed several months ago. On 21 November, the office façade of Memorial rights group in Moscow was spray-painted with the words “Foreign Agent (Loves) USA”.
Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told New Europe in an interview on 22 November that the law is part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on its critics. The new law only applies to Russian NGOs that receive foreign funding and therefore it is not applicable to Carnegie, which is a Russian chapter of a foreign organisation – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is no doubt that this piece of legislation is an encroachment on civil liberties. But I would point out that this is but one out of about a dozen pieces of legislation that were hastily pushed through the Russian Duma mostly in summer,” Lipman said, adding that the Kremlin has easily passed through the Duma new amendments and laws all of them curtailing civil liberties.
One of the sponsors of the new legislation, Irina Yarovaya from United Russia, who heads the Anti-Corruption and Security Committee in the State Duma, defended the law, saying that “people should understand who does politics in Russia using money received from overseas”.
But Lipman noted that this piece of legislation is characteristically vaguely worded, “which enables selective enforcement and this is common practice in Russia”. “I don’t think that the new legislation will be enforced across the board. Rather I think it should be seen as an instrument of intimidation,” she argued.
Lipman said the Russian government may be after specific organisations, mentioning them in the bill. One of them is Golos, Russia’s only independent vote monitoring group. “It clearly gets in the way of the government which over the years has relied on fraudulent elections,” she said. Another organisation that may be targeted and was mentioned at the time the law was framed is Transparency International Russia. “The government itself is now on an anti-corruption campaign. But it doesn’t want outsiders, especially those financed from abroad, to make a contribution to the anti-corruption campaign. The government wants to decide by itself which corrupt officials or organisations should be prosecuted. It doesn’t want independent players to have a role,” Lipman added.
The Carnegie analyst reminded that this is the second major legislative assault on Russian NGOs that receive foreign funding. The first was in aftermath of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. “At that time the way the Russian government viewed the developments in Ukraine was that foreign governments and, of course, first and foremost the United States seek a regime change in Ukraine and act to this end via non-government organisations,” she argued, adding that the Russian government viewed NGOs to be a source of serious threat. “It was not just about legislation, it was about discrediting them as agents of the west, spies being arms of foreign governments,” Lipman said, adding that at that time the eventual law was softer. “This time around I think the attack is more serious. The government still sees foreign financing as a threat to the Russian government elite and seeks to incapacitate them, discredit them and strip them of funds,” she said, adding that this is one of the reasons why the Russian government has taken a decision to shutdown USAID activity in Russia.
The unprecedented protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin that followed last December's rigged parliament vote and Putin's return to the Kremlin in May were an unexpected and serious challenge to the government. “The important impulse for this new attack was the protests last year,” Lipman told New Europe. “The government is now on the offensive against those forces that are seeing as probably contributors, participants, sponsors of the anti-government protests, mostly anti-Putin,” she said, adding that there is in fact no obvious link to NGOs and the protests. “However, this is how the government sees it and the way the protesters were discredited was also by way of links with the west and first and foremost the United States. The government beginning with Putin himself have made repeated allegations that the protests are sponsored by, inspired by evil forces of the west that seek to weaken Russia,” Lipman said.
During her visit to Russia on 16 November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Putin she said she was “irritated” by Russian laws clamping down on political organisations and condemned the sentencing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Putin replied with accusations of gender inequality in Germany and discord in the EU.
As far as 10 years ago, Putin made a point that he would not allow anyone to teach Russia, preach to it or interfere with its domestic affairs, Lipman said. “He always stands up to defend Russia and to make unambiguous statement that this is unacceptable. So there is nothing new in this reaction, it’s just that it was the German Chancellor not some reporter who dared ask a disrespectful question,” she said.