Russian NGOs as foreign agents?

As Russia plan to introduce a bill that would label many NGOs as foreign agents, see e.g. NY Times, it seems that the Kremlin is expecting more social unrest in the future and is taking active measures now.

Questions:

Why is Russia doing this? Would you say it will really complicate the work of NGOs in Russia?

Answers:

Sean Roberts, Researcher, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

First, the NYT article is right in principle that this could be retaliation for the Magnitsky act in the US.

Second, it is impossible to look at this NGO law in isolation. There is a process of reform underway in Russia following the 2011/12 election cycle. The reforms are ambitious and there are genuine concessions being made to opposition, but at the same time there are also surreptitious attempts to maintain the status quo and limit change. The law on NGOs is part of this reform process, but as this process has not finished, it is difficult to speculate on the results. Without speculating too much, it seems that the Kremlin is expecting more social unrest in the future and is taking active measures now.

Third, civil society and human rights have been major issues in recent weeks – not just the law on NGOs. The Kremlin has been trying to reform the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, but this has been interpreted by existing members (including Lyudmila Alekeyeva quoted in the NYT article) as an attempt to make it less independent. The law on demonstrations is another development that has serious implications for society and human rights. Together, they paint a picture of Putin trying to make an immediate impact following his May inauguration, trying to assert his authority and restore order to the situation that emerged from the December 4 election, to stop the protest contagion from spreading. This is not the first time that the Kremlin has considered this kind of harsh legislation preventing mass-actions, but previously in 2005/6 it was considered that society was not ready for this kind of law. Society probably isn’t ready now, so this law may not last to the end of the year in its current form, but it will act as a deterrent for the next few months.

Getting to the law on NGOs. In all honesty, the law on foreign NGOs will not greatly affect the situation in the short term. This is not the first time foreign NGOs or even foreign interference in Russian domestic politics has hit the headlines. I have no doubt that the US would like to influence Russian domestic politics, as it has a long track record of subverting even democratically elected governments around the world. But there is no evidence that the US had any practical input into recent unrest in Russia, although the US continues to be the source of democratic norms that are considered problematic by the Russian regime. As such, I would say that this attempt at creating financial transparency is part of the ideological battle, with the label ‘foreign agent’ a deliberate longer-term attempt to discredit pro-democracy NGOs in the eyes of the general public – a public that has been nourished on a steady discourse of foreign agents as ‘enemies of the people’. The Kremlin understands full well, that the recent protests will become unstoppable, if the narrowly based protest movement succeeds in widening its appeal in Russian society. In any case, Russian security services have all the laws and information they need to combat foreign interference through NGOs without this new law.

Regina Smyth, Asssociate Professor, Department of Political Science, Indiana University

In my opinion this law is part of a broad strategy of intimidation–that includes the recent law on protest–designed to provide the regime with the tools to “rule by law” in an ad hoc manner. This means that the regime will invoke the law to punish one or two very visible opponents in order demonstrate to others the danger of being politically active. It is similar to the way in which the regime singled out Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the early 2000s and used the law to ensure that economic elites stayed out of politics.

The “rule by law” strategy is designed to ensure regime stability so that any change or modernization that occurs is consistent with the goals of the regime and does not introduce instability or social unrest.

Most, NGOs will not be directly affected by the law although some will be treated harshly, including organizations that work on human rights and environmental issues. All organizations will be under the threat of being the next target and therefore are likely to limit their behavior and involvement in politics.

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