Associated With Traitors
At least officially, the bill was introduced late last week by Alexander Sidyakin, a 34-year-old backbencher representing Putin's United Russia party in parliament. However, the speed with which the bill has been scheduled for a vote calls to mind a similar case in June, when Putin and his backers pushed through legislation imposing harsher legal penalties on people participating in unauthorized demonstrations. This haste gives rise to the suspicion that the true authors of the draft law can be found among those pulling the political strings in the Kremlin.
Putin had already hinted at this tough line during the presidential campaign, when he associated human rights advocates and NGO activists with traitors. He said that there are citizens "with Russian passports who (promote) the interests of foreign states," adding that the "fight for Russia" continues.
"The law will lead to higher pressure on the NGOs, to even more bureaucracy," warns Jens Siegert, director of the Moscow office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with Germany's Green Party. While the bill won't directly affect foreign organizations, he continues, it is directed "against the partners we work together with in Russia: the Memorial society, which is devoted to coming to terms with Stalin's terror, environmental activists and, more than anything else, lesbian and gay associations, which are already facing intimidation in some regions."
Worries About Political Upheaval
The Kremlin appears to believe that there is a high risk of the kind of overthrow that took place with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine of 2004 and 2005. Organizations with Western support also played a role during the democratic upheavals in the neighboring country.
Moscow suspects that primarily the United States, but also E.U. member states, are keen to see regime change in Russia. Shortly before Putin was elected to his third term as president, Washington pledged an extra $50 million to support the rule of law in Russia and strengthen its civil society. Russia's new NGO law now puts human rights and environmental activists -- who usually have to close up shop if they don't receive financial support from abroad -- under the general suspicion of being involved in seditious activities.
In justifying its actions, the Kremlin has even referred to "similar laws in the United States". In fact, in 1938, the U.S. Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was primarily geared toward propagandists of the Nazi regime in America and remains on the books to this day.
However, that law specifically targets the activities of foreign intelligence agencies rather than human rights and environmental activists receiving foreign backing. For example, in 2011, the FBI used the law to pursue an investigation of the Kashmiri American Council, a lobbying organization suspected of being bankrolled by ISI, Pakistan's main intelligence agency.
In Russian, as in English, the term "agents" is not only used in reference to conspiratorial actors working on behalf of foreign powers; it can also be used as a general designation for a representative or authorized proxy. Yet only a minority of people across Russia will probably be familiar with these linguistic nuances. In fact, if the authors of the new law get their way, the relevant NGOs will soon be forced to include a clearly visible notice in their publications designating them as "foreign agents".
Siegert, from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, believes that the Kremlin -- like other governments -- is convinced that upheavals like the Ukrainian revolution have primarily been sparked from outside the countries' borders.
"The historical irony," he says, "is that most NGOs hardly played any role in the most recent mass demonstrations. In those cases, completely new structures were already formed long ago."
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Spiegel journalist Benjamin Bidder, reporting from Moscow, Russia, in context here: www.spiegel.de/international/world/russian-draft-law-seeks-to-label-ngos-and-activists-foreign-agents-a-842836.html