A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Civil society workers in Russia say a bill proposing new restrictions on the country's corps of nongovernmental organizations will have far-reaching consequences for ordinary citizens.
The bill, which seeks to increase bureaucratic burdens on local NGOs that receive foreign funding, was passed on July 13 by Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
Russia has seen repeated attempts in the past decade to curb the activities of NGOs.
But many NGO workers say that this time around, the stakes are higher for ordinary Russians, who have gained a clearer sense of the important services their organizations provide.
Nyuta Federmesser is the president of the hospice charity Vera, which provides end-of-life care for elderly patients and enables the purchase of so-called "orphan drugs" for the treatment of uncommon diseases -- a concept that was virtually unheard of in Russia even a decade ago.
"It was lobbying -- and lobbying by NGOs specifically -- that led to laws being passed that allow the legal import of orphan drugs to treat rare diseases," Federmesser says. "Our foundation is currently lobbying very actively for changes to be made to legislation on the circulation of narcotic medications.
"Apparently our work is political, judging by [the NGO bill]," she continues. "And all along I thought it was simply aimed at improving quality of life for cancer patients and people who are sick and dying."
After an emotional season of opposition protests, the Kremlin appears intent on clamping down on a wide spectrum of perceived critics -- including internationally funded NGOs that under the new legislation will be branded as "foreign agents."
The Duma also passed legislation recriminalizing slander and libel, as well as a controversial information law that critics say could make it easier for authorities to censor websites.
But as Russia's flourishing Internet community of activists and civic-minded citizens continues to grow, it is unclear if the Kremlin will be able to put the genie of public engagement back in the bottle.
Sergei Borisov heads the OPORA national organization of small and medium-sized businesses. He says Russia has already put down too many global roots to return to life as an isolated and autocratic state.
"We're already living in a global world," Borisov says. "We've opened the door to the [World Trade Organization], and soon we'll be a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe. We're working more and more closely with our foreign colleagues. So to make a watershed decision that isn't clearly spelled out and is open to a variety of interpretations is absolutely unreasonable. Why smear our civil society institutions like this?"
The NGO bill has yet to get the nod from the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, and be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
But few doubt the upper chamber will pass the bill or that the president, who earlier this week dismissed suggestions that the legislation required additional clarification, will hesitate before putting pen to paper.
Igor Chestin, the director of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia, says the rush to pass the legislation is the result of what he calls lawmakers' "panicky fear" of NGOs.
He says the bill was so hastily contrived that it even fails to anticipate the fact that even Russian-funded institutions may be branded with the "foreign agent" seal.
"The Russian Geographical Society, for example, receives money from Russian businesses that are registered offshore," Chestin says. "The Sochi 2014 [Olympic] organizing committee will also become a 'foreign agent.' So will the Hermitage Museum, whose foundation is actually headed by a foreigner. The list goes on and on. These are consequences that people simply haven't thought about -- probably because they're not very capable in such matters."
Chestin, whose organization has been at the vanguard of Russia's fledgling environmental protection movement, for now appears to be adopting a playful approach.
"We've decided to turn the phrase 'foreign agent' into a kind of mark of quality," he says. From now own, he explains, WWF's materials will be published with the disclaimer, "We're not crooks and thieves. We're foreign agents."