Due West: Tightening the Screws on NGOs

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
Alexander Sidyakin is only 35 years old but his fame (or, rather, infamy) in the annals of Russia’s modern history is already securely guaranteed.

Alexander Sidyakin is only 35 years old but his fame (or, rather, infamy) in the annals of Russia’s modern history is already securely guaranteed. This newly minted Duma member, a lawyer elected from Tatarstan, has already achieved major publicity when he proposed a law imposing draconian fines on organizers and participants of rallies in case they “break the rules of conduct of public gatherings” – which in Russia’s system of arbitrary law enforcement and justice could be anything, including throwing a cigarette butt on the ground. The law was rushed through the Russian parliament at the speed of light, despite protests from the opposition members of parliament, who claimed that the legislation in fact curtails the constitutional right to peaceful public assembly.

Now Sidyakin has produced another invention: he has proposed a new draft that would require all NGOs in Russia that get funding from abroad to register officially as “foreign agents” and submit themselves to audit every 6 months. Which effectively means stopping the work of non-governmental organizations in its track – as Russian auditing practices in such circumstances are very close to those of the Russian police. As Russian businessmen are too afraid to finance NGOs for fear of reprisals from the Kremlin, foreign funding is the only source for many human, environmental and consumer rights organizations to survive in Russia. And although there is no outright ban on foreign subventions, the new law would create a context, which could make the functioning of NGOs close to impossible. The draft has already been reviewed by the relevant Duma committee and recommended for adoption.

A veteran human rights campaigner, one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, reacted with anger to the proposal: “We are not going to register anywhere! The MHG is no ‘foreign agent.’ It exists for 36 years to defend the rights of Russian citizens in Russia.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already expressed her concern and said that the U.S. government will find ways of continuing to fund civic society groups.

No one doubts that the law will be adopted and that Sidyakin is not acting on his own initiative. The Kremlin’s ears are clearly visible behind this barrage of restrictions on public activities. This is President Vladimir Putin’s response to the unprecedented wave of protests that swept through Moscow and other major Russian cities in the wake of the December 2011 Duma elections and March 2012 presidential ones. The Kremlin was rattled by activities of NGOs such as Golos (“voice” or “vote” in Russia), which revealed widespread vote rigging. Golos gets EU and the U.S. funding as do quite a few other NGOs who showed themselves to be at the forefront of monitoring government activities and spotting irregularities.

Together with increased pressure on the media and constant threats to curtail the internet (which remains relatively free) prove that the Russian leadership decided not to compromise with the protest movement.

Moreover, the measures that the Kremlin will no doubt get through the Duma prove that the Russian leaders’ repeated statements (including Putin himself) that “foreign hands” (read – the United States, first and foremost) are behind any opposition activity in Russia and is not a figure of speech but a deeply held conviction. Hence compromising with those who oppose the Kremlin policies is tantamount to surrender in a war.

This is what the opposition will have to face. Even with the new law granting laxer rules of political parties’ registration and slight change in the way gubernatorial elections will be conducted, opposition activity in Russia remains an arduous and hazardous undertaking. The assault on NGOs is designed to create a vacuum inside and around civic activities.

The new law will make independent monitoring of human and political rights issues much more difficult and is designed to make the NGOs cautious and pliant. It is also important for the Kremlin in the run up to fall when, experts say, the economic situation is bound to worsen and the full weight of recent hikes in utility payments will be realized by people returning from summer holidays. Putin’s government leaves nothing to chance as it continues to close the valves through which popular discontent could be channeled. And although there is no doubt that it could ram any law through parliament, the real effect of tightening the screws may well be, as history has proven repeatedly, the exact opposite of the intended.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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