Russia has launched a new crackdown on groups that might challenge President Vladimir Putin's monopoly on power.
On Tuesday, Moscow moved to ban the United States National Endowment for Democracy under a new law against foreign-backed "undesirable" nongovernmental organizations that the Kremlin claims are meddling in Russia's internal affairs.
"Prosecutors came to the conclusion that it [the Endowment] presents a threat to the constitutional order of Russia, its defense capabilities and state security," said Russian prosecutors in a statement, according to Deutsche Welle.
The endowment "participated in work to declare the results of election campaigns illegitimate, to organize political demonstrations aimed at influencing decisions taken by state institutions and to discredit service in the Russian armed forces," the prosecutor's statement said.
Under the new Russian law, if the Justice Ministry approved the prosecutor's motion, the Endowment won't be able to open offices or send money to local groups, Deutsche Welles reported. Activists found cooperating with banned groups face jail terms of as long as six years.
Funded largely by Congress, the Endowment is a private nonprofit that has given out more than 1,200 grants to nongovernmental organizations pursuing democratic goals in more than 90 countries, according to its website. The website lists more than 100 grants in Russia ranging from around $20,000 to $500,000 to promote human rights, freedom of the press, women's rights and other causes.
"The law on undesirable organizations is the latest in a series of highly restrictive laws that limit the freedom of Russian citizens," the Endowment said in a statement on Tuesday. "This law, as well as its predecessors, contravenes Russia's own constitution as well as numerous international laws and treaties. The true intent of these laws is to intimidate and isolate Russian citizens."
The ban is an expansion of previously enacted rules that require Russian NGOs to register with the government and disclose their ties to foreign entities. It comes after Russia has ended other foreign programs over the years, like the Peace Corps in 2002.
The pattern for all of those actions are the same, said Leonard Benardo, regional director for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, in an interview with VICE News. Putin and his cohort have cowed business, seized control of the media and hijacked the political system. Now they're moving to eviscerate the last semblance of a political opposition in the country: activists who might call into question Putin's autocratic policies.
"This is an attempt to ensure there are no alternative countervailing views," said Benardo. "There is no belief that these organizations exist on behalf of the Russian population. There is this regrettable belief that these groups are working on behalf of foreign governments to inspire or foment some form of rebellious activity."
Karen Lea Dawisha, a Miami University political scientist who wrote Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? was blunter. Eliminating NGOs isn't just about keeping a hold on power, it's also about building up a cult of personality, she said.
"They want to extend this image of Putin as the sole important person," Dawisha told VICE News. "There is a reason that his entourage now refers to him as the czar. The czar doesn't have civil society. I think he is completely paranoid."
The chilling effect is working.
Last week, the MacArthur Foundation, which is now also listed as a NGO that prosecutors could deem undesirable in the future, announced that it would pull out of Russia.
"The recent passage and implementation of several laws in Russia make it all but impossible for international foundations to operate effectively and support worthy civil society organizations in that country," said MacArthur President Julia Stasch in a statement.
Activists aren't giving up, however. They're going underground, giving rise to subterfuge that recalls dissidents in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"I know from talking to people who are high up in various civil society organizations that they have already implemented off-internet plans," said Dawisha. "That is the number one way they are being surveilled. It's a shame, because of course that is what Russia wants them to do. But they are still organizing. The old meeting in the parks and the prearranged meetings in cafes are staring to occur."
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