Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted a new law over the weekend that allows the country to crack down on "destructive organizations" that operate with foreign backing and threaten "the security of the state." But rather than targeting terrorist groups, as the language in the legislation seems to suggest, the measure is aimed at NGOs, non-profit organizations that advocate for human rights, the environment, and a wide variety of other causes.
According to the controversial law, which was passed last week by both houses of the Russian parliament and signed into law by Putin on Saturday, the country's prosecutor general and Foreign Affairs Ministry will have the power to flag "undesirable" NGOs and ban them from operating.
No court action will be necessary to list an NGO — an abbreviation that stands for non-governmental organization — as "undesirable." Once a group gets the label, its assets in Russia will be frozen, its offices closed, and all its information channels shut down. NGO employees who fail to comply face fines and up to six years in prison, and can also be barred from entering Russia. Russian individuals or groups that continue to cooperate with banned NGOs will also face administrative penalties.
The bill has faced heavy criticism from several prominent international NGOs. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a joint statement on May 15 denouncing the "draconian crackdown," which they said is "squeezing the life out of civil society" in Russia.
"These new harsh restrictions are part of an ever-rising repressive tide which is stifling free speech, denying the space for debate, and suffocating free expression in Russia," Amnesty International spokesman John Dalhuisen said.
HRW said the law's primary targets are "Russian activists and Russian independent organizations" that cooperate with international NGOs. "There are no procedures for contesting the decision or for excluding the organization from the list," HRW said in the statement.
Alexander Tarnavsky, a co-author of the law, told AFP that it is simply intended to be "a preventive measure" that no one wants "to have to apply."
"The law will act as a deterrent, ensuring that companies that are here for business remain focused on business and don't interfere with politics," Tarnavsky said.
According to the Russian state-funded news site RT, the law has also faced some criticism domestically. Aleksandr Brod, a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, reportedly called the measure "redundant," saying legislation is already in place to protect Russia's national interests.
Russian lawmakers, however, are keen to quash the threat of "color revolutions," the term used to describe the pro-democracy, pro-Western uprisings that took place in former Soviet republics over the last decade. Tensions between Russia and the West have also been growing over Russia's role in the conflict in Ukraine.
The US State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by Putin's signing of the bill. In a statement released Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf described the law as "a further example of the Russian government's growing crackdown on independent voices." The European Union has also spoken out against the law, describing it as a "worrying step in a series of restrictions on civil society, independent media and political opposition."
In 2012, Putin enacted another contentious law that forced foreign-funded NGOs involved in activities deemed "political in nature" to register as "foreign agents" in Russia. Several NGOs, such as Memorial, a prominent Russian group that assists victims of xenophobic violence and discrimination, and Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization, were subsequently classified as "foreign agents."
"The 'foreign agents' law is one of many tools the authorities are using to tar independent groups as 'spies,'" Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch said previously. "The authorities' efforts to demonize critics of the government are reminiscent of the cold war."
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