In 2012, the Russian government passed a law requiring NGOs engaged in political activities and receiving any foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” Although over 88 NGOs were registered as foreign agents as of September 2015, the consequences of this initiative have been dire. A few organizations have voluntarily adopted this label, but many have refused or been forcibly added to the list, causing some major Russian NGOs to shut down, re-structure, or cut back on activities.
One NGO that has suffered is Golos, Russia’s only independent elections watchdog. Previously funded by USAID and the European Commission, Golos was forced to relinquish its foreign funding (US $700,000), which accounted for over 70% of its budget. According to the law, the organization aimed at protecting citizens’ electoral rights would be prohibited from observing elections unless it agreed to give up its foreign ties. Now with only five million rubles (US $73,000) in funding from the Russian government, Golos, like other internationally funded NGOs, faces the risk of closure.
Of course, the oppression of NGOs is hardly a surprise. Since the Soviet era, NGOs in Russia have often faced challenges with Moscow’s top-down approach from the party controlled centre, including a lack of coordination between NGOs, unequal funding distribution, and the potential for manipulation by social or political elites.
That being said, the foreign agents law is far more troubling and indicates a shift in Russian policy. After a series of “colour revolutions” removed corrupt and unpopular regimes on Russia’s periphery in the early 2000s, Russian authorities developed what became know as “orange paranoia.” As a result, NGOs were accused of acting on behalf of hostile foreign governments, and interfering in Russia’s political process.
Although Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency in 2008 relieved independent NGOs of ongoing harassment, it was a short-lived reconciliation. When Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency at the height of the protests in 2012, the State Duma adopted a series of repressive laws dictated by the Kremlin, including: the foreign agents law, a law restricting demonstrations, a law criminalizing defamation, and a law banning a list of websites.
In light of these restrictions, it would seem that NGOs in Russia are under enough pressure to conform to the Kremlin’s will. However, Putin has gone one step further. This May, a bill was passed targeting international and foreign “undesirable organizations” like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which are set to be reviewed by the Prosecutor General’s Office, further worsening the prospects for NGOs. According to Vladimir Ryzhkov,
“The law was passed quickly with the goal of completely severing the connections between Russian NGOs and their foreign partners prior to State Duma elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2018.”
NGOs deemed “undesirable” will automatically lose their right to “operate, maintain offices, or hold bank accounts in Russia.” Russians who offer their cooperation with such organizations face the threat of criminal prosecution.
As in 2012, this renewed crackdown on NGOs reveals not only the deterioration of civil society in Russia, but also Putin’s view on international relations. In a meeting with the Federal Security Service on March 26, he re-iterated his belief that Russian NGOs and Western intelligence are working together to “discredit the authorities and destabilize the international situation in Russia.” Moreover, he accused a unified West led by the United States of pursuing a “containment” policy against Russia, and cited attempts to isolate the nation, economic restrictions, large-scale information warfare, and intelligence operations from Western agencies as examples.
It is statements like this, along with recent laws and events, that lead critics to remember the past. In reference to Josef Stalin, Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov claims the Soviet dictator “consciously formed a regime in which no internal rules operated and in which each was a slave to the attitude of the dictator or simply a victim of circumstances. And Putin today is doing exactly the same thing, even though he doesn’t have a tenth of the repressive resources Stalin did.”
While harsh, Portnikov’s accusation is not unfounded. As Western relations with Russia continue to freeze over, with both sides antagonizing the other, the worst may be yet to come.
“In the Russian future, there will be still fewer rules and logic than there was in the Soviet past,” predicts Portnikov.
If this proves to be the case, then it is not just NGOs that must be prepared to lose whatever remaining foothold they had in Russia. Western countries must brace themselves for an increasingly introverted and unpredictable Russia, unlike any they have confronted before.