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March 21, 2016

Russia’s Bad Example

This month Russia’s legislative body, the Duma, introduced a draft law that would further strangle the work of Russian NGOs. The Duma wants to broaden the definition of “political activity” that can cause an NGO to be deemed a “foreign agent” to include receiving funds or property from almost any source, making it easier for the government to shut them down.

This puts nearly every local organization in the country at risk because it essentially requires any NGO to consider itself, and present itself, as a spy organization. It must label all of its publications and web pages with an emblem indicating it is a “foreign agent,” announce this fact at events, and subject itself to additional audits of its activity and funding streams.

This is just the latest brick in a wall of strategies preventing local organizations from challenging the government. Some examples of such inconvenient activities: providing information about environmental concerns in Russia (NGO Bellona was put on the foreign agent list March 2015 and shut down October 2015), supporting victims of hate crimes and xenophobia (NGO Maximum was put on the list in February 2015 and shut down in October 2015), or victims of torture (Committee Against Torture was put on the list in January 2015). 

But this new draft law is essentially superfluous in light of the structure that already exists to restrict, confine, and condemn NGOs in Russia. Case in point: the government used existing laws to begin shutting down its most vocal critics: Agora, an organization similar to the ACLU which represents victims of hate crimes, prisoners with HIV, and NGOs being harassed by the government; and Golos, an election watchdog organization that was integrally involved in the claims of unfair elections in Russia that led to the protests in 2011 and 2012 that sparked the current crackdown.

Russia has, piece by piece, constructed an architecture of threats against non-governmental organizations, media organizations, and even individual human rights and NGO workers, who have been labelled “traitors” and “enemies of the state” in government and government-friendly media. This has even inspired photos of individual defenders, such as Mikhail Kasyanov, in the crosshairs of a gun. Labeling human rights workers as threats to the state has resulted in an uptick in physical attacks on defenders and journalists. Again, case in point: an attack last week in Ingushetia, which included violence against Norwegian and Swedish journalists and the burning of the defenders’ car.  

This strategy has unfortunately been effective. So effective that leading human rights organizations have had to shut down or severely curtail operations in Russia. And other authoritarian-leaning regimes are taking note.

“Russia’s Bad Example,” a new report by Human Rights First, outlines how Russia is providing a roadmap for restricting civil society that is being picked up by other nations, such as Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Cambodia, and now even governments not considered to be bad apples, such as Israel. Russia is leading the way in developing strategies to cut down dissent, as well as the ability of citizens to come together to fulfill needs the government is unable to fulfill. It has been all too easy for smaller countries to follow this example, pass laws that restrict foreign funding, or that slap exorbitant fines on protestors such that speaking one’s mind can cost over a month’s salary.  

Echoing a call made by 139 bipartisan foreign policy experts in Foreign Policy magazine last week, our report calls for the United States and other democracy-promoting countries to come together and develop comprehensive strategies to combat these restrictions on civil society and democratic activity, whether at the U.N., in other multilateral organizations, or simply in the way they talk about their values and support civil society organizations.  

Democracy-promoting governments need to coordinate, and they need to act fast. By supporting greater visibility for NGOs that fill in gaps in state functioning, a greater role for NGOs at the United Nations through the Economic and Social Council, and greater connections among NGOs, the United States and its allies can, over time, reverse this trend.

The danger of not acting: we may soon see the fundamental definition of democracy as a state that includes a robust civil society turned upside down.