Russian authorities have taken a step toward banning 12 foreign organizations, including several prominent U.S.-based democracy-promotion groups, under a new law meant to rid the country of "undesirable" outfits deemed a threat to its security.
The Federation Council, Russia's upper parliament house, on July 8 formally asked the Prosecutor General's Office, the Foreign Ministry, and the Justice Ministry to scrutinize the operations of the organizations with a view to possibly declaring them "undesirable" and shutting them down.
The 12 groups on what pro-Kremlin lawmakers called a "patriotic stop-list" include Freedom House, billionaire U.S. philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundations, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the MacArthur Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Education for Democracy Foundation.
They also include the East European Democratic Center, the Ukrainian World Congress, the Ukrainian World Coordinating Council, and the Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights. The call for scrutiny of groups focusing on Ukrainian issues follows Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year and comes amid a continuing conflict in which Western governments say Russia has provided direct military support to rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Lawmakers in the Federation Council claim the groups' operations in Russia are aimed at affecting the internal political situation.
Their request, approved by a unanimous vote, was the first since President Vladimir Putin signed a law in May that enables the government to brand foreign and international organizations "undesirable" and shutter their Russian offices if they are deemed to pose a threat to the country's security, defense capability, or public order.
The law sparked harsh criticism by rights advocates in Russia and abroad who said the "loosely worded" legislation could potentially be used against almost any organization, and would deepen the chill over advocacy groups within Russia by threatening to cut them off from the global network of rights groups.
Tanya Lokshina, the Russian program director at Human Rights Watch, said the move was about creating a “climate of fear and self-censorship."
Amnesty International described it as “another nail in the coffin for freedom of expression and civil society in Russia.”
According to the National Democratic Institute in Washington, the real purpose of the law is to "further isolate the Russian people."
Kremlin critics say it is part of a crackdown on civil society that has mounted since Putin returned to the presidency for a third term in 2012 after weathering big street protests he accused the United States of fomenting. Two months after his inauguration, Putin signed law enabling the authorities to brand NGOs as "foreign agents" if they have foreign funding and are deemed involved in political activities.
Through more than 15 years in power as president or prime minister, Putin has frequently accused the United States of meddling in Russia's affairs, and in particular of using NGOs and other organizations to undermine his government.
Last month, Putin cast foreign educational foundations as nefarious operations bent on stealing young, talented Russians. He said that "they just suck them up like a vacuum cleaner, get them hooked on grants, and take them away."
Kremlin opponents say Russia is undermining its own future by treating such groups, both Russian and foreign, as enemies.
Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman of Russia's advisory Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Development, criticized the Federation Council's decision, saying that it "too dramatically reacted to the new law on undesirable noncommercial organizations."
"When the authorities found USAID's activities undesirable, that organization had stopped its activities in Russia without any law. That law is redundant, it cannot produce anything but a noise and that is exactly what we are seeing," Fedotov said.