Another controversial legislative initiative proposed by the Russian State Duma and dubbed “the bill on ‘undesired’ organizations” fuels debates about the country’s political future.
Deputies at the last plenary meeting of the Russian parliament's lower chamber in 2014. Photo: RIA Novosti
On Jan. 20, Russia’s State Duma approved on the first reading another bill about “undesired organizations,” which resulted in a new bout of controversy among political experts. The bill is intended to prosecute and forbid foreign organizations whose activity the Russian authorities see as subversive and “threatening to the state’s security and defense capability or public order” as well as the country’s constitutional regime, “morality, the right and legal interests of other persons.”
The Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia will determine those organizations that it considers “undesired” and put them on a special list of companies that, according to the Russian authorities, “are involved in extremist activity and terrorism.” Moreover, the prosecutor may forbid these companies from delivering information – both in print and via the Internet.
On top of that, the bill also complicates the lives of those individuals and organizations involved in working with “undesired” foreign and international organizations. Getting funding from “undesired” organizations could result in administrative fees.
As the bill states, the organizers and participants working with such companies are threatened with prosecution both administratively and criminally. They might have to pay from 10 to 100 thousand rubles as administrative fees and up to 500 thousand rubles (approximately $7,700 at today’s ruble-dollar exchange rate) in the case of a criminal investigation, or face up to five years of mandatory community service and up to eight years of imprisonment. In some cases, foreign citizens might be restricted from entering Russia.
The author of the bill, Alexander Tarnavsky, a State Duma deputy from the Just Russia party, believes that his legislative initiative targets those who, according to him, spread anti-Russian sentiments in the country to increase tensions.
“For long time, we have seen a great deal of attacks and criticism against our country, but we pretended not to pay attention to it,” he said. “But the Ukraine crisis and the drop in oil prices – events which some experts see as an orchestrated campaign against Russia – leave us no choice but to respond to this challenge. We cannot help paying attention to it anymore.”
In contrast, political expert Dmitri Oreshkin argues that the goal of the law is to restrict society from getting an alternative point of view about the Kremlin’s politics.
“The government entities or the persons who represent the interests of this government are not interested in being criticized,” he told Russia Direct. “It is forbidden to criticize them by definition, because in real life they are ineffective [in comparison with the governments of other states] and live in a sort of virtual reality.”
Oreshkin points out that those NGOs that fight against corruption, defend human rights in prisons or elsewhere, speak about casualties in the war in Eastern Ukraine and share other “inconvenient truths” – “they destroy the virtual reality of people’s happiness” and create many obstacles for authorities to “create the image of a winner.” The authorities “don’t put up with [normal] mirrors” and prefer those mirrors that reflect the reality in a distorted, illusionary way.
According to Oreshkin, this trend has been common for Russia for the last decade and reached its apex during the Ukrainian crisis. Tightening the screws and restricting alternative opinions has been commonplace for Russia, he argues.
Likewise, Yuri Korgunyuk, co-founder of the Moscow-based think-tank and non-governmental organization INDEM, believes that the bill on “undesired” organization is part and parcel of the official line of passing restrictive measures.
“The State Duma has adopted so many laws that contradict the Constitution and the rule of law for last years, I am not surprised given the current political situation,” he told Russia Direct. “After Crimea’s [annexation] and the Ukrainian crisis, they are not afraid of [international rebuke].”
According to him, the wording of the bill is so vague and “elastic,” so that in the current edition it allows to prosecute without proper legal procedures all those who don’t satisfy the authorities.
At the same time, some political experts see the bill as an attempt to create a chilling effect for both Russians and foreigners.
“The message sends a message to Russians that it is dangerous to get in touch with any foreign or international organization,” according to a column of political pundit Alexander Kynev in the Vedomosti newspaper. He also argues that the bill is a signal to foreign companies about the high risks of working in Russia. Kynev sees the bill as “a bogeyman for those who haven’t cancelled their projects in Russia or plan to implement them.”
Indeed, the bill on the “undesired” organizations comes amidst the difficult domestic situation in Russia, with a series of controversial laws adopted by the authorities.
For example, the NGO law targeting Russia’s non-governmental organizations and requiring them to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents” came amidst the rise of anti-Western rhetoric in Russia in 2012. Likewise, the law on media investment adopted by the State Duma in September in 2014 restricts foreign ownership in the media to 20 percent of total capital. It was widely criticized by Russia’s media representatives who saw it as an attempt to kill independent media.
In the same way, Russia’s Internet blacklist law, which went into force almost six months after Putin’s presidential inauguration in 2012, and was aimed at protecting children from information "detrimental to their health and development," creates a so-called black list of dubious websites to increase information security, not “to introduce censorship or any sort of influence on media.” However, critics of the law viewed it as an attempt to censor the Internet.