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World

Russian bill targeting 'undesirable' groups will 'stifle civil society'

Russia has backed legislation that would allow authorities to deem foreign NGOs "undesirable" for the state and shut them down. HRW's Tanya Lokshina says the real victims, however, will be local Russian activists.

Graffiti on the walls outside human rights group Memorial

Graffiti reading "foreign agent" marks the offices of the rights group, Memorial, in Moscow

According to the Russian bill, prosecutors would be able to label some foreign organizations undesirable if they pose "a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country or the security of the state."

Anyone working for these blacklisted groups could face steep fines or jail terms of up to six years. The law would also apply to Russian organizations that receive funding and cooperate with such foreign groups. The ministry of justice will be responsible for keeping the list of "undesirables."

Russian lawmakers in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament,

passed the bill in the crucial second reading

on Friday with 442 votes to 3. The legislation must still pass a third reading and be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, but these steps are considered formalities.

In an interview with DW, Russian program director at Human Rights Watch

Tanya Lokshina

said the initiative is part of a sustained effort to cut Russian activists and NGOs off from the rest of the world.

DW: You work at the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. Are you worried about the impact this bill could have, if and when it is adopted?

Tanya Lokshina

Lokshina: Russian activists are becoming more and more isolated

Tanya Lokshina: Immediately journalists started asking us questions along the lines of: "Is this about Human Rights Watch? Do you think you people are the undesirables?" We strongly believe this draft law is not about us, it's not about HRW or Amnesty International. We are certainly unhappy about this law, it's not good news for us at all, but the primary targets here are Russian civil society groups and Russian activists. The government doesn't need a new law in order to shut down HRW or any other human rights groups here in Russia. Under the existing legislation that can be done in one day by the minister of justice without warning. What makes this particular law special is that it actually provides for liability for Russian nationals who cooperate with these undesirable organizations.

How could local activists in Russia potentially be affected?

The draft law says that a foreign NGO can be recognized as undesirable and banned by the authorities, and then if Russian individuals or Russian organizations maintain ties or continue to be involved with the "undesirables," then they could be punished by hefty fines, or in case of repeat offending, there is actually criminal prosecution and several years in jail. It's about cutting them off from international organizations. It's about cutting them off from their global partners. It's about exacerbating their isolation.

Communicating with representatives of organizations recognized as undesirable, participating in joint events with such organizations in a foreign country, providing information to them, having contact with them, disseminating their materials; reports, news releases, including online - all those things could potentially be recognized as involvement with undesirable organizations.

How are the local Russian activists you're in contact with reacting to this law?

Naturally we work in very close partnership with Russian civil society groups and activists, and we are in touch on a daily basis. Our Russian colleagues are quite worried about this new draft law, and just like ourselves, they view it as a new particularly heavy link in the chain which is binding Russian civil society by hand and foot already. The work of NGOs in this country has been severely undermined.

Police in St Petersburg

Police have raided hundreds of NGOs suspected of being 'foreign agents'

In 2012, Russia adopted a law making it possible to

label organizations that receive funding from abroad

as "foreign agents." Is this new bill going a step further?

Yes, it's a new legislative initiative that builds on the existing repressive legislation. Under the existing law, advocacy groups are rendered as foreign spies and traitors - essentially marginalized and demonized by the government. At this point in time, around 60 NGOs in Russia, including the country's leading human rights groups, have been registered against their will as foreign agents by the minister of justice. So far, they've been staunchly resisting this campaign of governmental repression, and they're keeping up with their work, but it's becoming increasingly difficult. The government is using its propaganda machinery to run a very powerful slander campaign in the media to damage the image of those organizations to make people distrust them.

To the Russian groups, this new legislation is quite abominable because it's going to aggravate the situation even further.

How optimistic are you about the state of Russia's civil society?

At this point in time, civil society is being stifled, it is essentially being decimated, and several prominent rights groups actually chose to shut down as opposed to being rendered as foreign spies and traitors, and it was a very hard choice for them, but they felt like that was the only way to go. The situation is deteriorating very speedily but nevertheless I think there is hope for Russian civil society and there is hope for Russia.

Tanya Lokshina is the Russian program director for the organization Human Rights Watch. She is based in Moscow.

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