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Russia's 'undesirables'

Emily Sherwin, Moscow
May 19, 2015

The Russian Duma has passed a law that can label any international group "undesirable." Its vague wording means it could affect the business world as well as Russian civil society. Emily Sherwin reports from Moscow.

Russland Moskau Duma Parlament
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Stanislav

In Russia, the work of a broad range of international organizations has come under threat. On Tuesday, the Russian parliament, the Duma, passed a law that could label any non-governmental organization registered outside of Russia an "undesirable organization."

The organizations affected could include human rights organizations and other NGOs as well as commercial organizations. According to the document, "undesirable" organizations 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." In today's third and final reading of the law, 440 Duma deputies voted for it, while three opposed it and one abstained.

The prosecutor-general's office will be in charge of the list of undesirables, pending approval by the Foreign Ministry. No court action is necessary to become "undesirable.. The organizations do not need to be informed that they are being put on the list.

First 'agents,' now 'undesirable'

A joint press release by human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the law a "draconian crackdown" that is "squeezing the life out of [Russian] civil society."

Natalia Prilutskaya, a campaigner in Amnesty International's Russia Team, told DW that "this law is one step up from the 'foreign agents' law. It's really the next logical step in the repression."

Russland Natalia Prilutskaya von Amnesty International
'The law is the next logical step of repression,' says Natalia PrilutskayaImage: privat

In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted a law requiring Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are "politically active" to register as "foreign agents" if they receive any international funding. In Russian, the wording essentially brands them "spies" or "enemies of the people."

Since then, many non-governmental organizations have had their offices searched, including Memorial and Golos. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, almost 60 organizations so far have been marginalized as "foreign agents."

A threat to civil society

Three years later, international organizations registered outside of Russia could now also become a target. The work of organizations branded "undesirable" in Russia will be seriously affected by the label. Local Russian organizations will no longer be able to accept money from the "undesirables" and banks will no longer conduct financial transactions with them. Russian nationals who are involved with these organizations could face fines of up to 500,000 rubles (around 9,000 euros), that might lead to a criminal prosecution and a prison sentence of up to six years. The organizations will also no longer be able to host public events or publish information, even online.

"The whole activity of the organization will be basically locked and blocked in Russia," says Prilutskaya. "If an organization is declared 'undesirable,' then its Russian office will have to close. The office could continue its work, but its staff members and the head of the office would be under threat of prosecution."

Isolating Russian activists

At the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, Russia program director and senior researcher Tanya Lokshina disagrees. She thinks the aim of the law is not to close down the international organizations' Russian offices. "That can [already] be done within a fraction of a second with one stroke of a pen by the minister of justice," she said.

Tanya Lokshina
Tanya Lokshina thinks the primary target of the law are Russian organizationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Instead "the primary target of this law is Russian organizations and Russian civil society actors: our partners, not us," she said. Banning certain organizations will leave Russian activists isolated, according to Lokshina. "Russian nationals will be punished for having anything to do with these groups."

Minimizing foreign threats

Prilutskaya also believes this law is targeting Russian civil society and she thinks it is part of a more more general pattern of political attitudes. "It's the logic of what is happening in Russia, of closing the door to the outside world; of feeling that we are under siege and we need to protect ourselves from being attacked," she explained. "And foreign NGOs and foreign actors are seen as a threat to Russia at the moment."

The wording of an official appendix to the law on "undesirable organizations" seems to confirm Prilutskaya's theory. It hints at the Ukraine conflict, which has increasingly isolated Russia from the West.

The document claims that current "international conflicts, which more and more governments are involving themselves in" provide fertile ground for "terrorist groups." And foreign organizations "of a terrorist, extremist, and nationalist nature" is what the law claims to counteract. These organizations could foment so-called "color revolutions," a term used to refer to regime change brought on by protests like the ones in Ukraine.

Revenge for sanctions

One of the authors of the law, Alexander Tarnavsky, told DW the law is a direct response to Western sanctions against Russia, one which is completely economic and had nothing to do with the 2012 law on "foreign agents."

In an interview he said: "Russia, as an independent country, which lays claim to equal relationships, is drawing on the experience of Western democracies. Russia should also have sanctions against structures that are unfriendly to Russia in its arsenal."

Russland Duma Aleksandr Tarnavskii
Duma member and co-sponsor of the law, Alexander TarnavskyImage: DW/A. Tilton

"The US and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russian companies in the oil and financial sectors. Russia can impose its own sanctions. It's a preventative measure, but the Russian government needs to have this kind of tool at its disposal," explained Duma member Tarnavsky.

Conveniently vague

The Russian-German Chambers of Foreign Trade refused to comment on whether the law could affect economic relations, instead preferring to wait "several months" for a "more complete picture."

Jens Siegert, the director of the Moscow bureau of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation seemed more certain the law would not affect trade, contrary to what the law's author claimed. "I don't think that it will be used against commercial organizations. It will probably be used against the Russian government's 'favorite enemies,' American organizations. They probably won't touch German political foundations, since we are seeing a little thaw in relations there."

Who will really be affected by the law remains to be seen. But for the Russian government, the strength of the law could lie precisely in its vague wording. Amnesty's Natalia Prilutskaya thinks no international organization is safe.

"This law is vague. It's so vague that it could be easily abused," she said. "If an organization upsets the Russian government with statements, or actions, it can be at risk of being put on the undesirable list. I think any foreign or international organization is in trouble."

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