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NGOs labeled 'foreign agents'

July 6, 2012

Russia is seeking to label internationally funded NGOs as "foreign agents." The bill was overwhelmingly approved in an initial vote in the lower house of parliament, the Duma.

Russian soldier in Red Square
Image: Fotolia/Moreno Novello

Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday gave preliminary approval to a law that would brand non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded from abroad as "foreign agents."

The 450-member Duma voted 323-4 in favor of the bill, presented by President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, on the first of three required parliamentary readings. The opposition Just Russia party boycotted the vote.

According to the current legislation, NGOs that receive foreign funding would be slapped with "foreign agent" status and have to report on their activities twice a year.

"The bill does not ban foreign financing, it only calls for honesty," United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, who coauthored the bill, told the Duma. "As one says one's name when introducing oneself to others, NGOs should in the same way be saying who they are when they introduce themselves."

Supporters of the bill claim that it is based on a similar law in the US. The American law, called the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), was enacted in 1938  to guard against Nazi propaganda in the run up to World War Two.

'Contradicts constitution'

Critics argue that the legislation seeks to stifle dissent and cripple the country's opposition protest movement. Fraud allegations during the December 2010 parliamentary elections sparked the largest anti-Kremlin protests since Putin came to power in 2000.

The bill comes on the heels of a law passed in June which imposes stiff fines against the organizers of unauthorized protests.

Opposition Leader Boris Nemtsov said that the bill could undermine the work of organizations like Amnesty International and Transparency International.

Tatyana Morshchakova, one of the authors of the Russian constitution, called the legislation "exceptionally discriminatory."

"Its main public consequence is that the activities of NGOs would no doubt be wound down," Morshchakova told a news conference on Friday. "The dialogue between authorities and society is a dialogue of the deaf with the blind." 

The head of President Putin's own human rights council called the bill unconstitutional.

"The law contradicts the Russian Federation's constitution, which calls for political diversity and ensures every citizen has the right to participate in managing state affairs," Mikhail Fedotov said.

The organization GOLOS believes that the legislation was drafted to target it. GOLOs, which receives funding from the US and EU, compiled and publish allegations of fraud from the December 2011 parliamentary elections, prompting the protest movement.

"Honestly, I have no doubt that this is primarily aimed against GOLOS," said Grigory Melkanyants, the organization's deputy director.

slk/ng (AFP, Reuters)

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