International outcry over tough new legislation targeting non-governmental organizations in Russia grew louder over the weekend, with the European Union joining the chorus of critics warning of an assault on free speech.
The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin on Saturday evening, gives prosecutors unprecedented leeway to crack down on "undesirable" foreign groups it deems a threat to "state security" or the "basic values of the Russian state."
Suspect groups, and people working with them, risk being banned from Russia and having their bank accounts seized. Violators could face both heavy fines and up to six years in prison.
Free speech concerns
The EU on Sunday condemned the law as a "worrying step in a series of restrictions on civil society, independent media and political opposition" in Russia.
"It will restrict freedom of speech and media as well as pluralism of opinion," Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the EU's foreign service, said in a statement on Sunday.
The United States expressed similar concerns, saying the crackdown would "criminalize" anyone working with "undesirable" organizations in Russia.
"We are concerned this new power will further restrict the work of civil society in Russia and is a further example of the Russian government's growing crackdown on independent voices and intentional steps to isolate the Russian people from the world," US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Sunday.
"Russians, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution."
Muting all channels
The new law significantly expands existing legislation passed in 2012, which labeled groups receiving international funding as "foreign agents." The Kremlin argues outside funding for NGOs allows foreign governments to unduly meddle in Russian politics and society.
It was signed just a day after Russia's media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, warned Google, Twitter and Facebook against violating the country's Internet laws. Agency spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky said it had sent letters last week, reminding the US-based online giants "of the consequences of violating the legislation."
He added that the three companies must hand over data on Russian bloggers with more than 3,000 readers per day, in addition to shutting down websites that Roskomnadzor deems threatening law and order by calling for "unsanctioned protests and unrest."
No thaw in sight
Putin, a former KGB spy, and his supporters have repeatedly accused Western governments and NATO of trying to undermine Moscow, using NGOs and the Internet to fan internal opposition.
Critics see this weekend's crackdowns as the latest in a string of efforts to stifle dissent, and as evidence that President Putin is turning Russia into an increasingly authoritarian state.
"The new law will directly affect the ability of international organizations to work, promote and protect human rights in Russia and is clearly aimed at undermining the work of Russian society," warned Britain's Minister for Europe David Lidington on Sunday.
Human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva went one step further, blasting the law as "another step toward lowering the curtain between our country and the West."
Relations between Russia and the West are already at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War, as the EU and the US have imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Moscow over its involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
pad/sri (AP, AFP)