Russia bans ‘undesirable’ international organisations ahead of 2016 elections

276e93cc-0687-41e8-8e2d-806e886207e6-620x372Human rights groups fear law, which could cover businesses as well as NGOs, is being adopted early to quash opposition to Kremlin

Russia’s parliament has passed a law banning “undesirable” international organisations, raising fears of a further crackdown on voices critical of the Kremlin.

According to the legislation, the prosecutor general and foreign ministry can register as undesirable any noncommercial “foreign or international organisation that presents a threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population”.

Blacklisted groups will be forbidden from operating branches or distributing information in Russia, and banks will have to notify the prosecutor general and justice ministry of any financial transfers involving them. Although the language of the threat posed was vague, the bill’s authors suggested that international NGOs often work in the interests of foreign intelligence agencies.

The legislation was passed in its third and final reading on Tuesday by a vote of 440 to 3, with one deputy abstaining. Before it becomes law it must be rubber-stamped by the upper house of parliament and signed by the president, steps that are all but guaranteed. President Vladimir Putin has frequently named NGOs as a threat to national security.

“Western special services continue their attempts at using public, nongovernmental and politicised organisations to pursue their own objectives, primarily to discredit the authorities and destabilise the internal situation in Russia,” Putin told senior officials of the federal security service, or FSB, in March. “They are already planning their actions for the upcoming election campaigns of 2016-18.”

The goal of the legislation, according to co-sponsor Alexander Tarnavsky, is to “denote that there are foreign organisations that are unfriendly to Russia,” state news agency Tass reported. “Today is such a time when it’s impossible not to notice that some foreign organisations that don’t conduct themselves in the best manner,” Tarnavsky said. “They do this for different reasons, some at the request of intelligence services, some on the basis of other considerations.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the legislation as a “draconian attack on civil society,” and the presidential human rights council said it was unconstitutional. The terms in the law are ambiguous enough that it could also be applied to commercial organisations such as businesses, according to an analysis by the news outlet Meduza.

Although groups like Human Rights Watch could be declared “undesirable” under the legislation, the bill’s “real target” is not foreign businesses or even international NGOs, but rather the Russian groups and activists that work with them, according to Human Rights Watch Russia director Tanya Lokshina. She said it was likely being adopted ahead of time to stem any dissent that could arise around next year’s parliamentary elections.

“The law appears to be designed for select application; it’s likely it will be implemented against organisations that are critical of the government and then their Russian friends and partners,” Lokshina told the Guardian. “I think the law is aimed at suffocating Russian civil society, cutting them off from their international partners, leaving them in limbo.”

An individual found guilty of “participation in the activities” of a blacklisted organisation can be fined between 5,000 and 15,000 roubles (£200), while officials can be fined between 20,000 and 50,000 roubles and organisations can be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 roubles. If someone is fined twice in the same year, he or she faces criminal penalties including a prison sentence of between two to six years. Something as innocuous as participating in a panel discussion with a blacklisted organisation could be punished on the legislation, Lokshina said.

The “undesirable” organisation legislation is the latest in a string of measures cracking down on civil society that followed widespread opposition protests about Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. That year, he signed a law requiring “political” organisations that received funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. At least 60 groups, including leading Russian human rights organisations such as Memorial, were given the demeaning label, which is also often used to refer to spies, and several were forced to shut down.

In 2014, the parliament passed a controversial law limiting foreign ownership of Russian media holdings to 20%. As a result, the Finnish group Sanoma sold its stake this month in the influential business newspaper Vedomosti to a Russian businessman.

The “undesirable” organisation bill “goes further, but it’s part of the same trend, the trend of repressing independent activists, independent civil society, repressing protesters”, Lokshina said.

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