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Russian NGOs in panic mode over proposed 'high treason' law

Russia's new definition of high treason, which is likely to pass, could apply to any behavior that undermines 'constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity' in authorities' eyes.

By Correspondent / September 26, 2012


When the Kremlin-dominated State Duma passed a new law last summer requiring any "politically active" nongovernmental organization that receives any amount of outside funding to register as a "foreign agent," many people in Russia's broader NGO community became deeply alarmed.

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Now, after the Duma unanimously passed – on the first of three readings – new amendments proposed by the Federal Security Service (FSB) that will extend the definition of "high treason" so that it can be applied to almost any Russian citizen who works with foreign organizations, they are in full panic mode.

The new terms, which seem almost certain to sail through the Duma in coming days and be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, will mean that "treason" no longer refers only to a concrete crime, such as knowingly passing state secrets to a foreign power, but could apply to any behavior that undermines  "constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity" in the eyes of the authorities. Under the new terms, any person that discloses information the state considers a secret to any "foreign government or international, foreign organization," even if that person has no access to classified materials and didn't know it was a secret, may be accused of betraying their country and face a potential 20 years in prison. It is unclear when the law, if enacted, would go into effect.

"Though these amendments are not even passed yet, many people have already started to become more prudent in their contacts with foreigners," says Andrei Soldatov, editor on, an online journal devoted to studying the security services, and coauthor of "The New Nobility," which details the return to power in Russia of the former Soviet KGB.

"The new definition of treason that's before the Duma is a direct Soviet legacy. Treason will no longer be about a specific crime, but more about what's in your heart, whether you're truly loyal, as determined by the authorities. I can't even understand how it might be used," says Mr. Soldatov.

"Now, not only the person who divulges a secret, but also the person who asked – such as a journalist – can be charged with treason. It's dangerously vague," he adds.

Broadened definitions of espionage

Addressing the Duma last Friday, FSB deputy director Yury Gorbunov said that classic definitions of espionage and treason had to be broadened to include cooperation with international organizations, which might include NGOs and media groups, because the world has become more dangerous.

"We should include international organizations on the list of agents that can be charged with treason due to the fact that foreign intelligence agencies actively use them to camouflage their spying activity," Mr. Gorbunov said.

The proposed legislation follows the high-profile ejection of the US Agency for International Development from Russia last week after the Kremlin accused it of interfering with Russia's internal political processes.

In November, the new law requiring NGOs that have any level of political engagement and receive any amount of outside funding to register as "foreign agents" will go into effect.

A chill on civil society?

The Kremlin almost certainly has just a few prominent organizations in its sights, including the grass-roots election-monitoring network Golos, the global corruption watchdog group Transparency International, and Russia's main human rights groups Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group.


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