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Russia moves to silence civil society and its 'undesirable' contacts

Under a new law, Russian NGOs could face prosecution for communication with 'undesirable' groups based abroad – groups like Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures at a business forum in Moscow on Tuesday. Mr. Putin signed into law over the weekend a bill that criminalizes contacts with any organization deemed 'undesirable' by the Russian state prosecutor's office.
    Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP
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Russia's largest grassroots election watchdog, Golos, has been almost driven out of existence by a law passed three years ago that saddled it with a "foreign agent" label – which connotes "spy" in Russian. Since then, the organization has been subject of an ongoing wave of tax and criminal investigations, including an official ban on carrying out its primary mission of monitoring elections.

Now a new law could finish Golos off.

The legislation, signed by President Vladimir Putin last weekend, criminalizes any contact with "undesirable" nongovernmental groups or individuals – as determined by a blacklist compiled by Russia's chief prosecutor – no matter where in the world they might be. Violation would lead to closure of local offices and up to six years in prison for any Russian cooperating with the group, and will not be subject to appeal.

This may not just shutter Golos, but could silence a whole range of Russian civil society for merely communicating with groups that the prosecutor feels pose a threat to Russia's constitutional order, defense, or national security. The draft blacklist prepared by the State Duma last week includes a who's who of major international nongovernmental institutions, including the Moscow Carnegie Center, the corruption watchdog Transparency International, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

"If any Russian is invited to a conference abroad, authorities can scan the list of sponsors and block that person if an 'undesirable' group is involved," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "Any foreigners trying to come to Russia for any reason can be refused if they have links to such groups."

"This law is much more dangerous, and has far wider applications, than the previous ones," he says. "It's not just aimed at shutting up people inside the country, but anyone, anywhere."

For Golos, the new law appears to threaten prison time for its leaders if they attempt to communicate any findings on Russian elections to an "undesirable" group, or seek advice or assistance from one.

Golos was one of the first targets of the "foreign agent" law because of its role in identifying and publicizing alleged electoral fraud in Russia's 2011 Duma elections. The elections triggered a wave of enormous street demonstrations by mostly middle-class people calling for greater electoral transparency and democratic reform.

Now, with 2016 Duma elections looming, some experts say the Kremlin is taking steps to prevent any repeat of that upheaval. The main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, is sagging in opinion polls. This week it suffered a crushing defeat in local elections held in Russia's westernmost region of Kaliningrad.

"Putin's popularity may hold up well amid the current nationalist moods, but the party of officialdom that enforces his rule around the country is in deep trouble," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow media consultancy. "The only thing authorities know how to do in this situation is to eliminate competition and all sources of alternative information. They see everything as a threat."

'Foreign agents' and 'national security'

The Kremlin narrative is that Western intelligence agencies are actively working, mainly through friendly NGOs, to overthrow pro-Moscow governments throughout the former Soviet Union. It alleges that they have enjoyed considerable success in staging "colored revolutions" in countries such as Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and particularly Ukraine over the past decade.

Every Russian who watches state-run TV is aware that in 2013, just before the Maidan revolution in Kiev overthrew pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said that the US had spent $5 billion in the past two decades to help "secure a prosperous and democratic Ukraine."

Mr. Putin has repeatedly claimed that regime change is the hidden goal of Western-backed "democracy promotion." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the new law this week, suggesting that the "foreign agents" law did not go far enough in protecting Russia's national security.

"An organization is deemed undesirable if it poses a threat to Russia's national security and national interests, as formulated in the law," he said. "'[Foreign] agents' do not necessarily pose a threat. No one forbids these organizations from doing what they are doing."

But the "foreign agent" label certainly makes existence difficult for groups like Golos. It has since rejected all foreign funding – the main criteria for being declared a "foreign agent" – and has tried to subsist on volunteer support. But with the new law, even that might not be enough.

"We can prove that we now exist only on Russian money, but we are still on the list of 'foreign agents,' and all we still face all sorts of official interference," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos. "I guess we have to wait and see how this new law will be applied. But it looks like nobody is safe anymore."

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