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.

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.

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.

But Veronika Marchenko, head of Mothers' Right, a charity organization that provides legal aid and other support to families of Russian military conscripts who die in service  – and which often finds itself in friction with the authorities – says she can see how these new rules will cast a chill over much of Russia's active civil society.

"We're not political at all, and we do not try to influence public opinion," she says. [Editor's note: The original version misquoted Ms. Marchenko.]

"Many NGOs, like ours, became involved in complicated social problems long before the state ever recognized the existence of those problems. We tackled burning issues, raised public consciousness about them, and people came to us for help that they could find nowhere else.... Yes, we attracted foreign funding – because there was very little to be found in Russia – and we paid taxes to the state, created jobs, and filled needs that were crying out to be met," Ms. Marchenko says.

"Now these people in the Duma are going to judge who's an 'agent' and a 'traitor'? They are pushing this country into the past, even into the middle ages," she adds.

'Meant to create an atmosphere of fear'

Yury Schmidt, one of Russia's best-known defense lawyers, says the Duma is crossing a Rubicon with these new treason amendments, beyond which Russia will have to abandon all claims to be a democratic state. He says the current move has to be considered in the context of a spate of draconian legislation passed by parliament since Mr. Putin began his third term last May, including a tough law on public protests, the NGO law, harsh new penalties for "defamation," and an Internet law that enables authorities to create a blacklist of websites that can be summarily shut down.

"I think these laws are intended not so much to prosecute particular individuals as they are meant to create an atmosphere of fear in the whole society," says Mr. Schmidt.

"They want to go back to a time when people were afraid to go out to a public meeting, or to give their real name to a journalist, for fear of being charged with slander or treason," he adds.

Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights watchdog, says her organization will never accept the "foreign agent" label and adds that she doesn't believe the current crackdown is sustainable.

"The authorities can go on with this course for some time, but not for long," she says.

"These actions are a dead-end that will block Russia's development as a modern country. The further they go down this road, the narrower it becomes, and a political explosion grows ever more likely," she adds.

Another bill submitted to the Duma this week, "on protection of the religious feelings of the citizens of Russia," will effectively criminalize blasphemy. Critics say this is probably an effort to strengthen the Kremlin's hand in reaction to the controversial summer trial and sentencing of the three members of the band Pussy Riot, who were charged with desecrating an Orthodox altar with an obscene anti-Putin "punk prayer."

Earlier this month the Duma expelled one of the body's few dissenting deputies, Gennady Gudkov, and this week deprived another, Ilya Ponomaryov, of his right to vote for a month.

"The Duma has no independent minds anymore," says Mr. Ponomaryov.

"The United Russia majority is doing only what Putin wants. And they never stop surprising me. When I think something is too unreasonable to consider, they go ahead and do it. Over and over again," he adds.

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