Russian authorities have ordered a six-month suspension for the independent election monitoring group Golos, the first of dozens of "political" nongovernmental organizations to be cited for refusing to register as "foreign agents" under a new law.
A statement by the Ministry of Justice Wednesday says the group's six-month shutdown applies to all activities, and if it does not register within that period it will proceed to the next step, which involves criminal penalties and permanent closure.
"Under the federal law on NGOs, an organization acting as a foreign agent whose operations have been suspended also faces the suspension of its rights as a founder of mass media sources. It is also banned from holding rallies or public events and from using bank accounts except for payments pertaining to economic operation, work compensation, damages, taxes, duties and fines," the statement says.
Golos was the first NGO to be prosecuted under the law, which prescribes an escalating sequence of fines followed by forced closure for groups that receive any degree of foreign funding and that refuse to don the "foreign agent" label – which, critics say, is effectively a poison pill that implies "spy" and nothing else in the Russian language.
Lined up behind Golos, there are currently over 60 NGOs at various stages along the route to mandatory closure if they continue to reject the self-incriminating "foreign agent" registration.
The pro-Kremlin parliamentarians who drafted the law a year ago explicitly targeted Golos, and a few other groups, which they claimed were deceiving the Russian public by working on behalf of foreign interests under the guise of legitimate civil-society activity.
But activists argue the explanation for putting Golos at the head of the list is simpler: It was some 50,000 citizen election monitors, trained by Golos, who collected overwhelming evidence of mass electoral fraud in December 2011 polls – which elected the current State Duma – and in taking aim at the group the pro-Kremlin majority is seeking both revenge and the destruction of Russia's best organized grassroots machine for exposing electoral fraud in the future.
Activists with Golos say they are considering various response strategies, among which is a risky plan to officially disband the organization and recreate it under a new name.
"We are working on what to do," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos.
"We realize that just paying the fines that have been levied on us won't stop the authorities from closing down Golos and prosecuting its leaders. We are suing the prosecutor's office and the Justice Ministry, and we will take that all the way to the Constitutional Court if necessary. We're going to launch an appeal to the European Court," he says.
"But there is no doubt that the closure of Golos is a signal to the whole NGO community. The goal is to scare them," and make them stop any activities that irritate the authorities, in Moscow and around the country, he says.
So far no leading organization has agreed to wear the "foreign agent" badge, which all say would discredit them with the public and close the doors of officialdom to any kind of interaction – which is the raison d'être of most civil society groups.
Among the NGOs on the list and facing suspension in coming weeks are some obvious Kremlin irritants, such as Russia's largest human rights organization Memorial; the Russian branch of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International; the legal activist group Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms, JURIX; the Nizhni Novgorod-based Interregional Committee Against Torture, which deals mainly with allegations of police brutality; and the Goldman Prize-winning Baikal Environmental Wave, one of the country's most effective grassroots ecological groups.
But it's harder to explain why some completely non-political groups also seem to find themselves in the authorities' sights. These include the St. Petersburg Side-by-Side LGBT film festival; the Yaroslavl Regional Hunters and Fishermen Society; the Saratov-based Center For Social Policy and Gender Studies; the Kostroma branch of the Soldiers' Mothers, a group that has been praised both in Russia and abroad for its work on the painful issues of conscription and military reform; and the country's only independent pollster, the Levada Center.
"This campaign against NGOs is sadly predictable, and its effects are probably irreversible," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow-based media consultancy.
"The authorities are aiming to discredit, frighten, destroy, and compel obedience from all far-flung sectors of society," he says.
But the net effect of the campaign will be to build up anger and resentment in the public, and remove the very civil society groups that should be dealing with problems at the grassroots level and mediating between authorities and society, he adds.
Mr. Melkonyants says a lot of social progress that's taken place in Russia since the USSR collapsed 22 years ago is being undone in a fit of bureaucratic pique.
"The worst thing here is that the state is driving a wedge between NGOs and society, and trying to convince the public that groups like ours are evil, the devil incarnate," he says. "Many Russian NGOs have worked for dozens of years to gain public trust, and now it's being swept away in a wave of official disinformation. They are making people look at us with suspicion, as though we are Western mercenaries."