A few days ago, Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, adopted a new federal law. It was quickly coined the “law on undesirable organizations.” The new legislation is a collection of supplements and amendments to several Russian laws, including the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offenses.
The legislation was introduced officially in November 2014 by members of parliament Alexander Tarnavsky of the left-wing A Just Russia party and Anton Ishchenko of the far-right nationalist LDPR. The law imposed both administrative and criminal liability for “leading” the activities of international or foreign non-governmental organizations and for simply “participating” in such activity.
The resulting legal mechanism looks like this: First, a person would get a fine of 5,000-15,000 rubles (roughly US$100-US$300) if they broke the law twice over the span of a year. On the third offense, Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code would foresee a punishment ranging from a hefty fine of up to 500,000 rubles (about US$10,000) to a prison sentence of up to six years.
In the explanatory note to the new law, the authors of the bill are quite open about the bill’s intended purpose: “To prevent the activities […] of organizations that pose a threat to the basic values of the Russian state.”
Apparently, those values are in opposition to the “pernicious influence of the West,” seen as the activities that pose a “threat to the country’s constitutional order, defense capacity, and state security” include, according to the authors of the bill, activities of “foreign organizations creating a danger of “color revolutions” or ethnic and religious strife.”
For the most “hostile organizations,” the sanctions foreseen in the new law are quite predictable: closure of offices, a ban on projects supported by the “undesired” organization, termination of bank accounts, as well as a ban on the distribution of information materials and on holding any public events.
Most telling is the fact that the definition of “hostile” organizations and the sanctions against groups designated as such are included in an amendment to the “Law on Sanctions for Individuals Violating Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of the Citizens of the Russian Federation” (also known as the Dima Yakovlev Law), which was adopted as in retaliation to the Magnitsky Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012.
Even though there are no direct mentions of the United States in the new amendments, the mere definition and the sanctions against “undesirable” organizations are contained in that specific law speaks volumes.
It is obvious that the logic of the authors of the bill follows the anti-Americanism of the law on “foreign agents”, and this time, it’s much more overt. It is difficult to imagine a Supreme Court decision that would claim, as it was the case with the “foreign agents,” that the concept of an “undesired organization” did not carry a negative connotation.
In fact, the term “undesired” could be easily replaced by, for instance, “anti-Soviet”, tracing back to the ban on “anti-Soviet organizations and groups” even more clearly than the law on “foreign agents” did.
The authors of the bill have clearly learned from the experience of implementing the legislation on “foreign agents”. The procedure of applying the new law contains none of the silly formalities like public trials or deliberations about whether any given activity is, in fact, a threat to the “defense capacity” or “state security.”
“Based on the information of law enforcement agencies” (viz. the Federal Security Service, FSB), the General Prosecutor’s Office, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will designate “undesirable” organizations, and the Ministry of Justice will keep a list of those organizations, just as it keeps a list of “foreign agents.”
The special role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this scheme is noteworthy. Apparently, the ministry’s constant statements about “puppet masters acting behind the scenes” did not go unnoticed, and the ministry was therefore appointed, partly bypassing the FSB, it seems, as the main combatant against the “international non-governmental threat.” This is not surprising, given that the authors of the bill regard the amendments as pertaining to international relations.
Given all this, it seems superfluous to point to the obvious legal holes in the law that has already been passed. First, the term “non-governmental” is absent in Russian law. Second, it is quite unclear what constitutes “participation” in activity. For instance, in cases involving Russia’s “anti-extremism” legislation, merely carrying the symbols or distributing newspapers was often interpreted by the law enforcement agencies as “participation” in the activities of “forbidden extremist organizations.” It is equally unclear what constitutes “leading” the activities of international or foreign non-governmental organizations.
In practice, both security issues and questions relating to the protection of the constitutional order are interpreted quite broadly. For instance, the campaign by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers to promote alternative civilian service is understood as a challenge to state security and the activities of organizations defending the rights of the LGBT community as a problem of “demographic security.” Moreover, many civic activists have long since been designated as extremists simply because of their civic activism.
The very legal ambiguity and wide scope of possible interpretations makes these amendments extremely convenient for use by the Putin regime in the current situation. Indeed, the amendments solve several important problems for the regime.
First of all, the amendments allow the authorities to reinforce their control of civic society, particularly the section that cooperates actively with “undesired organizations.” Following the pressure on “foreign agents,” the law on “undesired organizations” in essence puts an end to civic activism sponsored from abroad. Financing within the country, with few exceptions, is linked with Government organized non-governmental organizations (GONGO), and current human rights organizations and groups have an option of either continuing in the form of unregistered projects or simply shutting down their operations altogether.
The second aim of the amendments seems to be to raise the level of anti-American hysteria within the country. The list of “undesired organizations” is apparently meant to serve as yet another justification for the regime’s paranoia against “color revolutions”. In other words, the Kremlin will use outwardly legal mechanisms to “prove” that the US is interfering in Russia’s sovereign affairs.
Thirdly, the amendments will naturally help create an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, and self-censorship. This atmosphere is being created primarily by the media, which depicts the country as being “surrounded on all fronts.” The claim of the existence of “internal enemies” that are financed by the West is very convenient, as it allows the media to present constant proof of the “pernicious influence of the West.”
It is obvious that the law on “undesired organizations” will be applied selectively. The law will be used primarily to hit organizations that the authorities claim are working in one way or another against the “basic values of the Russian state” — values that have no place for human rights, free speech, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.