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Hobbling Civil Society

A general view shows the Russian State Duma headquarters, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow. (file)

New law approved by the Russian Duma would force NGOs partially funded from abroad, to register as “foreign agents.”

In the struggle to build and maintain a stable, politically pluralistic culture, civil society is invaluable. It is made up of organizations and institutions which operate independently of the government. We refer to non-political, non-profit civil society organizations that act for the common good as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.

Some examples of NGOs include think tanks, charities, religious groups, educational societies and civic groups, and trade and professional organizations. Typically, their members share common interests such as exposing corruption, or registering people to vote, or pushing for laws to keep the streets safe. Their work benefits society as a whole.

Non-governmental organizations help monitor and steer the development of a country moving toward democracy. But in doing so, they may arouse apprehension, even the suspicion of elements within the government that may see the NGOs as interfering in their agenda.

A new law was approved by the Russian Duma, or lower federal legislative body, on July 13 that would force non-governmental organizations whose activities are at least partly funded from abroad, to register with the Russian Government as “foreign agents.” If passed by the upper chamber and then signed by the president, the law would compel NGOs to ensure that materials such NGOs distribute carry a label informing the public that the material was written by a “foreign agent.” Organizations would also have to file detailed quarterly financial reports.

“Foreign agent” is a loaded term in Russia, synonymous with espionage for Russians who lived through the Cold War. Failure to comply with the law could result in jail sentences and enormous fines for NGO members. The law would impose an undue burden on the NGOs, and interfere with their work.

The proposed law has been compared to the United States’ own Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. They are quite different. The draft Russian law requires registration as a foreign agent on the basis of receiving foreign funds and engaging in political activity, defined broadly. FARA, conversely, links the requirement to register as a foreign agent to work on behalf of a foreign principal.

We urge the Federation Council to reconsider passing this punitive and stifling law. NGOs are an integral component of civil society. As such, they should be fully protected from government interference and allowed to continue working for the common good.