The MYPLACE research team at HSE St Petersburg in Russia send this blog on the latest developments in Russia.
For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE
Several bills passed in the last month show that the institution of government in Russia seeks to tighten control over society. Before going on vacation members of parliament hastily developed, discussed and presented to the president for his signature three bills on NGOs, slander and censorship on the Internet. Let us dwell on the law on non-profit associations, as this sector is usually associated with the development of civil society in Russia.
The new law on non-profit associations introduces the concept of “foreign agent”. All organizations receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activities are declared as such. The concept of “political activity” is interpreted quite widely, from conducting the actions to influencing the public opinion and government policy.
All printed products of these organizations – reports, books, analytical and other articles – should be marked with a special stamp indicating this is a product of “foreign agent”. Such organizations, in comparison with others, must more often write reports about their activities, and should always be prepared for unexpected inspections, fines and criminal penalties for violations. Vladimir Putin held a meeting with human rights activists critically-minded towards the new law, to explain them that there is no need to delay the adoption of the law, or to amend it. (http://www.ria.ru/tv_authors/20120711/696868080.html#riatv/696489276)
Notable Russian human rights organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group, “Memorial” and “For Human Rights” stated that they are offended by government’s desire to label them as “foreign agents”, and would not comply with the new law, i.e. they do not want to be registered as “agents”. Representatives of other less prominent non-profit organizations are currently consulting with the lawyers, deciding how they should act – just to give up the grants from abroad, or to invent some other “non-political” interpretations to explain their activity to the controlling authorities.
The members of “Edinaya Rossiya”, who developed the law, refer to the U.S. experience, where the law on the agents of foreign influence acts, and no one in this case does not claim about an infringement of democratic rights and freedoms. This law was passed in the U.S. in 1938, and is one of the first legislative acts against the lobby. In this case, the purpose of the law was to prevent the spread of propaganda from Nazi Germany by limiting the actions of U.S. non-residents operating in the interests of other countries.
Vladimir Putin has already signed a new law on NGOs, and it will come into force in autumn. Experts believe that the non-profit organizations will be compelled to reduce their activity, or start looking for money inside Russia, and this looks rather futile – even major business is afraid to finance such projects, fearing for its safety, not to mention the mid-level entrepreneurs.
But there is another point of view. It lies in the fact that non-profit associations are dying as a format of civic engagement, giving way to networking projects. These projects arise to address specific problems, exist for a short period of time, and bring people together through the internets. An example of such activity is the organization of assistance to residents of the Krasnodar region affected by the recent floods. Volunteers go there from many regions of Russia, activists organize themselves to raise funds through the e-wallets, and information is disseminating through the social networks (http://www.mn.ru/columns/20120723/323491680.html).
Thus, the new law may encourage an active part of the Internet audience to informal consolidation. But those who want to fund public initiatives will have to search by themselves for the recipients of their assistance.