Russian lawmakers approve harsh rules for election monitors, NGOs

July 13, 2012

Russia’s parliament adopted a law Friday imposing stringent new requirements on election monitors, human rights groups and other politically active organizations that receive foreign money.

The law, which was passed 374 to 3 by the Duma, or lower house, on the last day before a parliamentary recess, requires the groups to register as foreign agents and submit to exhaustive audits. The upper house is expected to approve it.

Action against nongovernmental organizations has been widely seen as inevitable since November, when Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, gave a nationally televised address describing such activists as traitors and excoriating the United States — which provides extensive support to democracy-building groups here — without quite naming it.

“They would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy,” Putin said, referring to the United States.

Russia has received more than $2.6 billion from the U.S. Agency for International Development since 1992, allocated for social and economic development.

The agency has proposed spending about $52 million here during 2013, the bulk of it — nearly $32 million — going to democracy and human rights organizations. But about $9  million is intended for peace and security programs and $11 million for health and environmental projects. Those programs, overseen by Russian government agencies or with a government stake, were exempted from the new law in an amendment ordered this week by Putin, who is now president of Russia.

Russian activists and liberal leaders have argued strenuously against the law, to no avail. So have U.N. officials and the United States.

“Civil society organizations should be entitled to foreign funding to the same extent as governments are entitled to international assistance,” Maina Kiai, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, said Thursday in Geneva.

This week, Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said the United States had conveyed “deep concern” to Russia after the Duma approved the first reading of the bill July 6. “We believe that people everywhere should enjoy the same fundamental freedoms and universal human rights,” he told reporters in Washington.

The bill also requires NGOs to label any materials or literature they distribute as the work of a foreign agent, a phrase tantamount to “spy” to the Russian ear.

Putin employed harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric during his campaign for the presidency, and he has returned sporadically to that theme since his inauguration in May. His critics say he has always relied on the specter of a threat beyond Russia’s borders to rally the nation behind him.

But as opposition to his 12-year rule as president and prime minister has grown, Putin and his government have been clamping down on dissent and those who enable it. On Friday, the Duma also passed a law, 238 to 91, making slander a criminal offense and strengthening the penalties for it.

Fines for besmirching someone’s honor or dignity can be as much as $15,000 or compulsory labor up to 160 hours.

Falsely accusing someone of a serious crime carries a fine of up to $150,000 or 480 hours of compulsory labor.

Earlier in the week, the Duma passed a hastily drafted law permitting the government to impose some limits on the Internet.

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