Its targets call the law a full-scale assault on Russia’s newly emerging civil society because the NGOs face not just fines, but also the possibility of being shut down. One Putin detractor — Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former legislator who writes a column in the Moscow Times — described a “huge special operation . . . to eliminate all independent NGOs.”
The organizations, which have been growing in number and reach, provide the foundation necessary for building democratic institutions, said Leon Aron, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In 2011, Aron traveled from Vladivostok in the east to Kaliningrad in the far west to study grass-roots movements. He found a deepening understanding of citizenship and greater individual initiative.
“In order to survive in the short term, the regime is destroying the basis for modernization,” Aron said in a telephone interview. “That, to me, is the greatest tragedy of what’s happening.”
In a paper about his study, “A Quest for Democratic Citizenship,” Aron argued that the United States has enormous interest in a well-developed and vibrant civil society in Russia because of its potential to help achieve a stable democracy.
“A free, democratic, and prosperous Russia, at peace, finally, with its own people, its neighbors, and the world, is among the most important geostrategic objectives of the United States,” he wrote.
Voting monitor in cross hairs
The organization being pursued most vigorously is the Golos Association, the country’s only independent election monitor, founded in 2000 and assisted over the years by American organizations including the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Democratic Institute.
Golos’s documentation of election irregularities in December 2011 helped set off demonstrations against Putin, who accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of signaling protesters to go out on the streets.
Although other organizations have received official warnings, Golos has been fined and expects to be shut down. The association was fined $10,000, and its director, Lilia Shibanova, $3,000 — even though Golos stopped accepting money from abroad when the law went into effect in November and despite its insistence that its work is not political.