UNABLE TO comprehend Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which began a year ago when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Kiev to reject a fraudulent presidential election, Russia's ruling coterie invented a conspiracy theory. Western intelligence agencies, they reasoned, had poured money into Ukrainian civil society groups that were then used as fronts to organize the insurrection. Only someone like President Vladimir Putin, an isolated former KGB agent with little taste for democracy, could embrace such a preposterous idea. Yet Mr. Putin's paranoia now is set to become the basis for a far-reaching crackdown on civil society in Russia. President Bush, who is to meet Mr. Putin tomorrow in South Korea, cannot ignore this assault on freedom.
Mr. Putin's initiative comes in the form of legislation abruptly introduced last week in parliament, which he already converted into a rubber stamp. The new law would require all 450,000 noncommercial associations in Russia to re-register with the government; force groups that until now have operated without registration to obtain one; and ban all organizations from using foreign funding for "political activity." Chapters of foreign organizations, such as Human Rights Watch or the Carnegie Moscow Center, would be banned, as would foreign employees of nongovernmental organizations. In effect, the measure would drive most foreign NGOs out of Russia, make it impossible for foundations such as the National Endowment for Democracy to operate and subject all Russian civic groups to the whims of the secret police, who would be able to deny registration to any they deemed suspicious.
Russian officials pretend that the purpose of the legislation is to stop money laundering and other operations by terrorist organizations. But the real motive was stated publicly last week by one of the sponsors of the legislation, Alexei Ostrovsky, who told the newspaper Nezavismaya Gazeta that it "should help the government crack down on politically active NGOs that receive foreign funding and might use the money to promote an Orange revolution." Mr. Ostrovsky linked the bill to a meeting Mr. Putin had with human rights activists in July, in which the president declared that he would not tolerate foreign funding of NGOs.
In reality, the new law is part of a broader campaign by Mr. Putin to ensure that the corrupt autocracy he has created survives the next round of Russian elections for parliament and president in 2007 and 2008. Candidates who might challenge the regime, such as former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, are being threatened with criminal prosecution. Now Mr. Putin plans to crush any possibility that Russians would respond to a rigged vote with their own democratic uprising, by eliminating any and all civic organizations deemed potentially unfriendly, including all those sponsored by the West. Russian experts say the law could be completed by Jan. 1, the day Mr. Putin's government is due to take over the chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrial nations. Mr. Bush can look forward to toasting the unprecedented accession of a Russian president to leadership of what was once an exclusive club for democracies, even as Mr. Putin tears up the charters of the U.S. foundations, think tanks and human rights groups operating in Moscow. Is Mr. Bush really prepared to accept such a leader?