The Russian parliament took a step toward curbing grass-roots activism in the country when it overwhelmingly passed a draft law on Wednesday that would bring local nongovernmental organizations under strict state supervision. Opponents of the law say it could close the Russian offices of foreign organizations such as Human Rights Watch.
The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, voted 370 to 18 to approve the first reading of a bill that would force local organizations, from medical charities to human rights groups, to re-register with a state body that would examine their activities and decide if they could continue their operations.
The law would also restrict the ability of Russian nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to accept foreign grants or employ foreigners. Foreign NGOs and foundations would be barred from having representative offices in Moscow, a requirement that would force many of them out.
"This law signals a new chapter in the government's crackdown on civil society institutions," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement Wednesday. "Now that the Kremlin has neutralized other checks and balances, NGOs remain among the last independent voices that can criticize the government and demand accountability in Russia."
The bill appears to stem from fear that foreign NGOs and foreign money, particularly American money, could foster the kind of political movements in Russia that toppled governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the last two years. Proponents of the bill contend that some of the NGOs are financed by foreign intelligence agencies.
"We have seen what happened" in other countries "and how these local branches of foreign NGOs that are funded by the CIA functioned," said Alexei Ostrovsky, a nationalist member of parliament. "We want to defend our citizens from the chaos which our country can be dragged into by these foreign NGOs."
White House officials said President Bush expressed concern about the bill when he met with President Vladimir Putin in South Korea last week.
"These are very tough measures. They could throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist Party legislator. "We believe these are directed against opposition groups and so we are not voting in favor of this."
To become law, the bill must pass three readings in the Duma and be signed by the president.