IN THE DAYS of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was a Godfather-like presence that demanded a monopoly on power and did not tolerate competition. One job of the secret police, the KGB, was to snuff out any dissent or hints of civil society. But prompted by the revolutionary opening of Mikhail Gorbachev, nongovernmental groups sprang to life in the late 1980s. They were at the forefront of the democratic movement that saw the Soviet Union to its grave, and they have proliferated in Russia ever since, defending human rights, fighting for environmental protection, providing charity, monitoring elections, challenging corruption, and broadly filling in the gap between state and society.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, once an officer in the KGB, grew highly suspicious of nongovernmental organizations after the protests known as the Orange Revolution swept Ukraine in late 2004. The demonstrators were seen by the Kremlin as tools of foreign sponsors seeking regime change. A Russian law imposed cumbersome new requirements on foreign groups in the country in 2006.
Now the screws are being tightened anew. On Friday, the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, dominated by Mr. Putin’s allies, gave tentative approval to legislation that would force nongovernmental groups that take overseas contributions and influence public policy to label themselves as “foreign agents” and submit to multiple inspections and audits, or face stiff fines. The term “foreign agent” carries pejorative connotations from the Cold War years. Final approval is expected as soon as next week.
Never mind that the Russian Federation itself gladly took cash from overseas when it was in need after the Soviet collapse. Did all those bailouts make Boris Yeltsin a foreign agent? Hardly. The chairman of the president’s advisory human rights commission said that the new law violates the Russian constitution.
In the Duma, authors of the legislation claimed that it was similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, but the comparison is flawed. The U.S. law requires registration of those who lobby for foreign governments and political parties, but it clearly exempts activities solely of a religious, scholastic, academic, scientific or fine arts nature, as well as money for humanitarian work. The Russian bill would put pressure on just such groups.
The Duma bill looks like another agitated Moscow response to legislation moving through the U.S. Congress that would sanction Russian officials involved in human rights violations. The bill is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered an embezzlement scheme by Russian officials, after which he was imprisoned and mistreated, and died in jail. It is strange to respond to the Magnitsky bill by punishing groups that would protect human rights. But that is entirely in keeping with the Soviet mind-set of Mr. Putin, who has shown he can tolerate neither protest on the street nor the principle that civil society is essential to a healthy democracy.