IN THE tumult and uncertainty that marked Russia after the Soviet Union imploded, when the state was weak and many institutions tottering, a vital lifeline was extended from the West. The U.S. government, as well as foundations and philanthropies, responded generously. The financier George Soros, through his Open Society Foundations, provided small grants that sustained many impoverished scientists. The MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) were vital sources of support to civil society, education and human rights.
Now, President Vladimir Putin is forcing these organizations out of Russia, using law enforcement and a parliament that he controls. Mr. Putin’s larger target is to destroy civil society, that vital two-way link in any democracy between the rulers and the ruled. The latest move, announced Tuesday, is to declare the NED an “undesirable” organization under the terms of a law that Mr. Putin signed in May. The law bans groups from abroad who are deemed a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation, its defense capabilities and its national security.”
The charge against the NED is patently ridiculous. The NED’s grantees in Russia last year ran the gamut of civil society. They advocated transparency in public affairs, fought corruption and promoted human rights, freedom of information and freedom of association, among other things. All these activities make for a healthy democracy but are seen as threatening from the Kremlin’s ramparts.
The new law on “undesirables” comes in addition to one signed in 2012 that gave authorities the power to declare organizations “foreign agents” if they engaged in any kind of politics and receive money from abroad. The designation, from the Stalin era, implies espionage. While the NED is the first organization to be labeled “undesirable,” on July 5, the Dynasty Foundation, which had provided millions of dollars for science and education in Russia, reported that it was closing after being labeled a “foreign agent.”
Others are feeling the chill. On July 24, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich., an independent, private philanthropy that had supported community education in Russia and contributed more than $25 million since the early 1990s, announced that it would no longer support organizations in Russia. The Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, had put the foundation on a list of potentially undesirable organizations that was submitted to authorities. On July 21, the MacArthur Foundation, which had provided more than $173 million in grants in Russia since 1992 to further higher education, advance human rights and combat nuclear proliferation, said that it was closing its office in Moscow. MacArthur had also been put on parliament’s hit list.
Mr. Putin fears competition, opposition and any cry of dissent. In pursuit of absolute power, he is suffocating his own society.