Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Council for Interethnic Relations and the Council for the Russian Language at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 19. (Alexander Nemenov/AP)

The lower chamber of Russia’s parliament approved a bill Tuesday to prevent “undesirable” foreign and international organizations from operating within the country, a measure that could enable the Kremlin to further stifle dissent.

Under the wide-ranging law, ostensibly aimed at protecting Russia’s national security, non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and even businesses could be blacklisted and ultimately have their activities restricted.

The measure also provides stiff penalties, including fines, forced labor or jail time, for collaborating with “undesirable” organizations.

Only three of the more than 400 members of Russia’s lower house voted against the bill, which is expected to receive the approval of the upper chamber and President Vladimir Putin’s signature.

Which foreign organizations would be expelled or prevented from entering Russia under the new law is up to the Russian government. International human rights organizations have complained that the process by which groups are designated “undesirable” is too opaque to predict which entities might be targeted.

But organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — which could be subject to such designations — have argued that the real targets of the legislation are not foreign groups but rather Russian activists, opposition members and independent critics of the country’s status quo who support the activities of “undesirable” organizations.

John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director for Amnesty International, called the measure “the latest chapter in an unprecedented crackdown” against NGOs, in a statement after the bill passed its second reading in Russia’s Duma. He said the clampdown “is effectively criminalizing lawful activity and squeezing the life out of free speech and association.”

The bill follows a 2012 law requiring NGOs receiving foreign financing to register as “foreign agents.” The term has been applied to several dozen groups in the last few years, some of which have shut down under pressure.

Under the proposed law, blacklisted groups not yet operating in Russia would be prevented from working in the country, and groups already in the country could be shut down. Financial institutions would also be barred from processing transactions involving an “undesirable” organization.

The approval of such stepped-up measures aimed at protecting Russia from outside interference comes after a year in which Russia has become increasingly isolated internationally over
its activities supporting pro-
Russian separatists fighting for control of the east of Ukraine, Russia’s neighbor and a former Soviet republic.

The West has heavily sanctioned Russia over its involvement in that conflict as well as for Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, following the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych after a long series of protests in Kiev. Top American diplomats had also been keeping their distance until this month, when U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Russia for face-to-face discussions with their counterparts and Putin in an effort to bring the Ukraine conflict to an end — a condition for the West to roll back sanctions.

Russia has accused the United States of fomenting unrest in Ukraine, including the movement that led to Yanukovych’s ouster, through NGOs on the ground. Some Kremlin politicians fear that the United States is bent on a regime change in Russia as well, following the model of the pro-democracy “color revolutions” that took place in former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia about a decade ago.

An explanatory note attached to an early draft of the “undesirable organizations” bill listed “terrorist” and “extremist” threats but also “the threat of ‘color revolutions’ ” as issues the law could safeguard against by curtailing the activities of certain international organizations in Russia.

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