The law passed in both the second and third reading in the State Duma on Friday afternoon despite a barrage of criticism from domestic Russian opposition and the international community. 374 voted in favor, only three against and one abstained, the portal of the Duma reads.
Under the law, a bunch of Russian NGOs that are involved in “political activity” and get funding from sources in other countries will have to register themselves as “foreign agents” and must put the same label stamp on all its publications, including web-portals.
Those failing to do so will be punished by fines of up to 3,3 million rubles (€81,700) and if repeated, violators can get up to two years in prison.
Foreign agent sounds very bad
The law now triggers strong criticism from the Council of Europe, of which Russian became a member in 1996.
“The wording is a problem. ‘Foreign agent’ sounds very bad to me and also, I think, to many others abroad and in Russia,” says Thorbjorn Jagland, in an interview with RIA Novosti. “Some of those executed during the Stalin era were called foreign agents.”
“This is unfair, it’s inappropriate and it shouldn’t be used in a modern lawmaking, it belongs to the past and it does not belong to a democratic society.”
Expression used against dissidents
Thorbjørn Jagland has been Secretary-General of the Council of Europe since 2009. He is also currently the head of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Jagland was Norway’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 1997 and Foreign Minister from 2000-2001.
Commenting on the wording “foreign agents” in the law, Jagland says in the interview with RIA Novosti:
“This was an expression that was used against dissidents during this period. It is also very often used in other authoritarian regimes against everybody that has different views. It’s a simple way to get people out of the debate and to get the views you don’t like out of the debate. Just call them a foreign agent and you can shut up – you have nothing more to say,” the General Secretary of the Council of Europe says in the interview with the Russian news-agency.
In line with democratic standards
The barrage of criticism has apparently little influence on the Russian law-makers. United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, who co-authored the NGO bill, told reporters in Moscow on Thursday that the bill is fully in line with international democratic standards.
“Russia is a young democracy — we learn from various countries’ experience. The law aims to protect the interests of civil society,” Yarovaya said according to the Moscow Times.
U.S. State Department deeply concerned
Washington disagree that the law is in line with international democratic standards. At a press-briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States is deeply concerned over the controversial Russian NGO bill.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the Russian Duma’s consideration of legislation that would potentially limit the activities of Russian nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign financing. The legislation would require NGOs engaged in civil society activities broadly defined as political to register as foreign agents. It differs from U.S. foreign agent – it differs from the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, because registration would be required regardless of whether an NGO works directly on behalf of a foreign entity or not,” Ventrell said according to the press-briefing transcript posted on the portal of the State Department.
Head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, Rune Rafaelsen, previously told BarentsObserver that he is afraid the bill could have negative influence on the free work of non-state organizations.
“What moves a country forwards is open dialog. When you make restrictions on organizations asking critical questions to the authorities, you limit the society’s development progress,” Rafaelsen said.
Cross-border contacts between NGOs is one of the core priorities for the Barents cooperation, including the northern parts of Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Limits a vibrant civil society
Also EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton earlier this week issued a statement expressing concerns about the NGO bill that will go for the second reading in the State Duma today.
“The adoption of this NGO law comes amidst several developments that limit the space for a vibrant civil society in Russia, such as the arrests of opposition figures as well as a new law that stipulates excessive fines for administrative violations during authorised demonstrations,” Catherine Ashton said.
Upper chamber and Putin’s signature
The bill will become law after approval in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the parliament, to be followed by President Putin’s signature. The effective date will be after it is made public by announcement in Rossiskaya Gazeta, likely after the summer.