Ashton issued a statement on Tuesday expressing her highly concerns about the amendments to the NGO law that were adopted in 1st reading in the State Duma last Friday.
“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. The EU also closely follows the initiative to limit certain types of the content on the internet, which risks infringing upon the freedom of expression,” Catherine Ashton writes in the unusual strong statement.
Under the new law, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that get funding from abroad or other aid from a foreign source and are engaged in political activity must declare themselves as “foreign agents,” a term synonymous with spying and treason in the Soviet era.
NGOs in question must submit a request to the Ministry of Justice to be registered in a special list of “foreign agent” organizations. 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.
Many of the people-to-people projects in the Barents cooperation are involving NGOs and both Norway and Sweden have expressed their concern about the new law that could hamper the freedom of civil society in Russia, as previously reported by BarentsObserver.
The bill is expected to be reviewed by the Federation Council on July 18, despite protest from Putin’s advisory council on human rights. Head of the Council, Mikhail Fedotov, says he supports the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Ludmila Alexeyeva on the statement “We need to do all we can to stop the draft law,” as reported by Russian Legal Information Agency.
The Moscow Helsinki group is one of 40 NGOs in Russia that recently signed a statement demanding that the law should be entirely rewritten. The statement is also signed by several organisations active in the Russian part of the Barents Region including the Arkhangelsk Centre for Social Technologies, World Wildlife Fund, Bellona and SOS Children’s Villages.
President Vladimir Putin, however, sees no reason to delay the amendments to the controversial NGO bill branding many NGOs as “foreign agents.” In a meeting with the government, Putin urged the lawmakers “not to procrastinate until fall” with discussing the amendments, RIA Novosti reports.
Putin does however want to clarify the concept of “political activity” with the lawmakers. In a statement sent to the State Duma on Tueday this week, the President list several fields of activity that should not be included in the NGO bill. Among the fields are religion, science, culture, arts, health care, sports, protection of flora and fauna and charitable activities.
Putin also proposes to increase Russia’s own state funding to NGOs from one billion rubles (€24,76 million) to three billion rubles (€74,3 million) to compensate for lapse of foreign funding.