Controversial NGO law passes first reading

Rune Rafaelsen is a supporter of non-governmental organizations' cooperation across borders in the Barents region. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

“Most worrying,” says head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat Rune Rafaelsen commenting on the Russian State Duma’s approval of the new law forcing NGOs to label themselves as “foreign agents” if receiving grants from abroad.


The Norwegian Barents Secretariat is the main financer of bilateral people-to-people projects with Russia in the north, and has a portfolio of hundreds of grants to non-state organizations. Although all grants today are given to the Norwegian partners in the projects, Russian NGOs benefit economically.

“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,” says Rune Rafaelsen. He says NGOs play a major role in the cabaret of Norwegian, Russian relations in the north. 

With the new bill all NGOs in Russia that receive funding from abroad and engage in what Kremlin at any time defines as “political activity” must register as “foreign agents.” In Russia the term is understood as spies. 

The bill passed the first reading in the State Duma (Russian Parliament) on Friday with 323 of the 450 voting in favor of introducing the new law.

If approved in the second reading and in the upper chamber, the law will enter force from September. NGOs in question will then have to include the phrase “foreign agents” in their publications and web-portals. 

Good innovation requires good opposition  
Rune Rafaelsen is afraid the new crack-down on non-state groups will have negative influence on Russia’s highly needed innovation. “Good innovation always starts with good opposition. If you don’t allow critical voices, you lose on innovation,” says Rafaelsen.

An anonymous official in the Kremlin says to Gazeta that according to his estimation, about 1,000 NGOs would be affected by the new law, of which 70 percent are environmental groups.

Head of Bellona-Murmansk, Andrei Zolotkov told BarentsObserver last week that the new law follows the process of devolution of ideals of the Soviet society to current legislators in the State Duma.

Andropov would be proud
Blogger Victor Davidoff writes in an OpEd in The Moscow Times today that former KGB-boss Yury Andropov would be proud of Vladimir Putin following tthis new crack-down on non-state organizations, groups that theoretically could be in opposition to Kremlin.

This is not the first time Putinism cracks down on NGOs. The Kremlin first tightened the laws on NGOs in 2005. Putin, then in for his second Presidental period then called NGOs “jackals hanging around foreign embassies begging for money.”

Following Putin’s stamp “jackals” on NGOs, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat changed its funding rules so no Russian partners could apply for economical support directly. All grants are today given to the Norwegian partners within the Barents cooperation.

Council of Europe commitments
The secretariat provides the grants on behalf of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. State Secretary Gry Larsen in the Ministry follows the developments in Russia. “We are familiar with the bill that is being considered by the Russian Duma and the concerns this raises for the further development of civil society in Russia,” Larsen says to BarentsObserver.

“From the Norwegian side we assume that the Russian authorities follow up the commitments they have as a member of the Council of Europe. An active voluntary sector is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy.” 

Larsen underlines the important role civil society and NGOs have in Norwegian, Russian relations. “An important part of our bilateral relationship is the open collaboration that takes place under the direction of Norwegian and Russian civil society organizations. We assume that this will continue,” Gry Larsen says.

“Intention obvious”
Another economical supporter of non-governmental cooperation with Barents Russia is Sweden.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt writes on his twitter today: “I’m concerned with new Russian law on NGO’s. Requires everyone having help from abroad to register as “foreign agent”. Intention obvious.”