During this period, the Duma has fast-tracked three controversial bills which – if approved by the upper house of Parliament and ratified by Putin – will impose tough restrictions on NGOs, reinstate criminal penalties for libel and introduce tighter regulation of the internet.
Under the first draft law, which was submitted by the ruling United Russia party and which received an overwhelming number of votes in its favour, NGOs which receive foreign funding would be forced to register with the Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents” and to submit reports on their activities to the authorities twice a year. While the Government claims this legislation is necessary to increase transparency over the operations of such organisations, critics have accused the Kremlin of seeking to put pressure on NGOs which represent a threat to its authority.
Indeed, organisations such as Golos (Russia’s sole independent elections watchdog, funded by several US and EU institutions) which helped publicise instances of electoral fraud in the disputed December Parliamentary elections have repeatedly come under attack. In December Golos was accused of being an agent of foreign Governments and was the target of a sustained Kremlin-sanctioned smear campaign. The organisation’s offices were subsequently raided by the authorities.
If ratified, the bill will likely compel NGOs to reject contributions from overseas in order to avoid losing credibility and being branded “foreign agents”. Indeed, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, an influential human rights organisation, has already stated that the group would cease accepting foreign funding. In turn, this will likely have a significant impact on these NGOs’ financial resources. Significantly, President Putin has vowed to compensate for this shortfall by tripling annual state financing of NGOs. Nevertheless, it is unlikely groups such as Golos - which are out of favour with the Kremlin - will receive such funding. Moreover, increased state financing could jeopardise the very impartiality of such organisations.
Meanwhile, observers have also voiced concerns over a second bill which would increase the maximum penalty for defamation to USD 153,000 and a five-year jail sentence. This move has raised questions over individuals’ freedom of expression rights. It came only days after the lower house unanimously approved a bill for the creation of a federal register of websites deemed to contain harmful or illegal information. Under the proposed legislation, websites found to contain prohibited material (such as extremist propaganda) could be shut down if the owner does not remove the illegal content.
This bill has been widely criticised by opposition activists, NGOs and internet-based companies (such as Wikipedia and Yandex) alike, with the Kremlin’s human rights council opposing it on the grounds that it could be used by the authorities to limit access to information and block an “excessively broad” range of internet resources. These concerns were echoed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 56-nation democracy watchdog.
Moreover, activists claim the legislation is aimed at hindering the opposition movement in so far as it could be used to facilitate the closure of Russian websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media platforms such as these are a key resource used by the opposition to organise and rally support for protests. Indeed, social networking sites such as LiveJournal (Russia’s most popular blogging platform) were targeted by Denial of Services attacks in the lead up to the Parliamentary and Presidential elections. Moreover, Russia’s Federal Security Services have previously applied pressure on sites such as VKontakte to block certain groups associated with anti-government protests.
The rapid passage of all three bills before parliamentary recess suggests that the Kremlin is seeking to implement preventative measures against the opposition in an effort to avoid resorting to the heavy-handed tactics previously employed by law enforcement agents during opposition protests.