Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a controversial bill passed by parliament that brands NGOs who receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents”, the Kremlin said Saturday.
The law, which has caused huge concern among activists who fear it will be used to stigmatise critical NGOs, was signed by Putin after it was rushed through the lower and upper houses of parliament before their summer breaks.
Putin “signed the federal law on regulating the activities of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who carry out the role of a foreign agent”, the Kremlin said in a statement.
The law, which sailed through the State Duma lower house on July 13 and then the upper house Federation Council on July 18, requires NGOs who receive foreign funding to register with the authorities as foreign agents.
The NGOs will have to allow official checks of their income, accounting and management structure as well as regularly make public their sources of income and their management.
The label “foreign agent” does not directly implicate the NGO in espionage but does carry in Russian unequivocally negative connotations of unpatriotic behaviour.
The law broadly applies to any foreign-funded NGO engaged in a political activity in Russia but exempts religious groups and organisations linked to the state or state companies.
Activists have warned that the law is a throwback to the public shaming of dissidents in the Soviet Union and could herald a new period of repression in Putin’s Russia.
The leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the Russia’s oldest human right organisations, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, has decided to turn down foreign grants to avoid having to register the body as a “foreign agent.”
Alexeyeva, who turned 85 on Friday, asked supporters not to give her any gifts but to offer financial assistance to her organisation to make up the funding shortfall.
Analysts believe the law appears to be a response to the criticism by NGO election watchdogs of December parliamentary polls and the March presidential elections won by Putin which were followed by mass anti-Kremlin protests.
Just before the December elections, Putin icily compared Russian vote monitors, who receive money from abroad, to Judas — the disciple who betrayed Jesus — and said their Western funding was “money thrown to the wind”.
His irritation appeared to target the Western funded Golos NGO, whose evidence of vote-rigging was used by the opposition to back claims the polls were illegitimate in the subsequent protests.
In a frantic last week before the recess, parliament also passed bills on blacklisting undesirable Internet sites and criminalising slander which raised alarm among activists over a general clampdown on civil society.
But Putin has yet to sign these two other pieces of legislation into law.
The Vedomosti economic daily in an editorial on Friday criticised the new legislation as “repressive” and said it would create “a new reality” in Russia just months into Putin’s third term as president.
But it warned the extra bureaucracy needed to implement the rules would not come cheap. “Tightening the screws is not going to be free of charge. The state is going to have to finance new spending at the expensive of citizens and business,” Vedomosti said.