Russia Gets Stricter With Protesters and Opposition Groups

6 MINS READJul 17, 2012 | 10:00 GMT
Russia Gets Stricter With Protesters and Opposition Groups  Read more: Russia Gets Stricter With Protesters and Opposition Groups
Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 8

Russia's Federation Council is set to approve a bill July 18 targeting nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia. The bill is meant to pressure the opposition and anti-Kremlin movements in Russia and to hamper attempts by forces outside Russia to support them. The bill is one of numerous laws Moscow is using against opposition and protest groups as the Kremlin prepares for regional election season.

These new measures indicate that the Kremlin is nervous about conditions inside Russia in the run-up to the regional elections next quarter; the Kremlin has not set such strong restrictions since the mid-2000s. The Kremlin knows that the upcoming elections are crucial to its continued centralized control over the country and it wants to hobble the opposition as much as possible. 

The bill targeting nongovernmental organizations passed in the Duma on July 13, and after its expected passage in the Federal Council it will go to Russian President Vladimir Putin for approval. The measure would force many nongovernmental groups that receive funding from abroad to register as foreign agents in Russia. Once labeled a foreign agent, a group must display that label in all its publications.

The bill targets nongovernmental organizations that engage in political activity. An amendment to the bill under debate would exempt religious and charitable groups. This amendment would benefit organizations such as the Russian Orthodox Church that receive donations from abroad.

United Russia member Irina Yarovaya, one of the bill's co-authors, said Russians need to be able to understand who in Russia does political work paid with foreign money. Yarovaya called that precept a standard of international democracy. Noncompliance with the law, if it is enacted, will result in heavy fines and jail time.

Many prominent human rights groups — along with the U.S. State Department — have denounced the bill, while others are looking for ways to work around it or adapt to it. Organizations could prove that they are not politically active and thus not required to adhere to the law. Influential human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group, which has operated in Russia since the Soviet era, has already vowed to cut its foreign funding for the time being in order to comply with the potential law.

The Izvestia newspaper reported July 16 that next quarter, a string of Russian-based publications and broadcasting companies could fall under the new law and be classified as "acting in the interests of foreign governments." These media outlets would then be subject to inspections meant to determine whether they receive foreign financing or use any foreign funds. New rules are already being set for media outlets, but those outlets would be restricted even further if the nongovernmental organization law supersedes current laws on mass media.

Internet and Libel Laws

Another piece of legislation that passed in the Duma in early July establishes a government blacklist of websites containing illegal content and requires Internet service providers to block them. The Russian government has said the law aims to combat child pornography on the Internet. The law allows the government to close down a website for any suspicion of illegal behavior. The website would then remain down until its owner could prove in Russia's notoriously complex courts that no wrongdoing was intended. Russian search engine operator Yandex has protested the move, as have Wikipedia and LiveJournal. Wikipedia has even closed down in protest.

The same week the Duma discussed the Internet law, Western media outlets working in Russia experienced shutdowns. BBC, CNN and Bloomberg were all temporarily shut down by Russian cable provider Akado (owned by the Kremlin-friendly Viktor Vekselberg), which said the outlets did not have proper licensing. Russian Deputy Minister of Communications and Mass Media Alexei Volin said the law on Internet restrictions was not related to the temporary broadcast shutdowns, but there is some speculation that the moves are tied together as an attempt to discourage organizations from broadcasting anti-Kremlin information. 

Attached to the Internet law is an old law that again makes defamation a criminal offense. The bill allows for the imposition of fines of up to 5 million rubles (approximately $150,000) for libel. The law further applies to any group disseminating false information that damages the reputation of government officials. The law was in effect during Putin's previous presidencies but was rolled back under former President Dmitri Medvedev.

Targeting the Opposition

All these measures are meant to increase pressure on opposition movements inside Russia ahead of regional elections in October. These measures follow a law passed in June that increased fines for protesters while broadening the definition of a protest.

Currently, many opposition members use various nongovernmental organizations, media outlets and blogs to be heard throughout Russia. Labeling the opposition groups as foreign agents will hurt their credibility among the Russian people, who tend to see such groups as puppets of the West. Among the principal targets of this law are groups such as the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Voters, the electoral group that accused the Russian government of fraud in December 2011 after parliamentary elections and sparked mass nationwide protests. Russian media have reported accusations that this association receives funding from the U.S. State Department and other foreign sources.

Limits set on the media and the Internet will damage opposition movements, which rely mainly on the Internet to spread their messages, but they could also prompt a backlash against the Kremlin. Most Russian television broadcasters are state-affiliated, so the Internet is one of the only tools available to the opposition (particularly leaders such as Alexei Navalny).

Opposition groups also have counted on Western media outlets to promote their anti-Kremlin messages, but this relationship could be in jeopardy as well. The opposition movements are not necessarily pro-Western — most are highly nationalist — but they generally accept support and funding from wherever they can get it, even from the West. This could all be curbed when the new laws take effect. The libel law will in theory restrict what the opposition is allowed to say about the government, so their anti-Kremlin slogans and messages (such as that United Russia is the "party of crooks and thieves") could be limited.

Concerns for the Russian Federation

These new restrictions are all in preparation for the regional gubernatorial and parliamentary elections in 11 regions across Russia in October. This is the first direct election for the regional governments since 2004, when Putin allowed regional leaders to be directly appointed by the Kremlin. Moscow has seen its power falter in the regions of late, with United Russia losing mayoral elections in Tolyatti and Yaroslavl in recent months. The Kremlin has realized that it will have to actually campaign in order for United Russia to win the regions — and many Kremlin leaders are not accustomed to campaigning. The Kremlin has made efforts and won other mayoral elections, including the one in Omsk.

But the Kremlin does not seem confident that it can sweep the coming regional elections, particularly when the opposition has plenty of time to organize and campaign. These and future regional elections are critical to the Kremlin's continued hold on power. Russia is a large, disjointed and diverse country, and the Kremlin historically has had to put its own people in charge of the regions to ensure control.

Considering how difficult — and important — it is for Moscow to maintain the regions' loyalty, the Kremlin is doing what it can to hamper the opposition's capabilities ahead of the October elections.

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