MOSCOW, December 19 (RIA Novosti) – The lower house of the Russian parliament gave preliminary but crucial approval Wednesday to legislation introducing a direct ban on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in political activity in Russia and receiving funding or other support from US citizens or US-based organizations, as well as NGOs whose activities are seen as a threat to Russia’s interests.
The State Duma passed the new amendment during a second reading of the so-called “Dima Yakovlev Law,” a bill that is Russia’s response to recently adopted US legislation known as the Magnitsky Act. The law’s more controversial and high-profile aspect has been a ban on US adoptions of Russian children.
The NGO amendment stipulates that the Russian Justice Ministry “will suspend the activities of NGOs that conduct political activities in Russia while receiving grants and other material support from US citizens or organizations, or implement projects and programs in the country that threaten Russia’s interests.”
The draft legislation likewise bans Russian nationals who also hold US passports from working at Russia-based NGOs, whether domestic or foreign, or their branches, if the NGOs engage in “political activities” in Russia.
The bill is likely to be passed in its third and final reading on Friday, potentially coming into effect in 2013 after being approved by the Federation Council and signed by the president.
Veteran human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group watchdog and holds US as well as Russian citizenship, speculated this week that the amendment could be aimed against her specifically as she knew of no other NGO heads who hold both passports. She has sharply criticized the proposed legislation, calling it the next step in “tightening the screws” on the activities of human rights defenders in Russia.
Alexeyeva, who is 85 and formerly served on the Kremlin’s human rights council, said she would fight the amendment in the Constitutional Court.
The new legislation is the latest in a series of restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs enacted since President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin last spring. While detractors have noted that the new measures are unreasonable and target groups that have been highly critical of Russia’s leaders, authorities have defended the steps, calling them necessary to prevent outside interference in Russia’s political process.
A law passed in July requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in “political activity,” a term that is not clearly defined, to deal with increased red tape and publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents” – a derogatory term referring to spies in Soviet times.
Organizations that fall under the July law include independent electoral watchdog Golos, the Moscow Helsinki Group, rights group Memorial, Transparency International Russia and other groups that have criticized the Kremlin over alleged electoral machinations, rights violations or graft.
In September, Russian authorities expelled the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a US state agency that funded local NGOs.