Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

“Foreign agents”: controversial bill on NGOs approved by parliament

Russian Parliament has approved a draft bill that establishes special rules for NGOs receiving foreign funding and mandates them to report to the authorities as “foreign agents”. The draft legislation was introduced by the majority party, United Russia, has been endorsed by the Government, and has received support from several pro-government public associations. Several minority political parties in the Parliament, human rights activists and NGOs have opposed and strongly criticized the bill. According to the critics, many NGOs in Russia receive foreign funding, and labeling them as “foreign agents” will undermine NGO position in society, lead to stigma and may cause the closure of smaller NGOs. While authors of the bill and some experts claim that that the bill will be used to control and limit the activities of explicitly “political” NGOs, many believe that this legislation will affect all NGOs that receive foreign funding.

On Friday, July 6, the Russian State Duma gave its preliminary approval to a controversial draft bill on the status of non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents”. The bill comes from the United Russia party; 323 parliamentarians supported it, and only 4 were against it. Only the social democratic party, A Just Russia, spoke strongly against the draft bill, but they boycotted the session. The Government and Supreme Court have also endorsed the bill. Many observers conclude that United Russia is committed to adopting the bill as soon as possible, even in absence of a broad public discussion.

As reported by, the draft bill mandates NGOs that receive funding from abroad to report as “foreign agents”. The draft bill contains a broad range of sanctions, from imprisonment for up to 4 years to fines to mandatory labour. The sanctions would concern those NGOs that repeatedly fail to report as foreign agents, or those that instruct citizens to neglect their civil duties – this would be punished through imprisonment for up to 3 years.

Parliamentary opposition has been split on the issue of the draft bill. The Social Democrats think that NGOs are seeking foreign funding not because they are “someone’s agents [wishing] to defend adversarial interest, but rather because funding is unavailable in Russia… [Russian] enterprises and citizens often don’t want or are unable to donate money to NGOs. This happens not even because of greed, but because of the imperfections in the tax laws.” The Communists are sceptical about the initiative because the bill may stigmatize those who are not satisfied with the authorities as “foreign agents”, but they are not against the bill. The nationalistic “Liberal Democratic” party has sided with United Russia in its support of the draft bill.

Human rights activists and other NGOs unanimously express their opposition to the draft bill. According to a human rights activist, Lev Ponomarev, “It is clear that any non-commercial organization that bears the stamp of a foreign agent will thus humiliate itself before the country’s residents. And, clearly, the non-commerical organization won’t do that. This means that 90% of human rights organizations in Russia, if not 100% of them, will cease to exist.” According to another human rights activist, Lyudmila Alexeeva, “None of our organizations [the Helsinki Groups] receives funding… from the state or private foundations. We have enough wealthy people who would be honoured to fund the MHG and other human rights organizations. But we don’t have an independent private sector. And independent entrepreneurs realize they could lose their business if they take that step.”

More than 40 leading Russian NGOs and over 3000 of their supporters have signed a petition against the bill, urging the parliament to arrange a broad public discussion of the draft. The criticism focuses on the low quality of the draft which would put at risk not only NGOs but also “universities, schools, museums and many other organizations” that would be forced to register as foreign agents. Complicated reporting, fines and other sanctions would be unbearable for many small organizations. The signatories conclude that the draft bill would reinforce the image of NGOs as public enemies.

At the same time, more than 98,000 people have signed a pro-government petition to support the bill. The petition uses loaded language reminiscent of the Brezhnev era. It claims that many NGOs are enemies in sheep’s clothes who pose as human rights activists as they receive millions of dollars to act against Russia, while the US and other countries are spending billions to “destroy our citizens’ peaceful life”.

It is unclear at this point what the consequences of the bill will be for the Russian NGO community. Judging by past experiences, it is likely that it will be used to target particular NGOs, for example independent monitors of Russian elections. However, it may be used against any NGO that criticizes the government’s policies or promotes “non-traditional values” – which is what many public health organizations do.

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