Russians politicians are masters at flying provocative kites. In recent years, they’ve demonstrated these skills in some of the proposals submitted to parliament. Change the name of Volgograd back to Stalingrad, despite the extreme sins of the man being so honored? Re-erect a statue in honor of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the secret police who began the modern era of repression? Ban demonstrations near any public building? Change the constitution to allow Vladimir Putin a third term as president?
Most of these controversial ideas were eventually either quashed or greatly watered down by Putin in the face of protest from opposition groups and foreign critics. Now Moscow is debating another dangerous proposal: a law that would regulate the operations of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and require them to register with the government. This proposal threatens to impede groups fighting for human rights, democracy and to foster the development of a stronger civil society in Russia. Foreign NGOs are particularly under threat.
The first rule for Russia watchers is to be suspicious of first drafts of parliamentary laws. These proposals may be unsolicited “initiatives from below” put forth by politicians eager to prove their loyalty to the Kremlin, even if the result may be embarrassing for their masters. At other times, they are clearly orchestrated “from above” to test the waters for change – often in an anti-democratic direction.
The NGO measures have certainly been stoked by harsh remarks from Putin. The latest Moscow conspiracy focuses on how the newly-appointed “civic chamber,” set up to act as a counterbalance to government and represent civil society (many would say that is what a parliament is supposed to be), has been allocated the role of criticizing the draft law. The “civic chamber,” the thinking goes, is attacking the NGO legislation in order to prove how “independent” it is of the authorities.
The second rule of Russia watching is that proposals for change do not always lack justification. The latest bout of anti-NGO sentiment has undoubtedly been driven by domestic fear of the “democratic” colored revolutions in the neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, as well as recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, spreading to Russia. Putin believes western-funded NGOs groups helped spark those revolts and there were some pretty strange NGOs based those countries.
There is little doubt that some NGOs have received foreign funding out of kilter with local support, and espoused a very clear political agenda. Likewise, there have been some “double standards” apparent in western criticism of Putin’s interference in foreign elections. While the Russian leader has been attacked for endorsing “his” candidates in other countries, most notably in Ukraine, foreign leaders have done much the same with their own preferred choices. The UK’s Tony Blair even implicitly and inappropriately endorsed Putin when he visited him ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in spring 2000.
None of that excuses attacks on NGOs. Russian domestic organizations such as Memorial and the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, and foreign ones like Medecins sans Frontieres or the Ford Foundation, do extremely important work. They need more support from the Russian government, not new restrictions. They also need to mobilize broader and deeper support among Russians themselves to protect them from future unjustified attack.
The third rule of Kremlin-watching is that new Russian laws always tend to be worse than the status quo. Russians are very versatile in adapting to the burdens imposed on them by their leaders, but bureaucracy and corruption tend to intervene in the implementation of any measure. However well intentioned, the result is likely to make the country’s struggling NGOs suffer more.
The final rule is that speaking out can still make a difference in Russia. Ironically, strong criticism allows Putin and his aides to win public relations victory. By magisterially intervening at the last minute to demonstrate the influence of the “good Tsar” in ameliorating or striking out undemocratic ideas, Putin can reinforce the Kremlin’s supposedly politically moderate credentials. Putin is already watering down the worst aspects of the NGO law. To thwart similar attempts by hard-liners in the Kremlin to push Russia back in an authoritarian direction will require eternal vigilance, hard work and swift and loud criticism of every provocative kite Russian politicians fly.
Andrew Jack is the author of Inside Putin’s Russia and a journalist with the Financial Times.