In July 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into effect the (now) infamous ‘Foreign Agent Law.’ In short, the law mandates that non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) who receive international funding register with the Russian government as foreign agents and complete regular reports on their activity, or face penalties. At first glance, the law appears to be another step in the bureaucratic staircase to nowhere, but in reality, it was a direct message regarding Western interference in domestic Russian affairs. Just three years later, President Putin has once again outraged many with the approval of an ‘undesirables’ law – a stipulation that says the Russian government can deny approval for NGO’s to operate on the basis of them being ‘undesirable’ (a term that is not officially defined). A brief analysis shows that this law is a continuation of the deteriorating relationship between Russia and its Western counterparts.
After the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991, international NGO’s flooded into Russia, using their platforms as a way to influence the nascent Russian Federation’s system and society. The government responded in the mid and late 90’s to internationally funded, but didn’t appear to have much success. After Putin returned to power in 2012, the Foreign Agent Law was passed, approved by the courts, then implemented through the Ministry of Justice. Journalist Kathy Lally wrote in The Washington Post, “The law requires NGOs that receive money from abroad to register as foreign agents if they engage in political activity — a term so loosely defined that it has been applied to bird lovers protecting rare cranes and parents helping children with cystic fibrosis. Its targets call the law a full-scale assault on Russia’s newly emerging civil society because the NGOs face not just fines, but also the possibility of being shut down.” Next, in May 2015, the Russian government passed the aforementioned law focused on “undesirable organizations.” What exactly does that mean? Well, no one is sure, but it seems it might have to do with those who oppose the values of the Kremlin.
So, why does it matter? For years, corporations, governments, and other entities have funded domestic and international NGO’s around the globe in order to accomplish a specific means (e.g. build schools, improve healthcare, advocate for LGBTQ rights, etc.). Arguably, most organizations exist to provide services where there are gaps in local resources; however, there is rich suspicion among some in Russia that NGO’s are operating as a method of ideological transmission. President Putin and the Kremlin have been leading a crusade to crack down on international influence on Russian society, emphasizing the country’s triumphant history and venerable background as a grounds for insular pride. Whether or not you agree with it, the movement has picked up steam in Russia, a country that has faced an identity crisis over the last 25 years and is looking to reassert its power and ideology. Impeding NGO’s that are suspected to be operating as an advocacy tool for political reform is simply a piece of a larger puzzle and ideological goal for those in charge in Russia. In reality, many NGO’s could possibly lose their international funding at any point due to strict legal provisions, leaving those receiving services from said organizations vulnerable. Either the state or another another organization will have to step in to fill the void of organizations that have been penalized or shutdown.
In Russia, however, it seems the impact hasn’t been what many in the West were hoping for anyways. Scholar Jo Crotty said, “Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, many scholars have noted that reliance on overseas donor funding has had the opposite effect to what was intended. Rather than bolstering its development, overseas funding has created a class of NGO that is distanced from Russian society and thus it has ‘widened the gap between activists and the rest of society’. This is because, the foreign assistance offered has not been sufficiently grounded in the norms of the society within which the NGO operates” (Crotty, pg. 91). So, if it isn’t working well anyways, why restrict it further?
Well, for one, many things have changed between the West and the Kremlin over the last few years – tensions have been intensified and distrust is rampant . Both NATO and the Russian military have held massive exercises to display dominance, Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, and is playing a primary role in the Ukrainian conflict. The Kremlin doesn’t appear to be slowing down in its campaign against foreign interests in Russian society; in fact, it appears to be escalating this behavior. Internet restrictions and limiting international media have created paradigm for Westerners, disallowing the spread of information pertinent to their interests. The Kremlin leadership is creating a society that is isolated from the West and, depending on your point of view, the citizens of the Russian Federation will be the ones paying the price for lost services – literally and figuratively.
Crotty, J. (2009). Making a Difference? NGOs and Civil Society Development in Russia. Europe-Asia Studies, 61(1), 85-108.