In Russia, non-governmental groups that receive foreign funding are subject to scrutiny. Laws, which date back to 2012, require domestic human rights organizations that receive foreign funding to register as foreign agents. As a result of these laws, a number of major foreign human rights organizations have also been deemed ‘undesirable’ and banned from the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been hostile to nongovernmental organizations, and has worked to limit their influence since his first term in 2000-2004. As of 2006, both foreign and domestic NGOs in Russia have been subject to governmental regulations. Since 2012, the “Foreign Agents” law has substantially altered the rules governing the registration and operation of domestic NGOs. Under this law, domestic NGOs receiving funding from abroad have to register with the Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents.”
Because the Russian government provides little funding for the monitoring of human rights abuses, Russia’s NGOs must rely on other funding sources. Most of these sources are foreign human rights organizations, governments, and other groups that support investigations into human rights abuses and promote government transparency and accountability. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, such support represents an external influence on the country’s political activity.
In 2015, Putin signed a follow up law called “The Law on Undesirable Organizations,” which has had severe consequences for leading Western human rights groups operating in Russia. Pursuant to the “Undesirables” law, the Kremlin has investigated a number of foreign organizations, like The Open Society Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, and the MacArthur Foundation. In July 2015, the MacArthur Foundation closed its offices in Russia as a result of constant scrutiny under the law.
Since the “Undesirables” law has been passed, a so-called “patriotic stop-list” has also been established, which bans several prominent organizations for “allegedly undermin[ing] Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order,” as Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported. In November 2015, the Soros Foundation, also known as Open Society Foundation, was banned from working inside Russia, and deemed a threat to national security.
With the help of this new law, the Kremlin has targeted Russians who support these banned organizations. According to HRW, “Russians who maintain ties with ‘undesirables’ or share their materials with Russian audiences face penalties ranging from fines to a maximum of six years in prison.” In other words, Russian activists who continued to affiliate or cooperate with banned foreign and international NGOs might face fines and even prison terms.
Russia is not alone in its targeting of NGOs. In November 2015, the Israeli Knesset introduced a bill that “would require non-profits receiving more than half of their funding from foreign governments to officially note it in their official publications,” as Haaretz reported. The so-called “Transparency Bill,” sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, would also require groups that receive foreign funding to wear special badges when visiting the parliamentary building. On December 27, 2015, the Knesset approved the bill, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu required that the provision on identity tags be removed.
Parallels between Russia and Israel go much deeper than their NGO laws, and extend to a shared rightward shift in politics. Both Putin and Netanyahu are engaged in processes of power consolidation under the cover of national security. This includes shifting away from liberal democracy toward, what Israeli lawyer and contributor to The New York Times, Michael Sfard calls ‘technical democracy.’ Where NGOs are concerned, both Putin and Netanyahu are using ‘Soviet style’ tactics to tighten their grip on organizations that are challenging their power, as well as that of the elite. At the end of the day, civil society in both countries are suffering a high price, as a result.