Is Putin’s Aim High Profile Prosecutions of “Foreign Agent” NGOs?

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April 18, 2013; Christian Science Monitor

Some are saying that the number of prosecutions of NGOs in Russia for accepting foreign money while engaged in civic activity may be few, but that they are meant to have a chilling effect. As NPQ has reported, a series of government raids (called audits) of NGOs have been occurring across Russia after a law was passed in July that requires NGOs who fit the category above to register as “foreign agents.”

Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center’s Pro et Contra journal, writes that “President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that foreign money that pays for any civic initiative in Russia means that foreign actors are ordering it. His view is that it violates Russia’s sovereignty, and has to be stopped. We will probably see a few groups get punished, and everyone else will be left to absorb the message. And that is to think twice” before accepting foreign funds or engaging in any activity that might anger the authorities.

Last week, Putin claimed checks revealed that, according to his information, Russian NGOs received almost $1 billion in foreign funding over the last four months, and of that, about $30 million was granted out by foreign embassies. This assertion is contradicted in an open letter from 60 civil society leaders, who have demanded the Kremlin document the claim.

“We have so many reasons to refuse to register as foreign agents,” says Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, a grassroots Moscow-based coalition. “Yes, Russian NGOs are accustomed to accept foreign funding, but we would much rather find it here in Russia. That’s very hard to do; Russian business is reluctant to give to a human rights group, and state grants make up barely a fifth of our budget. We’re ready for dialogue with Putin. But it seems like he’s already chosen the path of confrontation. What he really wants is to destroy the NGO sector, and I suppose he will,” he says.—Ruth McCambridge