Dissent in Putin’s Russia Just Got More Dangerous
Policy + Politics

Dissent in Putin’s Russia Just Got More Dangerous

REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenk

For most Americans, hearing the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation all mentioned at the same time would likely trigger thoughts of National Public Radio fund drives. But in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, those and other foreign non-profits are not seen as benevolent grant-makers or global do-gooders, but rather, according to state-run media outlet TASS, as part of the “many-tentacled” network of foundations “that carry out the policy of the U.S. State Department.”

And that’s why these and more than a dozen other international non-governmental organizations have been placed on what the Russian Parliament’s upper house has called a “patriotic stop list” of foreign organizations that Russian lawmakers say are “known for their anti-Russian orientation.”

Related: A New Warning About Russia from a Top U.S. General

The list of organizations flagged by the Federation Council has been forwarded to the office of the Prosecutor General, which will determine whether they can be classified as “undesirable” organizations. A law passed earlier this year and signed by President Vladimir Putin made it illegal for Russian citizens to associate with groups designated as undesirable, and also made it possible for Russian prosecutors to have a group so designated with no trial or open process.

So far, the list of organizations forwarded to prosecutors includes, in addition to those mentioned above: the George-Soros-backed Open Society Foundation, The National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, the Education for Democracy Foundation, the East European Democratic Center, the Ukrainian World Congress, the Ukrainian World Coordinating Council, and the Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights.

According to Russia Today, another of the many government-controlled media outlets operating in Russia, when an organization is declared undesirable, “all its assets in Russia must be frozen, offices closed and distribution of any of its information materials must be banned. If the ban is violated, both the personnel of the outlawed group and Russian citizens who cooperate with them face punishments of heavy fines, or even prison terms in case of repeated or aggravated offence.”

“We are disappointed to learn of reports that the MacArthur Foundation is included on a list of organizations that will be recommended by the Federation Council to the Prosecutor General for potential designation as engaged in undesirable activity under recent legislation,” said MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch. “This rests on a serious misunderstanding of our activities in Russia.”

Related: With Empty Pockets, Putin Misses a Chance to Bring Greece into His Fold

“Our office in Moscow opened in 1992 and has since been staffed by dedicated Russians who love their country,” Stasch said. “The MacArthur Foundation is entirely independent of and receives no funding from the United States government.  We do not engage in or support political activities.”

The Open Society Foundation likewise expressed dismay.

“This move comes more than a quarter-century after the Open Society Foundations began work in Russia to support the aspirations of the Russian people,” the group said in a statement Thursday. “Since 1987, Open Society has provided support to countless individuals and civil society organizations, including in the fields of science, education, and public health. This record speaks for itself.”

The group, according to the release is “determined to continue to support those who seek our assistance in accordance with our mission and within the limits of the law.”

Related: BRICS Economies Look Like Rubble as Summit Convenes

The situation is even worse for Russia-based groups that accept funding from overseas to support civil society initiatives. Late Thursday, two Russian NGOs announced that they would shut down altogether. Dynasty, which supports science and education initiatives, and the Committee Against Torture, whose mission is self-explanatory, said they would cease operating rather than register as “foreign agents,” which is tantamount to registering as “foreign spy.”

Ironically, the purge of internationally known civil society organizations from Russia because the government there objects to what they say came the same week that a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the country’s citizens that their right to free speech is under assault … by Facebook.

Igor Shchegolev, according to The Moscow Times, told Russians this week that they ought to abandon the U.S.-based social network in favor of Russia-based alternatives.

The concern arose from Facebook’s policy of restricting access to its services by users who engage in what it characterizes as hate speech. In recent weeks, a number of high profile Russian political figures have taken to using the term “khokhly” to refer to Ukrainians on social media. The term has long been considered at least vaguely insulting, though there is debate about just how offensive the term is to people from Ukraine.

However, given that Russia last year invaded part of Ukraine and declared it “annexed” and then offered military support to separatists in the eastern part of the country, Facebook appears to be assuming that the term isn’t being used in a complimentary manner.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times