For a leader who styles himself a strong man, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems awfully scared of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For the past several years he has been waging a war against those groups, working to marginalize them and limit their influence. The latest step in that effort occurred late last month, when he signed legislation that criminalizes any contact with “undesirable” NGOs or individuals, an amorphous and undefined qualifier that will be filled in by Russia’s chief prosecutor. This is just one more attempt by Putin and his confederates to silence any opposition to their rule.
Putin and his colleagues are convinced that the West, and the United States in particular, is determined to remove them from office. They watched color revolutions sprout throughout the world — and studied most intensely those in states of the former Soviet Union such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — and concluded that such movements could not be organic protests against authoritarian regimes. Rather, they are certain that such protests are financed and promoted by Western forces bent on eliminating any individual or government that dares to defy them and their vision of world order.
According to the Kremlin, the chief instruments of that effort are NGOs engaged in “democracy promotion.” The $5 billion that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said the U.S. spent over the past two decades to “secure a prosperous and democratic Ukraine” was, in Russian eyes, a program of regime change in a crucial Russian buffer state and an attempt to limit Moscow’s great power ambitions. That belief motivated the Russian Parliament three years ago to pass a law that labeled Russian groups that received any funds from abroad as “foreign agents.” Several dozen groups earned that label, and a number of them eventually shut down.
Last month, the Duma went a step further and sent to Putin a law that forbids contact with any group, anywhere in the world, that the prosecutor deems a threat to Russia’s constitutional order, defense or national security. Violation could result in the closing of local offices and up to six years in prison; penalties cannot be appealed. The draft list of unacceptable organizations includes Transparency International, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
To her credit, Russia’s human rights commissioner Ella Pamfilova criticized the law for failing to clearly define what constitutes an undesirable organization and the absence of court proceedings to check abuse. Unfortunately, her critique carries no weight.
The government offensive against foreign groups is an outgrowth of the 2010 parliamentary elections, when independent observers claimed there were voter irregularities, a declaration that sparked mass protests against Putin and his supporters. That act of public defiance reportedly infuriated the president and prompted the campaign.
Putin’s chief concern now is the 2016 parliamentary elections, and shoring up support for the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia. The party is currently sinking in opinion polls. In local elections held in Kaliningrad last month, United Russia failed to win a single seat. Poll watchers assert that Kaliningrad has been a bellwether of Russian politics for the last five years; if they are right, Putin should be worried.
Putin’s war on NGOs is part of a broader offensive that seeks to restrict information in Russia, that silences alternative interpretations of events, and that stifles challenges to his regime. The ability of the government to control the media narrative is increasingly important as Russians struggle with the hardships that have resulted from sanctions imposed by the West in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and attempts to destabilize Ukraine. Putin needs a foreign scapegoat for Russian sufferings. This narrative also allows him to paint himself as a defender of Russia’s national interests, standing up to foreign powers determined to deny his country its rightful place in the international system.
Shutting off contact with foreign NGOs denies Russians an alternative explanation for their troubles, and prevents them from hearing alternatives to Putin’s rule. It makes it harder for Russians to work with groups that might be critical of the Moscow government. The new law, says one human rights activist, is “squeezing the life out of free speech and association.”
That does not bother Putin. His view of Russia requires that it be united — forcibly if necessary — behind one man. Dissent risks division, and division risks weakness. A weak Russia cannot defend its interests and its place in the world. His readiness to do anything to defend Russian interests — to engage in duplicitous diplomacy to undermine neighboring countries, to surreptitiously invade and annex territory, and even to turn a blind eye to the killing of those who disagree with him — should make clear the dangers that are likely to follow if he succeeds in silencing all dissent in Russia.