Russia's New NGO Law: The Shadow Of Soft Power

Russia's new NGO law is more than a move against organizations receiving foreign funding. It is part of a broader campaign to squeeze out those the Kremlin sees as peddlers of "soft power."

The law, pushed through Russia's lower house by Vladimir Putin's United Russia party on Friday, would see groups receiving funding from abroad dubbed "foreign agents."

Supporters of the bill argue that the aim is simply to ensure transparency from these bodies but critics claim that they are aimed at undermining organizations seen as critical of the government. These include the independent election watchdog GOLOS, who helped compile reports of electoral violations during the controversial parliamentary vote in December that lit the touch paper of large protests in the capital.

Few who are familiar with the country's recent history will be much surprised by recent developments.

In 2006 four British diplomats were accused of espionage after a fake rock was allegedly discovered containing electronic equipment. The "spy rock" scandal was then tied to NGO activities, leading to a law being passed that significantly raised barriers to registration for organizations and increased government oversight of the sector.

While six years ago the Kremlin may have perceived NGOs as more nuisance than threat, however, the protests since December seem to have sharpened their resolve. Indeed in the lead up to his presidential campaign, Putin blamed the protest movement on elements within Russian society in the sway of the U.S. State Department.

After the first large-scale protests, he accused the U.S. of spending "hundreds of millions" to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections and sending signals to unidentified groups within Russia to foment unrest. He then went even further in an article for the daily newspaper Moskovskie Novosti blaming the West for using "pseudo-NGOs" to "manipulate the public and... conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries".

Even Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, has felt the impact of the latest clampdown. The outspoken academic has admitted being shocked by the reaction to his arrival in January after being hounded by journalists from state TV station NTV and accused of handing out orders to prominent opposition figures.

There has also been some hostility from official sources. Following a lecture given by McFaul at the Higher School of Economics in May the Russian Foreign Ministry took the highly unusual step of issuing a public statement criticizing the ambassador's conduct: "This is not the first time when statements and actions of Mr. McFaul, who holds such a responsible post, cause bewilderment. As we see it, the task of ambassadors is progressive development of bilateral relations with the host country on the basis of deep knowledge of facts rather than angry duplication of fairy tales through media."

The latest NGO law can be understood as a continuation of this campaign against "soft power." By using a term with echoes of the Cold War such as "foreign agents" to discuss NGOs they can be re-characterized as a threat on an emotive level without having to worry about the burden of proof. What it means for Russians working for or with these institutions remains ambiguous but it is unlikely to make their lives easier.

Just as the protest law -- which increased fines against protestors and protest organizers for attending unsanctioned protests -- aimed to drag the opposition movement under some semblance of official control, so too this new law appears intended to seize control of the discussion.

In itself the NGO law may look relatively ineffectual. Yet when viewed in light of recent events, it marks a worrying trend of using legislation to try and shut out critical voices.