When we visited Moscow earlier this fall, almost everyone we talked to agreed that Russia is becoming steadily less democratic. Yet Russia’s society and economy are in many ways freer than ever. Our visit convinced us of the vitality and potential of Russian civic groups and nongovernmental organizations, much like the ones Western Europeans and Americans know in their own countries. Unfortunately this sector—human rights monitors, environmental groups, policy research institutions, even public health advocates—is now at risk.
The latest challenge to civil society comes from legislation introduced by members of President Vladimir Putin’s party and other factions in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament. This legislation would, among other things, keep foreign nonprofit organizations from having offices in Russia and deny foreign funds to Russian organizations that are suspected of engaging in undefined “political” activities. Even the limited grants permitted under the new law would be taxed as though they were corporate profits, at rates exceeding 40 percent. Virtually all nonprofit groups would be affected.
The Duma has passed this bill by an overwhelming margin of 370 to 18. Two further votes are required before it comes into force; the next is scheduled for December 16.
If this measure becomes law, it will roll back pluralism in Russia and curtail contact between our societies. It will flagrantly breach the commitment that President Putin has made to numerous Western leaders to strengthen such ties.
Its passage also raises the bizarre prospect that the president of Russia will play host to next summer’s Group of 8 summit meeting even as his country’s laws choke off contacts with global society. If this happens, the contrast with last summer’s meeting at Gleneagles, Scotland—at which nongovernmental organizations from around the world led the effort to “make poverty history”—could not be starker. It will unfortunately bolster the arguments of those who say that Russia has no place in the G-8 at all.
Russian officials and legislators have responded to criticism of the legislation by saying that they are trying only to prevent outside interference in internal political affairs. Though this response carries unsettling echoes of Soviet times, the Russian government has a legitimate interest in protecting the integrity of the electoral process and political campaigns. After all, other nations, ours included, have the same goal—but they accomplish it without encroaching on fundamental freedoms or cutting off their country from the outside world.
In truth, the aim of the proposed legislation is much broader. Senior Russian officials have described nongovernmental organizations as a “fifth column” in Russian society and even as fronts for foreign intelligence services. If this proposal comes into force, the government will have in its hands the authority to close down nonprofit groups simply because it finds their views and activities inconvenient.
The Kremlin’s initiative reflects the unwillingness of those who wield the power of the Russian state to accept the idea that civil society is not theirs to control. For Europeans and Americans, this principle is fundamental. You can’t claim to be a modern country without it.
Those of us who strongly support greater partnership with Russia and believe that it can build modern political, economic and social institutions need to send an unambiguous message: such laws put this goal out of reach. President Bush apparently raised this issue when he met with President Putin in South Korea last month, and we expect him and his administration to continue to do so.
But President Putin should not hear only from the United States. European leaders, both in and out of government, have as great an interest in this matter as Americans do. European organizations have built active and successful partnerships with independent organizations in Russian society. Indeed, Europe’s relations with Russia would not really be “normal” if such partnerships did not exist.
President Putin has said he’ll consider modifications of the bill, because “civil society in Russia should not suffer.” But what’s wrong with the bill is not this or that offensive provision. The real problem is its underlying purpose, and that cannot be fixed.
Russia faces a choice between entering the mainstream of the modern world, or trapping itself in an eddy of reaction and isolation. For Europeans and Americans who want to welcome Russia into the mainstream—and who believe we have many reasons to work together—the legislation before the Duma is a serious warning about how that choice is being made. The right advice for Mr. Putin is obvious: shelve the bill and start over.