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Kremlin critics say climate of fear growing in Russia

Russian opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny, right, argues with a man in military uniform during a rally in a Novosibirsk park that attracted several hundred people in Novosibirsk, Russia. (AP/Alexander Lukin)

MOSCOW: Kremlin critics say a climate of fear is growing in Russia after the upper house of parliament drew up a list of “undesirable” civil rights organizations and two similar groups decided to close.

Dynasty, a charitable foundation which sponsors science and education, and the Committee Against Torture said they would stop operating after being branded “foreign agents” under a law that applies to groups that receive funding from abroad.

Twelve more NGOs were named on a “patriotic stop-list” approved by the Federation Council upper house Wednesday and sent to the prosecutor general to consider whether they should be closed.

Opposition and human rights activists say the moves are part of a broader clampdown on civil society and Kremlin opponents since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.

The Kremlin denies launching a clampdown but Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, said other lists of “undesirables” were likely to be presented soon by MPs.

“These lists have no legal power, but they do enjoy the very real power to intimidate and incite self-censorship. They have already become an important part of the witch hunt against critics of the government by creating a climate of hostility, fear, and suspicion,” she said.

In a sarcastic reaction to the decision by the Dynasty Foundation to shut its doors, opposition politician Alexei Navalny said on Twitter it was “mission accomplished.”

“An excellent, accurate and effective blow by Putin’s Patriots. Right in the nest of these hostile vipers – young physicists, mathematicians and molecular biologists,” he wrote.

Navalny, one of the leaders of 2011-12 protests against Putin, has a suspended jail sentence hanging over him on embezzlement charges which he says are politically motivated. Some other Putin critics are in prison or have fled Russia.

The 12 NGOs on the lawmakers’ “patriotic stop-list” included several that are based in the United States.

Among the groups were Freedom House, a democracy and civil liberties group, and the Open Society Foundation, a grant-making network founded by investor and philanthropist George Soros.

The upper house has asked the prosecutor general to decide whether the 12 are a threat to national security under a new law that allows such groups to be shut.

Putin has warned against allowing the West to use local civil rights groups to foment unrest in Russia and Konstantin Kosachev, a senior member of the upper house, cited similar concerns when presenting the list to the chamber.

Soon after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, he approved a law tightening controls on NGOs funded from abroad, forcing any that engages in “political activity” to register as a “foreign agent,” a derogatory term dating to the Cold War.

Dynasty announced its decision to close Wednesday in a brief statement on its website. Its main sponsor, wealthy businessman Dmitry Zimin, said he was not prepared to let it operate under such a label.

Groups that have been affected say being included on the “foreign agents” register attaches a stigma to them which makes it impossible to find sponsors and collaborators inside Russia, and they are also subject to burdensome official audits.

Supporters of Dynasty, which gave grants to young scholars, have said its treatment shows the law is flawed.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the decision had nothing to do with the presidential administration, adding that “the foundation could have continued its operations.”

The Committee Against Torture, which tries to prevent torture and whose office in the Chechnya region had been attacked, also said it was not willing to work under the “foreign agent” tag.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2015, on page 11.

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