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A Russian retreat

November 23, 2005

TODAY, THE RUSSIAN PARLIAMENT will consider the fate of Russia's civil society. It's widely expected to be voted down.

The legislation would prohibit all nongovernmental organizations from receiving foreign money for "political activity," ostensibly because the money may end up in the hands of terrorists. But the legislation is less about national security than it is about national authority.

Under President Vladimir V. Putin, the Kremlin has moved to exert wider control over the media, courts and regional governments. With this legislation, which Putin supports, the central government would have control over civil organizations as well, including the ability to essentially shut down foreign groups such as Human Rights Watch. The legislation is a clear attack on Russia's embattled civil society and its faltering democracy.

The government already does much to hamper the operation of foreign groups within its borders, fearing that the groups have too much influence and could help spark democratic revolutions such as the one in Ukraine. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, currently has millions of dollars in grants blocked by tax regulations.

With the new legislation in place, the Kremlin will have a far easier time stopping the work of foreign groups, as well as groups receiving foreign funds. Each group will be required to register with the government and demonstrate that it does not use foreign money to finance "political activity," which could of course be stretched to mean anything from democracy promotion to environmental activism to AIDS prevention. And the requirements would effectively shut down some groups for lack of funds.

The legislation ironically comes on the heels of Russia's own attempt to influence political activity abroad.

The State Duma, or lower house, voted on Friday to allocate millions of dollars "to defend the rights of Russians in the Baltic countries," according to the Moscow Times. The Kremlin evidently wants a return to the Soviet model of increasing its own global influence while decreasing other countries' influence in Russia.

The closer Russia gets to that model, the harder it will make matters for President Bush, who needs Russia's cooperation in negotiations on North Korea, Iran and nuclear weapons. Bush will have to work more assiduously to encourage freedom in Russia without antagonizing Putin enough to lose Russia as a global partner.

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