MOSCOW (AP) — Russian prosecutors on Tuesday moved to outlaw a prominent U.S. foundation, for the first time taking advantage of a new law designed to shut foreign groups deemed hostile to national interests amid a showdown with the West over Ukraine.
The Prosecutor General’s office issued a statement describing the National Endowment for Democracy as a threat to “the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order, its defense capability and security” and declaring its activities “undesirable.”
NED described the move as part of Russian government efforts “to intimidate and isolate Russian citizens.”
After receiving a formal approval by the Justice Ministry, the move would prevent the Congress-funded NED from distributing any grants and having offices in Russia.
The prosecutors’ action followed recent approval of a new law that empowered prosecutors to shut down foreign groups purportedly threatening Russia’s defense or constitutional order.
“The law on undesirable organizations is the latest in a series of highly restrictive laws that limit the freedom of Russian citizens,” NED said in a statement. “This law, as well as its predecessors, contravenes Russia’s own constitution as well as numerous international laws and treaties.”
An earlier law required non-governmental organizations that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in loosely-defined “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” NGOs have protested that law as discriminatory, saying that it aims to erode their credibility by evoking associations with spies.
The Committee against Torture, a prominent rights group that has documented torture in Russia for 15 years and provided legal advice for victims, said it is closing down this week because of the law, but has come with a plan to continue its activities in a new form.
Its head, Igor Kalyapin, told reporters Tuesday they have set up a new head office that won’t accept foreign funding, thus being able to dodge the listing of “foreign agent.”
His associates have also founded six other NGOs, which will receive foreign funding, to carry out the actual work — but in a clandestine manner.
“All of these organizations will be not be publicizing their work because any publicity, an interview, any mention of such an organization in the media will be treated by the justice ministry and prosecutors as political activities,” thus exposing them to danger, Kalyapin said.
In June, the group’s office in Chechnya was attacked by masked men armed with crowbars who bashed their way into the group’s office, sending its staff fleeing.
Kalyapin said roughly half of their 44 million ruble ($730,000) budget came from foreign funding last year. Some of their donors are shutting down their operations in Russia, like the MacArthur Foundation, and some are considering leaving. The recent registration of the new six NGOs and their formal lack of background could make it difficult for them to attract some foreign funding this year, Kalyapin said.