Dozens of non-governmental organizations operating in Russia are refusing to comply with a new law restricting their activities as part of the Kremlin's crackdown on its critics.
The law, passed several months ago, obliged all NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in loosely defined political activities to register as "foreign agents" by Wednesday.
But Oleg Orlov, head of the prominent Memorial rights group, said his organization and dozens of other NGOs are boycotting the law because it would damage their credibility in Russia, where the word 'foreign agent' is synonymous to spy.
"By using this law the authorities are trying to brand us as foreign agents — this phrase has a particularly negative connotation in Russian," Orlov said.
Among those refusing to comply with the new law are the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading rights watchdog; Golos, Russia's only independent vote monitoring group; Agora, a prominent lawyers' association; and scores of others.
Failure to comply with the law carries hefty fines and the suspension of the NGO's license. But even if NGOs comply, their existence remains under threat: The law gives authorities the right to carry out continuous audits, which will virtually paralyze the activities of any organization, Orlov said.
President Vladimir Putin defended the new law on NGOs as necessary protection against foreign meddling in Russian political affairs. But Russian NGO leaders said they have to tap foreign funds because local business is simply afraid of bankrolling Kremlin critics.
On the eve of the law coming into force, state-owned Channel One aired a report blasting American non-profit foundations of bankrolling last winter's anti-Putin rallies in Russia. Putin earlier accused the United States of fomenting the anti-government protests as a means of weakening the country.
Some foreign-funded NGOs are already feeling a popular backlash stemming from the new law.
When Memorial staff arrived at their building in central Moscow Wednesday, they found the slogan "Foreign Agent (Heart) USA" spray-painted on its facade. Elsewhere in Moscow, a pro-Kremlin youth group picketed outside the Russian office of Transparency International, with a banner calling on Transparency "to emerge from the shadows."