Leading Russian activists pledged on Monday to boycott a new law that they warn will help the Kremlin stifle critics with a draconian mixture of repression, fines and inspections of non-governmental organizations.
A law comes into force Wednesday obliging NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in loosely defined political activities to register as foreign agents. Rights defenders and civil society activists see it as a tool intended to erode their credibility in the public eye and make it easier for the government to crack down on them.
"This law is infamous and immoral," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 85-year-old leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights watchdog.
The new measure is part of a series of repressive bills passed by the Kremlin-controlled parliament since President Vladimir Putin began his third presidential term in May. Along with a campaign of arrests and searches targeting opposition activists, they are seen as Putin's response to a series of mass street protests against his rule.
Putin defended the new law on NGOs as necessary protection against foreign meddling in Russian political affairs. But Alexeyeva and other Russian NGO leaders said they need to tap foreign funds because local business is afraid of bankrolling Kremlin critics.
"We would prefer to raise funds in Russia for our work," Alexeyeva said. "But any businessman giving assistance to such organization would put his business, and even freedom, at risk."
She and other activists said they don't consider themselves a conduit of foreign influence and pledged to ignore the new law.
"We are working for the benefit of our citizens, not at the behest of a foreign state," Alexeyeva said. "And we aren't going to slander ourselves."
Russia's only independent vote monitoring group, Golos, and a widely respected rights group, Memorial, were also among those who pledged to boycott the new law.
Golos chief Liliya Shibanova said her organization, which exposed widespread violations in recent elections, had faced tax checks that had been going on for months.
She said that officials have demanded personal data of all regional activists and other information unrelated to tax matters.
"Such questioning has been going on across the country," said Shibanova. She added that she was concerned that authorities may use the information to push activists to make incriminating statements about the organization.
Putin has accused the United States of fomenting anti-government protests in Russia as a means to weaken the country. Kremlin-controlled television broadcasters, meanwhile, accused Golos of working to discredit the Russian elections on orders from Washington. In October, Moscow ended the U.S. Agency for International Development's two decades of work in Russia, saying the agency that funded Golos and other Russian NGOs was trying to influence Russian elections. The U.S. denied the claim.
Memorial head Oleg Orlov said the new law would give Russian authorities the right to carry out continuous audits and other inspections of groups that get money from abroad.
"They don't even need to close an organization, they can effectively paralyze it with endless checks," he said.
Orlov warned that registering as a foreign agent could expose an NGO to possible charges under another new law that made the definition of treason so loose as to brand any dissenter a traitor.
Asked to comment on activists' intention to boycott the new law, the speaker of parliament's lower house, Sergei Naryshkin, said that the law "must be unfailingly observed."