MOSCOW, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Russia's lower house of parliament passed in its second reading Wednesday of a bill regulating the activities of all non-governmental organizations -- including foreign ones -- in the country.
Controversial since President Vladimir Putin announced the need for such legislation last summer, the bill debated Wednesday is not nearly as sinister as many media reports suggest.
Over the past few weeks, there has been much commentary -- most of it negative -- on a Kremlin-inspired law to recast legislation covering an estimated 450,000 NGOs operating in Russia. In the bill's original form, which was passed in the first reading, foreign NGOs would have their activities and finances subject to greater state oversight and their local branches would be required to re-register as Russian entities and be placed under the same legal and financial restrictions as domestic NGOs.
The Kremlin's publicly stated rationale for the new law is to combat money-laundering for the war on terrorism. Others say the Kremlin is determined to maintain the political status quo and pre-empt a revolution that could be aided by outside assistance in the wake of regime changes in neighboring Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Reacting to criticism from human rights groups in Russia and abroad, as well as the U.S. Congress, the bill was amended to exclude the clause on financial control over foreign NGOs and the requirement that they must have their local branches re-registered as local entities. However, the authorities still retain the right to request information on any NGO's operations. This change has not satisfied the bill's critics.
The bill still needs to be passed in a third reading, sent to the upper house for approval, and then signed into law by the president.
Unfortunately, it would appear that those in the media who have criticized the NGO law have not read the legislation in detail. If they had, they might have come to the conclusion that Russia's efforts to regulate NGOs, foreign ones in particular, is not much different from existing U.S. laws dealing with foreign NGOs.
What many foreign NGOs do in Russia today would be illegal in the United States. The Kremlin is set to emulate the United States by establishing its own version of the "Foreign Agents Registration Act." The purpose of FARA, according to its Web site, is to ensure the American public and its lawmakers know the source of information (propaganda) intended to sway public opinion, policy and laws.
In 1938, FARA was Congress' response to the large number of German propaganda agents in the pre-World War II United States. This law has been updated several times since, including by The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. The United States is keenly interested in limiting foreign influence in its domestic politics; Russia is set to do the same.
FARA, according to its Web site, works in the following way:
-- The Act requires every agent of a foreign principal to register with the Department of Justice and file forms outlining its agreements with, income from, and expenditures on behalf of the foreign principal. These forms are public records and must be supplemented every six months.
-- The Act also requires that informational materials (formerly propaganda) be labeled with a conspicuous statement that the information is provided by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal. The agent must provide copies of such materials to the attorney general.
-- Any agent testifying before a committee of Congress must furnish the committee with a copy of his most recent registration statement.
-- The agent must keep records of all his/her activities and permit the attorney general to inspect them.
A Russian version of FARA will actually strengthen the country's democracy and political parties. Compared to U.S. politics, the cost of funding political parties in Russia is still low. Cutting off outside funding of any sort will make the parties rely on domestic resources instead of hoping for a grant from a Western NGO -- and the demands the donor has before dispensing funding. A Russian FARA will also make political parties more accountable to Russian law and voters.
Since Putin came to office, Russia's super-wealthy oligarchs are no longer allowed to buy and sell political parties and politicians. In light of the heavy involvement of Western NGOs in elections in the post-Soviet nations recently, the Kremlin now intends to ensure Russia's politics will not be subject to the same kind of machinations. Introducing a Russian version of FARA will promote party development at home and Russia's overall democratic project.
Most importantly, a Russian FARA will obligate domestic political and civil society organizations to observe the law -- unlike many Western NGOs that disregard laws to protect the United States from outside meddlers.
Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and writes for RIA Novosti.