MOSCOW — For months, presidential candidate Vladimir Putin had to put up with protests. Now, President Putin is fighting back.
First, he pushed through a law dramatically raising fines for protest organizers. Now, he is pushing through a law that would require all foreign-funded non governmental groups, NGO's in Russia to carry the label: 'foreign agent.'
This would apply to the Russia chapters of such groups as: Amnesty International, Transparency International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
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In 1976, Lyudmila Alexeyeva helped to set up the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor human rights violations in the Soviet Union. Now 84, Alexeyeva says she prefers to let Putin shut the group down, rather than accept the label of 'foreign agent."
"I strongly declare to you that the Moscow Helsinki Group will never register as a agent of a foreign government, she said in an interview in her central Moscow apartment, because we are not an agent of a foreign government."
Olga Lenkova comes from the new generation of Russian dissidents. She works with Vykhod, or Coming Out, a St. Petersburg gay rights group. She says that the all-powerful Kremlin scares Russians away from giving money to opposition groups.
"There are a lot of NGOs that are funded from foundations that are based abroad, she said in her office in St. Peterburg. And if all of them are considered like foreign agents, then you are not supposed to criticize the government in any way. That is what our job is, to criticize the government and say things need to change."
Last week, one ruling party Duma deputy, Robert Shlegel, said that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, should be declared a 'foreign agent.' His Gorbachev Foundation receives foreign donations.
Aleksandr Sidyakin, who sponsored the foreign agent bill, wrote on his blog : "The ultimate goal of funding nonprofit organizations, as a form of 'soft power,' is a colored revolution." He added: "The United States is trying to affect Russian politics."
On Friday, the bill received the votes of 72 percent of members of Russia’s parliament, or Duma. A final vote is due in coming days.
The foreign agent bill comes after raids on apartments of protest organizers, arrests of protest participants and a new bill to control the Internet.
Carnegie Moscow analyst Masha Lipman says that Putin is steadily restricting freedoms in Russia in the two months since he was inaugurated to a third term as president, on May 7.
"Recently, there has been a clear trend toward a crackdown: The searchers; the raids; the new law; the ordinary protester being arrested, which is especially alarming because people identify very easily with somebody who is just a Muscovite, just a young person, just a businessman. And several of them have already been arrested. There is clearly the trend toward the crackdown," she said.
After all these restrictions, the next test of Russia’s political opposition will come on July 26, the date for Moscow’s next big street protest.