Russia registers first NGO 'foreign agent'

The foreign agent law is part of a broad Kremlin crackdown.</p>

The foreign agent law is part of a broad Kremlin crackdown.

The Russian Justice Ministry announced on Friday that it has registered an anti-monopoly NGO as the country’s first “foreign agent” in compliance with a controversial new law that requires organizations receiving funding from abroad to identify themselves as such.

The Moscow-based Promoting Competition in the CIS submitted its application last week and was included into the foreign agent registry on Thursday, according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website. CIS, or the Commonwealth of Independent States, is a loose group of former Soviet republics.

The NGO, which lobbies for anti-trust legislation, maintains partnerships with lawyers and executives in Russia, Ukraine and other CIS countries.

The news comes amid an intensifying standoff between the Kremlin and scores of political and human rights organizations that have decried the law as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent since President Vladimir Putin’s return to a third term last year.

On Wednesday, the authorities suspended for six months Russia’s only independent election monitoring group, Golos, after it refused to register as a foreign agent. The organization proved crucial in documenting the widespread electoral fraud that triggered the anti-Kremlin protest movement after parliamentary elections in December 2011.

The suspension followed last Saturday’s forcible eviction of the group For Human Rights from its Moscow office after city officials insisted its lease had expired.

The group’s head, veteran activist Lev Ponomaryov, who maintains the rent had been paid through June, said he was beaten as part of a “raider snatch” of the office, according to the state news agency RIA Novosti.

Ponomaryov has emerged as one of the law’s most outspoken critics. Many other activists have also refused to comply with the new requirement they say harks back to the Soviet era, when the label "foreign agent" was used to identify traitors and spies.

Also on Wednesday, the government submitted a bill to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, that would expand the grounds for surprise inspections of NGOs.

The authorities have searched more than 500 organizations in 49 different regions since March, according to the Kommersant daily newspaper.

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The Kremlin has justified the regulation as a means of curtailing foreign interference in domestic affairs.

Although officials say it applies only to foreign-funded groups that engage in “political activity,” Human Rights Watch recently described it as a vaguely defined law aimed at stifling civil society.

“The authorities have defined political activity so broadly as to ensure government control over just about any organized activity relating to public life,” Hugh Williamson, the group's Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Several organizations, including Golos and two St. Petersburg-based gay rights groups, have already received administrative fines of up to $15,000 for engaging in “political activity” without registering as foreign agents.