Russia Bars McCain’s Democracy Group as Security Threat

Updated on
  • International Republican Institute declared ‘undesirable’
  • NGO was on ‘patriotic stop list’ compiled by legislators

Russia banned a pro-democracy organization whose chairman is U.S. Senator John McCain as a threat to national security, a month before the country holds parliamentary elections amid its longest recession in two decades.

The International Republican Institute poses “a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation and state security,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement Thursday. Another non-governmental organization, the Media Development Investment Fund, was also blacklisted under a law signed by President Vladimir Putin last year.

The decision “says more about Vladimir Putin than it does about IRI,” the Washington-based institute said in a statement. “It’s further proof that he fears democracy and allowing his people to have an opportunity to shape their own future.”

Putin has clamped down hard on civil society groups after he accused the U.S. and Europe of funding uprisings in former Soviet neighbors, including Ukraine, through NGOs. A 2012 law requires groups that accept financing from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to harsher regulations. Foreign NGOs declared “undesirable” under the 2015 law must close offices in Russia and can’t hold public events or distribute material through the media, while anyone working for them faces fines or imprisonment.

‘Advancing Democracy’

The IRI, whose stated goal is “advancing democracy worldwide,” moved staff out of Russia in December 2012 after the “foreign agents” law passed, Kommersant reported. It was among 12 international NGOs placed on a so-called “patriotic stop list” last year by Russia’s upper house of parliament, which asked prosecutors to consider banning them under the “undesirable organizations” law.

The designation is “confirmation of a job well done” as “our ongoing support of the Russian people’s demands for freedom, liberty and representative government makes President Putin nervous,” the ISI, whose board also includes former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, said in its statement.

The MacArthur Foundation, a Chicago-based non-profit organization, closed its Moscow office in July last year after a quarter of a century when it was placed on the “patriotic stop list.” Others on the list include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy.

The crackdown comes as parliamentary elections on Sept. 18 present Putin with his biggest test since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after unprecedented protests against him. The vote’s being held as the world’s largest energy exporter is mired in its second year of recession, the longest since the mid-1990s, plunging millions of Russians into poverty as incomes tumble. While Putin retains very high personal approval ratings, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party is far less popular among voters.

McCain, a vocal critic of Putin, has repeatedly called the former KGB agent a “thug” and said he was proud in 2014 to be put on a sanctions list by the Kremlin for opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He accused the Obama administration last month of suffering “the persistent delusion of Russia as a partner” in the Syrian crisis.

(Updates with IRI comment in third, sixth paragraphs.)
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