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MOSCOW - Russia's parliament is to debate a bill forcing internationally-funded NGOs to register as "foreign agents", a move that may stigmatise scores of groups under President Vladimir Putin's new term.
The bill which is scheduled to be debated this week comes after Putin accused opposition activists demonstrating against his 12-year rule of being in the pay of the US State Department.
The ruling United Russia party, which sponsored the bill, says it is aimed at preventing foreign states from influencing Russia's domestic politics and emulates US legislation on foreign-funded NGOs.
"Obviously there are gaps in our legislation," one of the bill's authors, Alexander Sidyakin, a member of parliament for United Russia, told AFP on Monday.
He said the first reading was scheduled for Friday, while the second and third readings will take place next week.
Under the broad bill, all Russian NGOs that are funded from abroad and ruled to be involved in politics or acting in the interests of foreign states and other international donors will have to register as "foreign agents" and submit to more rigorous checks by the authorities.
A breach of the law would be punishable by hefty fines or jail time.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 84-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the first rights campaigners to appear in the Soviet Union, said her organisation would not register as a "foreign agent."
"They could cancel our registration -- then we will work without registration like in Soviet times," she said.
"The notion of 'a besieged fortress' has a strong hold on the minds in our country, and a 'foreign agent' is a stigma."
The label "foreign agent" in Russian does not necessarily implicate the individual or organisation in espionage but does signal they receive finances from abroad and are acting in the interests of a foreign power.
Sidyakin is also an author of a controversial law that sharply raised fines for opposition protesters. It was rushed through parliament last month despite pleas from rights activists.
In the run-up to parliamentary elections in December, Putin lashed out at Western attempts to "influence the course of the election campaign" through Russian NGOs, warning this was "money thrown to the wind".
His stinging criticism was widely seen as being directed at Moscow-based Golos, a small foreign-funded election observer which said the December parliamentary campaign and March presidential polls were riddled with irregularities.
A group of pro-Kremlin organisations launched an online petition in support of the bill, saying no one from abroad had the right to decide Russia's fate.
"Making use of the imperfection and backwardness of Russian legislation, multi-million budgets are being earmarked through foreign funds to finance activities directed against Russia.
"Billions of dollars are being spent in order to undermine the integrity of our country, the stability of the political regime," said the petition signed by more than 94,000 people.
Foreign-funded NGOs say they are not afraid of additional checks but fear the bill will mar their image in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
"The main purpose of this law is to defame NGOs in the eyes of society, to humiliate them," Svetlana Gannushkina, co-founder of top rights group Memorial, told AFP.
"No one among us has ever been a foreign agent but people can take this label seriously."
"This is one more way to discredit monitors during elections," Golos executive director Lilia Shibanova told AFP, adding that as grant recipients they already have to undergo auditing checks every three months under current legislation.
Liberal daily Vedomosti said the bill could affect virtually any NGO, adding its authors make no distinction between budget funds of foreign states, financing from international organisations or private donations.