Who advocated prohibiting a nongovernmental organization that declared itself to be in opposition to the government from receiving funding from foreign sources? Vladimir Putin, 2005? Try Al Gore, 1996.
Of course, context is everything - when the NGO in question was Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and the generous benefactor was Libya's leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi.
No doubt this is the precedent the Russian government would like the West to focus on, as a controversial bill makes its way through the Duma, Russia's Parliament, that would require all NGOs operating in the country to register with a state commission and place serious restrictions on the ability of foreign groups to fund and support Russian NGOs.
The legislation has been described by leading members of the governing United Russia party as a measure to crack down on extremism - citing rationales not dissimilar to the arguments by some in the United States that Islamic charities should be monitored much more closely for links to terrorism.
The reaction from the West has also been predictable, seeing this as but the latest manifestation of Putin's penchant for authoritarianism, a blow designed to emasculate Russia's civil society and prevent the emergence of the conditions which engendered Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004.
It's important to first step back and rationally assess the situation. On the one hand, an absolute majority of Russia's more than 450,000 NGOs - most engaged in charitable, educational or religious activities and funded from domestic sources - would be unaffected. A company like Lukoil is not going to stop its financial support for the "A Book for Every Blind Child" fund, or the Perm "Protecting Our Environment" project.
And Western countries don't seem overly concerned about tightening controls to prevent groups from using the cover of religious or humanitarian activities to cloak more nefarious goals; the Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Germany and Britain despite its claims to be a peaceful sociopolitical movement.
So let's be honest - the crux of the matter lies with about 2,000 NGOs in Russia that deal with human rights and democracy issues, as well those groups unable or unlikely to get funding from Russian sources who rely on Western aid. And the proposed legislation is the clearest signal yet that Putin's vision for Russia - at least in the short term - is not liberal democracy but managed pluralism - a self-contained system where the Kremlin can set down red lines and can determine the amount of space different points of view will be allowed to occupy in the Russian political system. (Think Mexico in 1976 or Singapore under Lew Kuan Yew).
The preferred Western reaction - castigating Putin as a new Stalin and warning ominously about the KGB takeover of Russia - may make for wonderful copy but does little to ameliorate the situation. Nor were the comments of Lev Levinson of the Institute for Human Rights - that the government "cannot demand transparency from us" - particularly helpful. NGOs are not above the law, no matter how noble the cause.
Moreover, in order that Putin can parry any criticism from President George W. Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his staff is most likely already carefully researching useful Western precedents - the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign scandals about Chinese money infiltrating the election process, all of the furor over Islamic charities after the Sept. 11 attacks and every Republican denunciation of George Soros for his "interference" in the 2004 election.
This is why it would be best to let Russians themselves - and not those who have turned "opposition into a profession," to use Ray Takeyh's phrase - criticize the bill. Vladimir Lukin, the Parliament's ombudsman for human rights issues, has questioned whether the proposed legislation is constitutional, and half of the members of the Social Chamber - an organization representing a wide variety of civil society organizations that many in the West derided because of its Kremlin sponsorship - have called on the Duma to delay passage until legal specialists can ascertain exactly how this legislation would function.
It would be constructive to recognize that the Russian government has legitimate concerns - and to offer the benefit of the various North American and European approaches in terms of regulating nonprofit groups, defining what constitutes political activity, and establishing guidelines for how charitable contributions from abroad are processed.
The Russian government is free to reject that advice - but it will make the Western criticisms that follow much more legitimate. Our goal should not be bashing Putin or taking sides in Russia's political debates, but strengthening the long-term foundations for democracy.
(Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.)