2012 was fruitful for Russian legislators and painful for the NGOs. That year marked the series of laws threatening the fragile civil society in the country: penalties for violation of the law on assembly were toughened, defamation criminalized, and NGOs receiving foreign funding forced to register as “foreign agents”.
Later on the State Duma passed another law expanding the notions of “espionage” and “treason” as crimes that include “any financial, technical, advisory and other assistance to a foreign state or an international organization, as part of any activities directed against the security of Russian Federation”.
The NGO law: theory
The law states that Russian nonprofits that receive “funding or material support from foreign states, international and foreign organizations” and engaged in “political activities” are endowed with the status of a “foreign agent”. Also, any materials published or distributed by those organizations, even online, should be marked as “published by the organization performing functions of a foreign agent”. In case if an NGO refuse to register or provide any information on its finances, it may face a considerable fine and its representative could be imprisoned. The law significantly complicates the procedure of financial reporting and also gives grounds for unscheduled inspections.
The essential drawback of the law is that the definition of “political activity” is rather blurry. According to the lawmakers it includes any “political action or influence on public opinion aiming to change a policy”. Russian legislation does not provide a clear definition of these concepts and thus gives the freedom of interpretation to the authorities. However, activities in the field of science and education, culture, health, environment, social protection of citizens are exempt from the law as they are not “political”.
FARA: Is the US Russia’s role model?
In response to criticism of the law Russian officials contend that the same law exists in the United States, which proves that this kind of legislative act may be adopted in a democratic state. Indeed, the Russian NGO law seems to be “copied” from the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – it contemplates almost the same terminology and concepts and provides similar penalties for its violation. Both American FARA and the Russian NGO claim to “increase transparency”. A law, however, cannot be evaluated outside the context of its implementation practices.
FARA was adopted in 1938 and aimed to protect the Americans from foreign propaganda during the war. It required that the “agents” representing interests of foreign powers in the US politics have to disclose their ties with foreign governments and information on funding. Since then the law was several times amended, concepts specified, and the burden of proof elaborated. It has become so complicated that actually just a few criminal prosecution cases made it through the end. However, the most substantial distinction of FARA is that it primarily aims to disclose the foreign lobby that promotes its political interests in Congress and not any organization receiving funding from abroad.
The NGO law: practice
As the law came into force more than a thousand NGOs have been subjected to unscheduled inspections and searches, many of them got “warnings” that their activity is “political” and should be changed. Some organizations have been charged with administrative offences and fines, and their leaders prosecuted as they refused to enter the roster of Foreign Agents at the Ministry of Justice. The first organization to be recognized as a “foreign agent” was the Golos Association (“voice” or “vote”), Russia’s biggest organization protecting electoral rights. It had to pay a big fine and suspend work for several months but eventually they managed to win the court case.
Many Russian non-profits obtain funding through foreign grants and even though in many cases it is only a few percent of a budget, the government sees it as a reason to suggest that the organization represents interest of a foreign power. Lack of financing is quite a big problem for many of the Russian NGOs. Before the bill became law, Vladimir Putin claimed that public funding for nonprofits will be increased. Later it was confirmed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – he said that the government will support the NGOs, however, assuming “their activity is useful and positive for the country”.
The same year the “foreign agents” law was adopted, the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the biggest donors for the Russian nonprofits halted its activities in the country. Besides, the government lunged at some of the international organizations – Russian office of the Transparency International and bureau of the Nordic Council of Ministers which suspended its work this year were forced to enter the “foreign agents” roster.
The inclusion of the Dynasty Foundation in the list of the “foreign agents” and its subsequent closure produced a strong public reaction. The organization is the first family nonprofit foundation in Russia. Created by a businessman and scientist Dmitry Zimin it supported talented scientists and educational projects. Mainly, the organization was financed from his private funds. The Foundation gave scholarships and grants to students and young professionals, supported school teachers of exact sciences, organized public lectures, developed a program of short-term visits of foreign scientists to Russia. The Dynasty also financed the “Liberal Mission” Foundation which conducted researches on economic and political issues. Apparently, this was a good reason to consider its activities as “political”. Unexpectedly, several environmental organizations we also included in the Foreign Agents lists.
The law was applied on many organizations promoting human rights and civil society, gender equality, and independent media working in the domains of social protection and assistance to refugees and displaced people. Among them are the prominent human rights center “Memorial” which was originally concentrated on the history of political repressions in the Soviet Union, the famous “Levada – Center”, independent sociological research organization, ” The Committee against Torture”, and “Perm -36”, the founder of Russia’s only museum of the history of political repressions created on the territory of the former Gulag. As the Russian paratroopers were detained in the Eastern Ukraine, “the Saint-Petersburg Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers” which received the complaints from the families of those who were allegedly involved in the conflict, was recognized as a “foreign agent”. The organization claims that it hadn’t received any foreign funding.
Soft power as a threat to a hard power
A person familiar with the political history of Russia can easily notice that the Kremlin on both official and unofficial levels more and more actively uses the Soviet phraseology. The expression “foreign agent” had stuck in ideological memory of a Russian – according to polls this phrase is perceived as the analogy with the terms like “spy”, “enemy”, or “traitor” even among the younger generation. The ”foreign agent” terminology used in the text of the law, thus, clearly functions as a pointer – the enemy can sabotage the country from within.
As the Kremlin began to hunt down “unsuitable” NGOs, some organizations terminated their activities or had to change legal forms. Many do not agree to accept the new “shameful” status and continue to press charges against the Ministry of Justice. Some of the NGOs filed complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. The persecution of the independent non-governmental organizations continues. In May this year the new law was adopted according to which any foreign or international NGO “which threaten the national security” can be recognized as “undesirable” and banned from conducting its activities in Russia. The American National Endowment for Democracy (NED) became the first one in the blacklist. After the law was introduced one of the largest US private nonprofits, The MacArthur Foundation, announced its closure in Russia.