Is this the end for Russian NGOs?

By bne IntelliNews May 17, 2013

Julia Reed in Moscow -

In an April 5 interview to the German channel ARD, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that in the four months after the July law on non-government organisations (NGOs) that brands those that accept donations from aboard as "foreign agents" has been adopted, 654 Russian NGOs received about a $1bn in foreign funding.

This comment set off a storm of protest, as most NGOs receive money from overseas on the order of tens of thousands and the leading NGOs clubbed together to demand the president give some details of where this huge number comes from. Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov would say only that it is derived from "the intelligence sources."

Over the last few months, the authorities have been raiding Russia's leading NGOs - both domestic and foreign - to make sure they comply with the new law, but so far only one organisation has accepted the new moniker voluntarily, and another, Golos, an election watchdog, was branded the same as a result of checks.

The battle has been enjoined. On May 8, Russian activists said US Secretary of State John Kerry has assured them that Washington is talking with the Russian government on the Kremlin's crackdown on NGOs, which are refusing to accept the new classification (which labels them in effect spies). According to AGORA, a youth human rights movement, as of May 11, there are 21 NGOs on the black list with additional 11 warnings to environmental organizations. Unconfirmed rumours amongst the NGOs say that about 400 organizations have been approached so far.

Unsung heroes

Most of these NGOs are little known to ordinary Russians. They don't get many mentions on national TV, and society at large hardly uses their services, not because these services aren't needed, but mainly due to low numbers of NGOs and to the lack of public awareness of their existence.

Most were set up in the early 1990s and traditionally they have been funded with overseas grants. This had to do with the general poverty and instability of Russia at the time, as well as NGOs' nature of agents in the areas where the governments aren't performing satisfactorily.

Russian individuals and companies mostly still have the Soviet notion that it is the responsibility of the government, not civil society, to care for the homeless, the elderly, the sickly and the environment. The culture of donating to charity never existed in Soviet Russia and has not established itself since (although recently some oligarchs have begun to organise themselves on these lines.)

The adoption of the Russian foreign agents law is commonly justified by comparing it to America's Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) that was put on the books in 1938.

FARA states that persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity should make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. FARA concerns foreign organisations acting on the American soil and not the local organisations set up according to the local legislature, as it is the case with the Russian foreign agents law.

"The prosecutors came to us with the justice department, tax police, sometimes department of internal affairs, emergency service, sanitary control, consumer control, fire department, but on the first day of the inspection they even arrived with a TV crew," smiles Irina Ostrovskaya of a Moscow branch of Memorial, a history and human rights society who collect a database of those repressed and killed in the Gulag, that was raided in April.

"How did TV know about it? On the same day a propaganda story about us came out, each department requested paperwork in their area. It's not just a copy of our charter, minutes from all our meetings, all financial reports and reports from previous checks, all employees contracts, but even our St Petersburg office staff measles immunization journal and in our Zhenshini Dona (Women of the Don river) organization a confirmation of recently performed x-rays. It's literally thousands of pages for each of our affiliates. In our office alone we prepared more than 7,000 pages. How is the prosecutor's office going to check all this? Will there be any time left for any other activities, such as fighting corruption?" questions Ostrovskaya.

The Russian NGOs under investigation and subject to prosecutor warnings can only loosely defined as those involved in political activities. The charters of most NGOs say that in order to achieve their mission statements, they aim to promote the right laws and shape the public opinion. This opens the door for any NGO to be classified as political. For example, on April 16 a Kostroma-based Committee of Mothers of Soldiers received an official warning from the Prosecutor's Office that they must not be involved in political activities because the members of the NGO took part in monitoring the elections in December 2011 and March 2012. Another Kostroma-based NGO, Centre for Support of Social Initiatives, is now being sued because they conducted a panel discussion on Russian-American relations to which a representative from the US embassy was invited.

"The law is not meant to affect charities and socially-beneficial organizations but even groups trying to protect birds or healthcare organizations are vulnerable [to charges of engaging in politics]," says Veronika Marchenko, director of Pravo Materi (Mother's right), an NGO giving free legal assistance to the families of soldiers who died or were killed in Russia during the army service.

Some might ask what is so wrong with declaring yourself a "foreign agent?"

"We can't do it because it's not true. We do not act in anyone's interests but in our own", says Alexei Kozlov, director of the fund For Ecological and Social Justice. "Our fund identifies cases of police cruelty and torture. We first brought these issues to public attention. It's in the interests of our society, not foreign principals. Of course in the absence of any real political activity from political parties this can be seen as politics but we strive to improve our society."

The notion of foreign agents is all too familiar to Russians, as it recalls the 1930s under Stalin, who organised witch hunts for "saboteurs" and Jews that quickly filled the Gulag with inmates. The new laws on foreign agents and state treason (enacted in November 2013) as so broad the laws could be applied to anyone and anything, therefore re-creating the same vehicles of repression that Stalin used. "The foreign agents law clearly damages all NGOs, including charities which it isn't aimed to concern. A major American fund who was willing to give us a grant suddenly pulled out this year without an explanation as the law appeared," says Veronika Marchenko. "They want to wait and see. Unless your charity deals with children, it's virtually impossible to raise money now."

The law has created a vacuum in funding for many NGOs. It's predicted that most of them will be forced to shut down both for fear of criminal prosecution (if they refuse to declare themselves foreign agents) and lack of funding. It is estimated by the economy ministry that in 2013 the losses of Russian NGOs from the fall in foreign aid could climb to RUB19bn ($630m).

Even in the very foreseeable but unlikely event that all NGOs dealing with environmental, election and human rights issues, now defined as dealing in politics, will close down, the societal need to have an alternative in these areas will remain.

Time has come for the Russian civil society to step up to the plate and start financing these NGOs themselves. If this happened, genuine reforms would come to Russia. Yet society is still not ready.

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