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Russian NGOs say new law makes them look like spies (+video)

The majority of Russian NGOs with outside funding sources have given notice that they will not submit to the law and some are bracing for a legal battle to protect their existence.

By Correspondent / November 26, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Monday, Nov. 26, 2012.

Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP

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Moscow

Russian nongovernmental organizations are holding their breath a few days after a new law came into effect, requiring those who receive any amount of outside funding and engage in "public outreach" that authorities deem political to register as "foreign agents" and identify themselves as such in all their materials.

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Mostly the mood is defiant. The majority of groups with outside funding sources and some kind of political agenda have given notice that they will not submit to the law. They insist the "foreign agent" label is designed to make their work look to average Russians like espionage.

The law is part of what critics say is a broad legislative assault on Russian civil society, including a clampdown on political organizing and freshly enacted Soviet-style treason laws. Their sum effect will make it much harder for Russian NGOs to work in any realm deemed political by the Kremlin, to gather information, participate in public debate, and share their findings with the outside world.

That sets the stage for a confrontation in the courts, probably early in 2013, which could see pillars of Russian civil society such as the election monitor Golos, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International and Russia's largest human rights group, Memorial, and many others face legal shut down by authorities.

"This law says we must determine whether we should register as a foreign agent, and we are emphatically not going to register ourselves," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy head of Golos. "We do not understand this law, it does not seem to be in the spirit of Russia's constitution and other legislation, its definitions are vague, and it doesn't describe any procedure for implementation. We're preparing a brief to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, we're willing to go to the Russian Constitutional Court. We will not agree to this."

There are more than 300,000 NGOs in Russia, most of them apolitical groups like charities, sports clubs, or cultural organizations. Just a handful have annoyed the authorities by engaging in public education and agitation around issues that can be politically sensitive, such as human rights, democracy awareness and electoral transparency, and corruption. Most of those groups have never been able to find sufficient funding in Russia, where wealthy donors are also sensitive to political concerns, and have traditionally turned to outside sources such as governments and international foundations to fund their work.

Mixed opinions

One of those is the Russian branch of Transparency International, which was picketed last week by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party's youth group, with signs and slogans that urged it to accept the law and get itself registered as a "foreign agent."

"Under the law, the Ministry of Justice has to issue us with a warning that we are not complying with the law," says Anton Pominov, research director for the group. "If that happens, we will attempt to take it to the Constitutional Court, because we consider this law to be deeply unconstitutional. It's also wrong. When you call someone an "agent" in Russian, it has a very negative connotation, it means you are serving some master, and with us, that is simply not the case," he adds. 

According to a public opinion survey conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency in July, 64 percent of Russians say it's unacceptable in the political life of a country to have nonprofit organizations financed from abroad. Just 21 percent thought it was permissible.

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