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.
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Supporters of the law insist that it's just about bringing order to the tangled jungle of Russian NGO's, enforcing rules of financial transparency and that it's the right of any sovereign government to impose such controls.Skip to next paragraph
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"The idea of this law is common sense," says Leonid Syukiyanen, professor of law at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "I don't know of any big, complex country where the government is completely indifferent to the organizations working on its territory, involving themselves close to or on the political field, and receiving foreign funding. I wouldn't stand in opposition to the basic idea of the law if I were an NGO. But the problem here is that they do not have any mutual trust, there is no chance of a calm dialogue. Authorities adopted a flawed law, and NGOs are reacting in very inadequate ways," he says.
The most objectionable aspect of the new law, says Mr. Syukiyanen, is the tag NGOs will be forced to wear.
"Here in Russia, the term 'foreign agent' means spy. In the West, it may have more flexible meanings, but here it's purely negative. The drafters of this law should have come up with something different if they wanted to avoid creating such a perception," he says.
Activists say that most NGOs have been subject to strict accounting and reporting rules since the first tough NGO law was enacted back in 2005. Financial transparency can therefore not be the main goal of the new legislation.
"This is part of a whole set of new developments that will make it much harder for NGOs and international organizations to work here," says Anna Sevortyan, head of the Russian office of Human Rights Watch. "We are very worried about the new treason law that will potentially make human rights advocacy a formal pretext for treason charges.... Any Russian who works with or shares information with any international organization or foreign media group could be vulnerable, and that will make most people unwilling to talk to them. What we're seeing is that a signal is being sent, and the environment for NGOs and international organizations is getting much worse," she adds.
Long battle ahead
Most target NGOs are bracing for a fight, and say they will not wear the "agent" label no matter what happens. A few, such as the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization, says that it will refuse to accept any foreign funding if it comes to that.
"We haven't registered as a foreign agent, and we won't," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the group. "We're not optimistic. If we go to court, knowing Russian courts, we'll probably be declared foreign agents. So, rather than be stripped of our registration and our right to take part in public discussion, we will have to give up foreign funding and look for funds here in Russia," she says.
Only a few say they're thinking of accepting the "foreign agent" label, and they're not happy about it.
"I consult with a number of small NGOs, mostly those engaged in charity and social aid, who say that if they're made to register they'll probably do it, because they need to go on working," says Ramil Akhmetgaliev, a lawyer with Agora, an interregional human rights NGO based in Kazan, in the Volga region of Tatarstan.
"But as for ourselves, Agora will not register itself voluntarily. We are not engaged in political activity, we are a public organization offering legal services to people who need them," he adds.
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