From Moscow to Cairo, a war on democracy promotion

Nongovernmental aid groups are now targeted by regimes suspicious of their aims.

By , Staff writer

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    Sergei Nikitin is the chief of Amnesty International in Russia, one of many NGOs targeted by the Russian government under a law that declares them foreign agents.
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In the former Soviet Union, when officials thought a citizen was stirring up trouble, they simply shipped him off to the Gulag. Today, authoritarian leaders have become more subtle about reining in those who would challenge the government – especially nongovernmental organizations promoting democracy and greater civil rights.

Instead of targeting them with public attacks and jail, authoritarian-leaning governments have built an arsenal of legal hoops to chip away at NGOs, most of which are supported with at least some foreign funding.

From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to Eurasia, governments suspect that Western democracies are using such groups to indirectly promote a foreign agenda. Alarmed at the power of foreign financial backing, they are moving more aggressively to silence them.

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To critics, the ultimate goal is to starve out civil society, another term for the individuals and groups who work to protect human rights and bolster democratic institutions. But what makes this campaign much harder to address is the mushrooming of duly passed laws that give it a veneer of democratic credibility.

Political opposition figures used to be the regimes' prime target, but years of repression weakened them. As NGOs began surging in effectiveness and number (there are millions, perhaps tens of millions of NGOs today; no definitive number is available), they and their democracy and civil rights endeavors became the bigger threat for strongmen leaders.

"This is a way to set traps," says Art Kaufman, senior director at the World Movement for Democracy, a global pro-democracy initiative housed at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "They're legal traps that the governments are setting to catch NGOs, particularly the ones that they see as most threatening to entrenched governments."

According to the US-based Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, freedom of association has declined more rapidly in the past five years than have broader measures of civil liberties and political rights. It has declined almost every year since 2006. In a 2013 report tracking democracy in Central Europe and Eurasian states, seven of the 29 countries showed less freedom for NGOs to operate.

"It seems counterintuitive," says Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House's director of external relationships. "In the past, you would expect them to put the greater emphasis on manipulating elections, throwing opposition leaders in jail. What we're seeing more of is a crackdown on civil society.... Authoritarian governments feel challenged by civil society as much as, if not more than, organized opposition parties."

Crackdowns in Egypt, where 43 NGO workers (16 of them American) were put on trial after a Cairo raid, and Russia, where NGOs receiving foreign funding are now required to register as "foreign agents," have grabbed headlines, but those actions are part of a broader, and worrying, trend. NGO workers are on edge.

Russia's authoritarian government is notoriously intolerant of dissent and suspicious of the West. In Egypt, as the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on power faltered, it came down even harder on NGOs than had dictator Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's leaders wanted to stifle opposition and dissent, including those documenting the new regime's human rights abuses. They also regarded the United States and the West in general – the powers that had kept Mr. Mubarak in office – as "devil states."

But they had to proceed carefully to avoid a global outcry.

"[The goal] is to create an auspicious environment in which NGOs will be uncertain whether what they are doing will get them in trouble with the government," says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow office. "They will doubt themselves, they will censor themselves – this is the goal."

Egypt's NGO raid brought a "storm of criticism" down on the government, says Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Shutting down organizations is more "politically expensive" than limiting their funds to the point that they have no choice but to shut down, he says.

Foreign funding for NGOs is subject to government approval in Egypt. The OK has become harder and harder to secure.

"This is a much smarter way," Mr. Zaree says.

NGO success leads to scrutiny

The 1990s brought a surge of investment in NGOs, especially by government-linked organizations like the US Agency for International Development (USAID). NGOs were considered a much more effective way to promote democracy among the local population in post-Communist countries than state-run entities, which had difficulty getting traction in countries with a strong state.

The funding empowered the NGOs – and put them on governments' radar.

Then came the so-called color revolutions that swept the post-Soviet states in the 2000s, booting autocrats from office. The trigger was often an election-related dispute, as happened in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution." Toppled leaders accused international NGOs of fomenting the revolutions – with some basis in fact. US backing for the revolutions, by groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, is an open secret.

And so the war on NGOs began. In the next few years, pro-democracy organizations watched as the requirements to operate a foreign NGO became onerous and the ability to bring in funds was curtailed. The Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011 prompted a similar wave of repression from governments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, still new to his post as the color revolutions swept through neighboring countries, scoffed at the insistence of NGOs that they had not orchestrated the uprisings, Ms. Lipman says.

Mr. Putin would say, "Whoever pays, orders the music. Nobody spends money just for the sake of lofty goals," Lipman says.

A repressive law is still the law

But governments wanting to hobble NGOs have had to become more deft about it as they simultaneously seek international legitimacy, Mr. Kaufman says.

"To be able to participate in an increasingly globalized world, [to have] trade relations, economic relations, you have to not isolate yourselves," he says. "And if you're really going to participate in the international community, you have to be living under a rule of law."

The result is a surge in elections and other trappings of democracy that mask the discriminatory ways in which those trappings are applied. But a repressive law is still the law, and that makes it harder to criticize, says Ryota Jonen, senior manager at the World Movement for Democracy.

"If they are criticized by some international community actors, they can say, 'Well, it's within the rule of law,' " he explains.

Kaufman points to an interview with Yelena Isinbayeva, a pole vaulter on the Russian Olympic team, in which she defended Russia's antihomosexual law.

"This is disrespect for our country," she said. "This is disrespect for our citizens.... Maybe we are different from Europeans and the representatives of other countries, but we have a law that everybody should respect."

"Would she have been able to respond in that glib way if there wasn't this new law?" Kaufman asks rhetorically. "Without the law, if they had a roundup of homosexuals at the Olympics, what could they have said?"

Bringing the public on board

For such legal maneuvers to work, the public needs to believe NGOs are in the wrong. Governments have enlisted the media and launched public campaigns demonizing foreign-funded groups.

In Russia, the Duma, or parliament, passed laws in 2012 requiring all organizations that receive foreign money and engage in political activity to register as foreign agents.

"We know what 'foreign agents' meant in the Soviet Union," Kaufman says. "It meant spies! The message that sends to the broader public is that these groups are, in effect, the enemy. The telltale sign is that they're receiving money from abroad."

"The sense that Russia is a besieged fortress, that there are forces outside Russia ... that seek to do harm to Russia and are using money to this end – it's not difficult to disseminate," Lipman explains. "The whole of the Russian population doesn't feel like this, but easily a majority."

That's how Alexander Sidyakin, a Duma representative who co-wrote the "foreign agent law," defended it: "If a foreign structure is giving money, why are they doing it?" he says. "The USA State Department will hardly give money to foreign NGOs if there is no profit. Why do they pay? To influence the political process going on in Russia.... [W]hy should foreign countries influence our internal political process?"

No NGOs registered as foreign agents in Russia, Lipman says. Only the election-monitoring organization GOLOS was suspended, although hundreds faced onerous inspections and are awaiting verdicts. USAID was expelled.

In Egypt, the government has also played on suspicions that countries giving money have their own agenda.

"They said in the media, 'Most of them are spies. They took money from the US, and the US is a devil country,' " says Kamal Sedra, managing director of the Development and Institutionalization Support Center, an Egyptian human rights organization.

"Because the media is attacking NGOs, [the public] connects human rights work and the US. If you are working in human rights, it means you are supporting the US."

Private sector is cowed

With foreign funding curtailed, local NGOs are struggling. Countries like Russia and Egypt, with a short history of democracy, also lack a culture of philanthropy and no-strings-attached government funding for civil society. Many businessmen are scared they'll face repercussions if they give money.

Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent political opposition figure, was charged with embezzlement and fraud this summer in a case widely regarded as punishment for his political activity.

"No businessman in his right mind would give money to organizations that can be seen as antigovernment – that expose corruption, that expose election rigging," Lipman says. "It's dangerous."

Mr. Sedra says he has been accused of taking money from spies and has had trouble getting money from foreign donors who no longer want to do work in Egypt because the outcome is too uncertain.

In 2011, he oversaw 13 projects, Sedra says. Now, it's down to two. Amid the upheaval of the past several months, the approval process for foreign funds has ground to a halt. His organization is operating at only 10 percent capacity. Sedra also has trouble renting venues and gets harassing phone calls.

How NGOs are adapting

NGOs are trying to wriggle through the narrowing legal loopholes. In Egypt, human rights groups are registering as not-for-profit companies. The definition of such companies is unclear, but they are not subject to the NGO law.

Sedra has both a standard NGO and a for-profit company, with which he funds his NGO. His foreign funding comes through the company as business contracts, which fall under foreign investment laws. No government approval is necessary.

Sedra started his company in 2005. At the time, only two or three other human rights organizations had similar setups. Now there are "hundreds," he says.

NGOs have found other workarounds: relocating to countries where they can work freely, receiving funds from overseas in bank accounts not directly linked to the organization, and promoting their values through apolitical social service work.

Such tactics will not work indefinitely, so activists have mobilized to push for reforms of civil society laws, Kaufman says.

They can also focus on improving the capability of local organizations and staff – who attract less attention and face fewer restrictions than their international counterparts, says John Hammock, an associate professor of public policy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and a former executive director of Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization.

This tactic has drawbacks: Locals have little legal protection and can be punished more severely, and poorer countries have fewer people and funds to draw on. But a lot can be done through volunteers, and a lot will happen without formal organization, Dr. Hammock says.

"We think of development being done through these big projects overseas. Developments have been going on for a very long time without it. I don't think it dies at all," he says. "People are people, and they get together. It may dampen, it may get smaller, but it's always there."

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