Many Russian NGOs face 'foreign agent' label
A draft law requiring NGOs that receive outside funding to register as 'foreign agents' will further limit their political independence.
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"We divided NGOs into two groups, those that are involved in political activities and those that aren't," Mr. Sidyakin says. "The law will not influence the activity of groups that are involved in humanitarian [charity] projects, or those who defend human rights or animal rights. But political activity, like the monitoring of elections or management of political actions is another matter, and such organizations have to be registered. Russian citizens have a right to know about them," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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But Russian NGO leaders, who held a press conference in Moscow on Thursday to register their objections, insist that the comparison is badly misplaced. For one thing, they argue, FARA covers those organizations and individuals that operate in the US "under direction and control of a foreign principal." The Russian law, meanwhile, will apply to any organization that receives any amount of funding from any outside source. In practice, the US law is today aimed mainly at lobbyists who publicize or fund-raise directly for a foreign government, political movement, or other clearly identifiable foreign cause. For example, the US Communist Party – despite being persecuted in a variety of ways during the McCarthy era – was never compelled to register as a "foreign agent" under FARA.
Leaders of Russian civil society groups say they have already adapted to a tough 2005 law on NGOs that forced them to undergo strict registration procedures and divulge all their sources of funding and describe their activities in documentary detail in biannual reports. They say this law is basically intended to falsely "name and shame" them as foreign agents.
"The purpose of this is just to humiliate public organizations, to discredit us, to make it seem to people that we are engaged in some sort of secret work, not disclosing our funding or reporting to the state. But this is a lie," says Svetlana Gannuskina, who works with Russia's huge community of migrant workers and pushes publicly for immigration reform. "We render double reports, everything is absolutely transparent. If there's the slightest problem with our paperwork the authorities immediately put us under a magnifying glass."
'Beginning of a witch hunt'
Andrei Buzin, an expert with the election monitoring grassroots group Golos – one of the groups specifically singled out under the draft law – says the group's activities have always been completely nonpartisan, but they triggered the authorities ire last December by documenting thousands of examples of electoral fraud in the State Duma elections that saw United Russia returned with a reduced but still-commanding majority.
"I think this draft law is the beginning of a witch hunt. The authorities want to shut down independent sources of information because that undermines their grip on power," Mr. Buzin says.