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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He adds that Golos, which receives funding from a wide variety of outside sources, finds it difficult to get funding in Russia. "There is some financing here in Russia, some of it administered by the Public Chamber (the government-sponsored civil society assembly). We do get some of that funding, but it's been inexplicably cut in the past few years. Grants do not seem to be distributed according to criteria of quality and effectiveness, but other factors."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Sidyakin, one of the bill's authors, says GOLOS – which fielded the largest contingent of observers in the Duma elections – "did not make a single positive declaration about the elections. Everything was bad, everything was wrong. So why shouldn't people be told that they were doing it for foreign money?" he says.
Starved for funding
The biggest problem for independent civil society groups who want to "influence public opinion" on any issue, is that they will find themselves starved for funding in Russia if they move into any sort of friction with the authorities, experts say.
"The Russian government has long since intimidated the business community into submission. Russian businesses know better than to donate to anything that may be deemed unwelcome to the authorities," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal (which also may soon have to carry a "foreign agent" label, since much of its funding comes from the MacArthur Foundation).
"The key point here is the draft law's assumption that any Russian group which receives foreign funding are automatically agents. That's not at all the case," says Ms. Lipman. "Foreign grant money is an instrument of autonomy for most of these organizations, it gives them the ability to act independently. And that's what our authorities are really suspicious of."
Some Russian NGOs say they will resist registering under the new law, which everyone – including Sidyakin – says they expect to be in place before autumn.
"The civil organization I head is not engaged in political activity. We focus on educational activity and [human rights] monitoring, and we have done so since the Soviet times," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization. "Under no conditions will we register as a ‘foreign agent,’ no matter what laws they adopt."
Lipman says the Kremlin is taking aim at the wrong target.
"The fact is that NGOs played no role in the appearance of the protest movement, with the exception of GOLOS, which reported on massive election fraud," she says. "NGOs are vulnerable because they have offices, budgets, and do social outreach. But the real target of these laws and crackdowns is something not so tangible, it's the changed perceptions of politics and government by the Russian public," she says.
In recent months tens of thousands of Russians have abandoned their former political apathy and taken to the streets to demand fair elections, an end to corruption, and that Mr. Putin step down.
"The authorities can't reverse this shift in these ways, but that's what they're trying to do," Lipman says.