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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.