Russia steps up pressure with 'foreign agent' campaign

The Russian government's list is growing of NGOs being targeted for receiving some foreign funds. No major NGOs have agreed to the label, suggesting a wave of shutdowns may be looming.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Amnesty International Russia chief, Sergei Nikitin speaks to The Associated Press in his office in Moscow, in March, after Russian prosecutors and tax police searched the Moscow headquarters of Amnesty International.

Last year, Russia's State Duma passed a law that would require any nongovernmental organization that receives any amount of foreign funding and engages in any activity authorities deem political to register as "foreign agents" – a term that's synonymous with "spy" in Russian – or face court sanctions, followed by involuntary closure.

Now, following a wave of inspections of groups across the country, there is a growing list of organizations faced with that heavily bureaucratized yet nonetheless exquisite Catch-22: Either voluntarily swallow what they regard as a poison pill, and brand themselves "foreign agents" in all of their public activities and materials, or face escalating fines that are followed, ultimately, by police shutdown.

"It seems that Russian authorities are convinced that the protest movement that began in December 2011 was inspired by NGOs and happened because of foreign funding," says Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International branch in Russia.

"It's the old KGB assumption: if you take any money from abroad, it means you're working for them," he says.

"It's not quite clear what the final goal [of the current campaign] is, but it looks like the authorities want to close or incapacitate all the NGOs that receive money from abroad. Though the law stipulates a group must get foreign funding and engage in politics, in fact the definition of 'political activity' is wonderfully vague, and could be made to apply to any attempt to influence public opinion on any subject. Courts in this country are not independent, so 'political' boils down to whatever the authorities say it is," Mr. Nikitin adds.

Russia's chief prosecutor, Yury Chaika, insisted in an interview with the government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta last month that no one is trying to harass NGOs, but that they must be made to publicly acknowledge the status of "foreign agents."

"Our goal here is not liquidating or creating any obstacles to activity, but forcing these NGOs to unconditionally comply with the law that envisages transparency and acquiring a status of a foreign agent through being included in a relevant register," Mr. Chaika said.

There are more than 30 names on the list of those so far ordered to wear the "foreign agent" label, though Russia's Justice Ministry says more than 500 are still being investigated nationwide. Those already named include the grassroots election-monitor Golos, the Russian branch of anticorruption watchdog Transparency International, Russia's largest human rights organization Memorial, and Agora, a far-flung network of mostly small, regional human rights groups.

Three more were named by prosecutors on Wednesday. They are the Moscow School of Political Studies, the Urals human rights group and the Public Verdict Foundation, which investigates cases of official abuse and police brutality.

None dispute that they receive foreign funding, which is perfectly legal under Russian law. All point out that they regularly file detailed reports to the Justice Ministry about their income and how it's spent, just as they are required to do under a Russian law that was passed in 2006. Additionally, most foreign grants, such as the $300,000 Public Verdict received last year from the MacArthur Foundation, are routinely made public by the donor organizations themselves, along with a description of the purpose for which they were given.

"We saw this coming. In the atmosphere of the past couple of months a lot of our colleagues have already been stamped as 'foreign agents,' " says Natalya Taubina, head of Public Verdict. "But we are not foreign agents. And we are not involved in any political activity."

The Moscow daily Izvestia reported Tuesday that even Russia's sole independent polling agency, the Levada Center, could be compelled to self-identify as a "foreign agent." The agency, which is a registered NGO, does not deny receiving foreign funds, much of it from customers who use its world-acclaimed public opinion research.

Levada's director, Lev Gudkov, has declined to comment on the report until he has received an official document from the prosecutor's office.

But speaking with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Tuesday, Mr. Gudkov said that Russian authorities have been increasingly displeased with Levada, especially since its regular tracking polls started recording a steady decline in the public popularity of President Vladimir Putin.

"[Putin] is losing support, very steadily, and not for the first year," Gudkov told RFE/RL. "This started in August, September 2008, when there was the peak of his popularity. At that time he had approximately an 87 percent approval rating. Since this time, we have seen a slow – with some fluctuations during electoral cycles when there is a rise in the approval rating – a slow decline in trust, approval, and popularity. And an increase in his negative rating."

Another Levada poll last week found that 51 percent of Russians now identify the pro-Kremlin ruling party United Russia with the phrase "party of rogues and thieves."

Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says that NGOs that deal with election monitoring, corruption, and legal advocacy are the main targets of the current campaign.

"Organizations that try to mediate between the public and the authorities in these areas are unacceptable to the authorities, and must be made to either go away or accept only domestic Russian funding," he says.

"In Russia that means government money, directly or indirectly, which means you are susceptible to pressure" in a variety of ways, Mr. Petrov says.

So far, no major NGO has agreed to accept the "foreign agent" label, which may well mean that a wave of shutdowns is in the offing, he adds. 

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