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.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, human rights activist and Moscow Helsinki Group head speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Thursday, July 5. Alexeyeva has already declared that the Moscow Helsinki Group will refuse to have itself registered as a 'foreign agent,' if the State Duma finally adopts the law.

Russian civil society activists are sounding an alarm over a draft law poised to be rushed through by the pro-Kremlin United Russia majority in the State Duma, requiring any political non-governmental organization that receives funding from sources outside Russia to label itself as a "foreign agent" in its public activities.

Activists say the new bill is a companion to the draconian law on protests, which shot through all the legislative hoops and was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in the space of barely a week last month. They warn that the bill's definition of political activity – any attempt to "influence state policy or public opinion" – casts such a wide net that authorities will inevitably use it against any target they choose. An organization that refuses to register as a "foreign agent" could be suspended for up to six months without a court order, under the draft law. 

Many view it as part of a spreading crackdown that they say is aimed at snuffing out the political protest movement and snipping off what the Kremlin views as the movement's roots in election monitoring, human rights, environmental and other civil society groups that challenge authorities on various levels. Although the label "foreign agent" – which is synonymous with "spy" in Russian – may not frighten people in more sophisticated Moscow circles, NGO leaders say, it's likely to cast a chill over their activities in the Russian regions to which they are trying to expand their work.

Supporters of the bill argue that it's similar in thrust to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was enacted in 1938. The law's main purpose is "to insure that the US Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information [propaganda] and the identity of persons attempting to influence US public opinion, policy, and laws," according to the Department of Justice website. (The original version of this story mischaracterized the law as a bill.)

Russians 'have a right to know'

One of the Russian bill's six authors, United Russia deputy Alexander Sidyakin, says the authors studied FARA closely and have produced a draft that is in line with international standards.

"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.

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.

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."

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.

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