Russia's growing NGO crackdown turns to environmental, cultural groups

The Kremlin has been targeting 'political' NGOs that receive foreign funding for some time. Now it is eying nonpolitical groups too, like an LGBT film festival and a group trying to save Siberian cranes.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights activist and chairperson of the Civic Assistance nongovernmental organization, walks out of court last week in Moscow after a hearing on the organization's refusal to submit documents requested for the registration of the organization as a 'foreign agent.' Russian authorities over the past few weeks have indicated that they are expanding their NGO target lists and aiming in new directions.

The numbers of Russian nongovernmental organizations ordered to register as "foreign agents" – a term that connotes "spy" in Russian and nothing else – continues to mount, and could ultimately reach about 100, according to the Russian Justice Ministry.

The law, which Russian defenders insist is modeled on the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), requires groups that receive any amount of foreign funding and engage in any activities that authorities deem "political" to don that self-incriminating "foreign agent" badge and wear it prominently in all public materials and activities or face steep fines and, after three warnings, forced closure.

But unlike FARA, whose regular reports to Congress almost exclusively contain the names of public relations firms, state corporations, paid lobbyists for foreign governments and actual non-diplomatic offices of foreign governments in the US, Russian authorities have cast their net over a wide variety of active civil society groups whose US analogues are almost completely absent from the FARA register.

And that net appears to be widening. The first NGOs to be dragged into court and handed their initial fines for refusing to register were groups whose activities have long been a source of irritation to the Kremlin, and whom authorities had explicitly vowed to crack down on. Among them are the independent election monitor Golos – which last week was slapped with its second round of finesRussia's biggest human rights organization Memorial, and at least one regional association of Soldiers' Mothers, the country's most effective grassroots group advocating for conscripts' rights and military reform.

But some of the names that have appeared on prosecutors' lists of organizations ordered to register as "foreign agents" over the past few weeks suggest that authorities are expanding their target lists and aiming in new directions.

Despite the fact that authorities had originally pledged that groups devoted to environmentalism, wildlife protection, and children's rights would be exempt from the law, several such groups have been named by prosecutors in recent days.

They include the "Aid to Children with Cystic Fibrosis" NGO in Istra, near Moscow, which according to Russian press reports had irritated the Ministry of Health by questioning its methods. Also named Monday by prosecutors is the Amur Ecological Foundation in Russia's far east, which works on an international project to save the endangered Siberian crane.

Another group headed to court is the Goldman-prize winning Baikal Environmental Wave, whose leader, Marina Rikhvanova, once persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin to re-route a controversial oil pipeline away from the pristine ecological zone of Siberia's Lake Baikal.

Reached by telephone in Irkutsk Monday, Ms. Rikhvanova said the group has just received official notice from the local prosecutor's office that it must register as a "foreign agent" or face initial fines of 500,000 roubles (about $15,000) for the organization and 100,000 roubles (just over $3,000) for its leader.

"We're not going to accept this label by registering," says Rikhvanova. "We will protest, we will go to court. This is ridiculous. They searched us in the past, and found no foreign agents here. I assume prosecutors must have got fresh instructions to find some foreign agents, somehow, somewhere," she says.

Another less-than-obvious place to find "foreign agents" would seem to be St. Petersburg's annual "Bok o Bok" (Side by Side) international film festival, which screens LGBT-themed films from Russia and around the world. But a St. Petersburg court last week fined the festival the equivalent of $15,000 for failing to comply with a demand to register.

"This festival is based in Russia, founded in Russia, though we do receive some funding from abroad," says Manny De Guerre, a spokesperson for the festival.

"But our focus is cultural, we don't do anything political. The objective is to create broader understanding of LGBT issues and realities, to foster greater social tolerance. We've been doing this for five years, and it works. We've created a space where people can talk about things. We really can't understand how the authorities are interpreting the word 'political' to include us in this category," Ms. De Guerre says.

"We won't register as 'foreign agents' because in Russia that creates a lot of public suspicion about your work. In Russia it's equivalent to 'spy', so it's like you're saying you're an enemy. Also, if you do register, it means much more red tape and gives prosecutors the power to come and check you, freeze your bank accounts, if they receive any public complaint about you. We can see where this is going," she says.

"Why are we the only film festival being subjected to this. It's obvious that it's because our festival deals with LGBT films," she adds. "A lot of homophobic laws are being passed in Russia these days, so what we do goes against government policy. This is a politically motivated case and the law is being selectively applied. It's not just that we happened to be LGBT, we were chosen for this treatment specifically because of it."

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