For fear of 'foreign agents,' Kremlin blacklists a Russian charity

Dynasty, which promotes scientific education, is funded almost entirely by Russian communications tycoon Dmitry Zimin. Because he's using offshore accounts to do so, he's run afoul of Kremlin bureaucrats. Critics say it's time for a rethink.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Dmitry Zimin (c.), creator of the Dynasty foundation, attends an award ceremony in Moscow on Wednesday. A Russian law designed to stop civil society groups trying to stir rebellion against President Vladimir Putin's rule is having unforeseen side effects: it threatens to close down a foundation that helps gifted school children study science. The Dynasty foundation is supported by Mr. Zimin, who sold his stake in Russian mobile telecom firm Vimpelcom in 2001 and has since been involved in philanthropy.

Russia's "foreign agent" law has had no shortage of detractors and defenders over the nearly three years it's been in operation.

Framers claimed their intention was to warn the Russian public about supposed do-gooders who were actually interfering in domestic "political activity" at the behest of Western masters supplying "foreign funding."

Critics complained from the beginning that the vaguely-worded law – which offered neither a clear definition of "political activity" nor "foreign funding" – was bound to be abused by Russian bureaucrats who have little experience, and even less patience, with the complexities of a growing civil society.

But no one seems able to explain the logic behind the latest addition to the blacklist: Dynasty, a scientific charity solely financed by Russian communications tycoon Dmitry Zimin, and dedicated to promoting scientific education and extending help to struggling Russian graduate students.

'Foreign' Russian funding

Mr. Zimin, who admitted he funds Dynasty from his offshore bank accounts, told journalists he is deeply offended by the decision, and will halt his donations immediately. "Certainly, I will not spend my own money acting under the trademark of some unknown foreign state. I will stop funding Dynasty," he said.

Dynasty was started in 2002 by Zimin, a founder of the Russian telecommunications giant VimpelCom, to help fill in the gaps of Russia's fraying scientific infrastructure. Since then he's spent about $10 million annually to support research, supply textbooks to far-flung Russian schools, and translate important new scientific works into Russian.

But Russian media reports suggest it may have run afoul of authorities due to some lectures it sponsored earlier this year that could have touched on "political" themes. That, plus the technical fact that Zimin's financing arrived from offshore bank accounts, appears to be the rationale for blacklisting it as a "foreign agent."

"It's possible that there were good intentions behind the foundation’s work, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t apply the law," Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov told journalists.

But critics say law is running amok and being used in totally non-transparent ways by bureaucrats as a bludgeon to settle scores and stifle criticism without much regard to who it hurts.

Indeed, the Ministry of Justice blacklist of organizations designated as "foreign agents" quickly expanded beyond obvious irritants to the Kremlin – such as anticorruption groups, human rights crusaders, and election monitors – to include environmentalists, a film festival, and even a children's medical charity.

The list now includes about 70 groups, all of whom are obliged to describe themselves as "foreign agents" – which connotes "spy" – in all of their public activities. This week President Vladimir Putin signed an even more draconian law that will make it illegal for Russians to have contact with any organization, anywhere in the world, that authorities deem "undesirable."

'Not a mistake'

"Unfortunately we can't call [Dynasty's situation] a mistake. A very wide variety of civil society groups have been trapped by the broad language of this law, and this case with Dynasty is not really that unusual," says Elena Topoleva-Soldunova, a member of the semi-official Public Chamber, a Kremlin-approved assembly of civil society groups.

"Apparently they found some signs of 'political activity,' but it seems to be very easy to find that. We can only hope that, because this case is so obviously harmful to the country, that it will cause lawmakers to take a fresh look at this legislation. People should raise their voices," she says.

Sergei Popov, an astronomy researcher who has received grants from Dynasty in the past, is more pessimistic.

"Dynasty was a very well-run, transparent organization, that presented one of the few good examples of how to do these things properly. This was a very fragile beginning, in our Russian culture where it's notoriously difficult to mobilize private resources to achieve positive public goals," he says. "Now, I fear, many people will take this as a signal that it's just not worthwhile to attempt such things, because it can be easily broken."

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