Golos, Russia's only grassroots election-monitoring organization, has been fighting an exhausting battle to prove it does not receive foreign funding. Otherwise, it would have to self-describe as a "foreign agent" – a term that connotes "spy" in Russian.
But even though the organization has won some significant court victories, including a Constitutional Court order to lift the onerous label they were saddled with, Golos seems no closer to fielding its usual teams of observers when Russia's next cycle of elections kicks off, with regional polls in October.
Now, members of Golos and other nongovernmental organizations in similar conflict with the government are asking: Are there any terms under which the Kremlin will allow such a group to do its appointed job?
"The basic problem is that authorities are not happy with what Golos does," says Andrei Buzin, an analyst with Golos. "It's this type of activity, making conclusions, publishing results, that they just don't like."
Squashing 'foreign agents'
Three years ago, Russia's State Duma passed a law requiring any nongovernmental organization which received any funding from abroad and engaged in "political" activities to register itself as a "foreign agent." One of the original targets actually named in the law was Golos, whose independent observers had angered the ruling United Russia party by documenting thousands of irregularities and cases of outright fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections.
The "foreign agent" blacklist maintained by the Ministry of Justice has since swelled to over 80 names, including organizations that work for prison reform, environmental causes, and human rights. Even some cultural groups and a foundation that supports scientific education have been caught in the net.
Many of those groups have given up and shut down. But some, like Golos, are still fighting. A few months ago, the Constitutional Court ruled that Golos's umbrella organization hadn't received any foreign funding in the past two years, and should be removed from the list. That hasn't happened. Moreover, Mr. Buzin says, several regional chapters of Golos have now been blacklisted, making it almost irrelevant if the central organization does get a bit of legal relief.
After two years of ceaseless legal battles, and a good deal of gratuitous official harassment, "our central office has financial problems. There is no money even to pay the rent," he says.
What does the Kremlin want?
The key question is whether the law is aimed at cutting out foreign funding and contacts, or whether it's intended to eliminate a whole class of NGOs that do the kind of community work which brings them into friction with the authorities. Some argue that the Kremlin may be satisfied when the law is fully complied with, and completely domestic NGOs take over those potentially controversial activities.
Pavel Chikov, chairman of the AGORA Association, which provides legal aid to NGOs, says there are about 20 groups, including his own, waiting to have the damning "foreign agent" label lifted so that they can return to their activities. But their options are limited.
"Attempts to defend NGOs that want to preserve their foreign funding, but avoid being classified as 'foreign agents' are never successful," he says. "But if an NGO wants to preserve its staff, its activity, and reputation, there are legal variants to pursue this. It depends on the management and its legal approach."
One group that's fought the label in Russian and European courts for the past two years is Memorial, Russia's largest human rights organization.
"We made it very clear from the start that we would never classify ourselves as 'foreign agents,'" says Yulia Orlova, Memorial's spokeswoman. "When we refused, they changed the law and the list was [unilaterally] compiled by the Ministry of Justice. Our lawyers have presented our case [in every possible forum] but there are no results."
Others argue that the byzantine legal process, which appears to hold out hope that NGOs can make changes and return to work, is likely a mirage.
"I don't think there are any grounds for optimism," says Sergei Nikitin, head of Amnesty International's Russia branch. "It's pretty clear that the whole process was developed to get rid of independent organizations – independent in the sense they are not controlled by the Kremlin – and the fluctuations you see are beside the point. Golos, for example, is regarded by the Kremlin as a very dangerous organization. I think state pressures will continue, and most of these groups will be closed down."
Mr. Nikitin says the long, drawn-out legal process groups are subjected to is a hallmark of the Putin era. "It's part of the information war. If they just shut these groups down, people might object. But now they can say 'we're just enforcing the law,' the way they do all over the world."
'A hidden agenda'?
Sergei Markov, a former Putin advisor, says the Kremlin firmly believes that the network of foreign-funded NGOs built up in Russia since the collapse of the USSR are political Trojan horses, whose mission is to promote regime change in Russia. Golos, for example, with its election-monitoring brief, might be used to promote instability at a critical moment in the country.
"They know that [colored revolutions] are best staged during elections, when power is up in the air, and they can make all sorts of accusations that promote revolution," he says. The "foreign agent" label is a crucial tool to warn the Russian population about the organization's hidden agenda, he insists.
As for groups that seem to have little to do with politics, like environmental and educational NGOs, Mr. Markov claims they are suspect by the fact "they have constantly been accepting foreign money. Their paymasters may well give them the order, at some moment, to stop what they were doing and go over to revolution ... Moscow's task is to undermine the credibility of these groups, so they can't do that."
The fate of most blacklisted NGOs will probably be clear soon, and perhaps the answer to the larger question about Kremlin motives as well.
"Fighting back takes an enormous amount of resources," says Kirill Koroteyev, a lawyer for Memorial. "And it seems like the result will be the same, since you will exhaust all your strength in this struggle. The law was meant to bury civil society, to pave it over. The way things are going, within a few months there may well be nothing left."