Can a Russian indigenous group be a 'foreign agent'? The Kremlin thinks so.

The targeting of an organization dedicated to protecting indigenous culture is just the latest abuse of a law meant to root out foreign actors in Russian politics.

Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/AP/File
Pavel Sulyandziga (l.) poses with then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow in July 2011.

Batani, an organization dedicated to the interests of the indigenous peoples of Russia's far east, couldn't be much more inherently Russian.

The group, whose full name is the "Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East," is like many indigenous, preservationist groups all around the world. It lobbies for the protection of traditional native hunting and fishing grounds. It sponsors seminars and cultural festivals. Recently, it even printed a compilation of indigenous peoples' fairy tales.

So it was a shock last week when Pavel Sulyandziga, founder and chairman of the group, logged onto the Ministry of Justice's website and discovered that his organization had been officially blacklisted as a "foreign agent."

Though he still doesn't know why, his group is the latest target of a four-year-old law that requires any nongovernmental organization that receives any foreign funding and engages in anything authorities deem to be political activity to register themselves as "foreign agents," a term that connotes "spy" in Russian.

Some experts warn the law has become a cudgel for bureaucrats, often far from Moscow, to silence any criticism at all from civil society. Originally intended to curb big, foreign-funded NGOs such as election monitors, human-rights groups, and other bastions of liberal opposition that challenge the government in politically sensitive areas, the banned list now includes more than 100 names, many of them with an educational, cultural, or environmental focus.

"It seems that if you do anything related to human-rights protection, you will be targeted by this law," says Mr. Sulyandziga. "The goal is to eliminate any organization that irritates local authorities. Sometimes it's just score-settling that has nothing to do with politics. I think this could be against me, personally, because I complained publicly about the conduct of some local officials, and someone wrote a letter to the Justice Ministry denouncing me as a spy."

Tarring 'foreign agents'

While Batani did have a Dutch citizen among its original founders, Sulyandziga insists that it receives no foreign funding. He doesn't deny that it sometimes generates friction with local authorities, especially over issues like land access rights. But it also has worked closely with government and industry.

Batani receives much of its funding from Russkiy Mir, an international foundation to promote Russian culture established and financed by the Russian government. Another major donor has been the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, a far-eastern gas company that's registered in Bermuda but is 50 percent owned by Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopoly. Royal Dutch Shell and two Japanese companies own minority stakes in Sakhalin.

The Ministry of Justice lists three instances of Batani receiving foreign funding, all of them donations from Sakhalin Energy. As for the group's alleged political activities, the ministry website simply alleges "attempts to influence decision-making by public authorities, aimed at changing their policies."

That highlights the vagueness of the law, experts say, which enables authorities vast leeway in tarring groups with the "foreign agent" brush.

Tainted pennies

Under analogous US legislation often cited to justify the Russian law, the definition of "foreign funding" requires a "principal" donor that is usually a foreign government or corporation. But under the Russian law, if a group receives even a penny from abroad – even if it's given by a Russian citizen – that qualifies it for prosecution.

"The funding source can be a foreign state, a foreign citizen, foreign organization, or Russian organization that receives money from foreign sources," says Darya Miloslavskaya, a civil rights lawyer.

Last year, leading scientific charity Dynasty was closed down on the grounds that its chief donor, Russian telecommunications tycoon Dmitry Zimin, was providing the funds from his foreign bank accounts.

Experts say that groups like Batani were once lionized by the Russian government, and used to showcase official cooperation with indigenous people in issues like ecology and business-community integration. But now the atmosphere is growing tougher as parliamentary elections loom and the economic crisis bites.

"State policy used to require participation of indigenous groups in forming civil policy," says Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a lawyer's collective that provides legal assistance to other NGOs. Agora itself became the first NGO to be officially liquidated under the law earlier this year. "But traditional lobbyists for indigenous peoples' rights are now being squeezed out of the public sphere. It's true that they were trying to influence policy for quite a long time, and their efforts were once welcomed. But not anymore."

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the translation of 'Batani' from Russian.]

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