A few days after she met a local journalist last year in Russia’s strife-torn Caucasus region, Tanya Lokshina (right), a researcher for the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, had another, more surreal, conversation with him.
The journalist told her he had been called by a high-ranking government official and told that Ms Lokshina, a Russian who studied in the US, was not everything she seemed. “This woman is an enemy, she is an American spy. Don’t talk to her!” he was urged.
“Word of this encounter was nothing new for Ms Lokshina, who documents atrocities in war-torn southern Russia,” the FT’s Charles Clover reports:
Since Soviet times, officials from lowly bureaucrats right to the top have tended to see every setback as a foreign plot, every piece of bad news as a conspiracy. This same official paranoia, she and many others say, is now embodied in legislation intended to expose “foreign agents”, defined as any group that receives foreign finance and engages in politics. The law could be passed by parliament as early as this week.
“This is the same old tired accusation reheated from Soviet times and served up again,” Ms Lokshina says. “They are aimed at demonizing and marginalizing independent groups.”
The proposed NGO laws are reminiscent of Soviet secret police methods, the head of the Council of Europe said today.
“The wording is a problem. ‘Foreign agent’ sounds very bad to me and also, I think, to many others abroad and in Russia,” said Thorbjorn Jagland. “Some of those executed during the [Joseph] Stalin era were called foreign agents.”
“This was an expression that was used against dissidents during this period. It is also very often used in other authoritarian regimes against everybody that has different views,” he said. “It’s a simple way to get people out of the debate and to get the views you don’t like out of the debate.”
The Obama administration criticized the bill as a threat to basic liberties and human rights.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the Russian Duma’s consideration of legislation that would potentially limit the activities of Russian nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign financing,” said Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman.
During a meeting with senior advisers this week, President Vladimir Putin, “insisted on keeping the punitive label,” Michael Boehm writes in the Moscow Times. But Putin, who has previously described foreign-funded NGOs as “jackals,” also “understood that United Russia’s asymmetric response was overkill,” and specified a list of issues to be excluded from the bill’s provisions, including science, charities, culture, religious organizations, physical fitness and sports:
Putin conspicuously retained the most important restrictions — those that apply to NGOs devoted to building democracy and an open society, election monitoring, protecting human rights, improving transparency and accountability in government and fighting corruption. The Kremlin is most concerned about these NGOs because they expose some of the worst abuses of Putin’s vertical-power structure.
Take, for example, Golos, the election-monitoring NGO funded in part by USAID. According to the Kremlin’s version of the December State Duma elections, there were only isolated cases of electoral fraud that had little impact on the results. But Golos, relying on documented evidence and exit polls, said election fraud amounted to 10 to 15 percent of the vote. Golos also documented electoral fraud in the March presidential vote.
“Notably, government corporations are also excluded,” notes Boehm. “Perhaps, Putin didn’t want Rosatom, which has received more than $1 billion since the early 1990s from the U.S. Defense Department to help destroy Russia’s stockpile of chemical weapons, to qualify as a ‘foreign agent’ of the United States.”
One of the bill’s drafters, ruling United Russia party legislator Alexander Sidyakin, singled out Golos as an example of U.S. efforts to “affect Russian politics,” citing “$2 million given to the organization in 2011 to dirty the Russian authorities.”
“It is quite clear what they are doing,” says Golos director Lilia Shibanova. “The word ‘agent’ means only one thing in Russian – spy.”
“It is an insult to be called this, because we are not taking orders from another state. We are, in fact, working on behalf of our own citizens and defending their interests,” says Ms Shibanova, who adds that Golos tried three times, unsuccessfully, to get grants from Russia’s Civic Chamber, which funds civil society projects.
“As for the organizations that got the [Russian] grants, no one ever saw them during the elections,” she says.
The bill’s main sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, who chairs the Duma’s security committee and heads the party’s conservative wing, says the bill meets international democratic standards.
“Russia is a young democracy — we learn from various countries’ experience. The law aims to protect the interests of civil society,” she told a RIA-Novosti roundtable.
The bill obliges NGOs that engage in political activity and receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” and display this label in all their publications. It also criminalizes violations of already stringent requirements for registering NGOs.
Critics say the bill is designed to punish pro-democracy groups by branding them traitors, as President Vladimir Putin has implied he thinks they are. During mass anti-government protests last year, Putin openly accused the U.S. State Department of financing NGOs that were allegedly plotting regime change.
Yarovaya insisted that the bill was an ”instrument of openness” that threatens no one.
“Russians must be able to understand who in [the country] does political work paid with foreign money. That’s a standard of international democracy,” she said.
The US has given over $5bn to 260,000 Russian civil society groups since 1991, “and that is only official figures,” claims Veronica Krasheninnikova of the Moscow-based Institute of Foreign Policy Studies and Initiatives.
“The United States does not give money just like that,” she says. “They are trying to achieve a certain foreign policy objective.”
“Our entire civil society is being financed by foreign government[s]. Our own organizations cannot compete with the ones who get quoted in western newspapers, get foreign grants and are part of this huge money machine.”
Partly to address this, Mr Putin announced this week that Rbs3bn ($91.7m) would be set aside next year to finance NGOs. A senior Russia official told the FT that foreign support for NGOs became “a back door to financing political parties”. In many cases political activists worked for NGOs, he said, receiving a salary that parties could not afford to pay and blurring the line between civil society work and political activism. NGOs respond that they cannot prevent their employees from joining political groups.
Ms Krasheninnikova also says the new law will be almost identical to the US Foreign Agents Regisitration Act, which requires organizations “acting as agents of foreign principal” to disclose details of the relationship.
But Ms Lokshina says the two are very different – FARA applies only to organizations directly subject to the orders of a foreign principal. Those such as Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, receive money from foreign governments but do not have to register in the US as foreign agents, while they will have to do so in Russia.
Many Kremlin officials and United Russia members believe that Golos and other NGOs are part of a U.S.-sponsored special operation to discredit and destabilize Russia, writes Boehm:
These NGOs, the argument goes, are part of a U.S. conspiracy that relies on subtle, insidious “soft power” tools under the benign pretext of ”building democracy and civil society” to help stage an Orange Revolution. For example, during an ”Open Tribune” discussion on the NGO bill last week, Kremlin-friendly analyst and Public Chamber member Sergei Markov said the legislation would “help prevent the overthrow of our current president.” He also said the bill would help “strengthen Russia’s democracy.”
But the NGO bill is a “tactic taken right out of the Soviet playbook,” he observes:
Few rulers are fond of NGOs that expose government abuse, but it would be hard to imagine democratic countries supporting a bill that would effectively label them “spies,” suffocate them with unnecessary (and expensive) reporting requirements, or threaten them with excessive fines and jail terms for noncompliance. Like a critical and independent media, critical and independent NGOs are a necessary component of civil society, and their freedom-of-speech rights should be fully protected. Incidentally, the Kremlin’s only “politically active” NGO operating in the United States — The Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, whose mission is to monitor U.S. human rights abuses — does not fall under the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act, nor do any NGOs for that matter.
By trying to discredit NGOs as “foreign agents” and provocateurs, the Kremlin is relying on a crude decoy tactic, attempting to shift attention away from its own poor record of falsification, corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses.