The Kremlin’s announcement that it is expelling USAID is the latest step in a crackdown on foreign-funded civil society groups, writes Tanya Lokshina (left, with Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial rights group), deputy Moscow director at Human Rights Watch. It follows hard on the heels of new restrictive rules requiring NGOs “that get even a kopeck of foreign money” to officially register as “foreign agents” in effect, as “foreign spies.”
The new law won’t enter into force until late autumn, but you can already see it in action. At least, I did, during a recent trip to Russia’s provinces.
A couple of weeks ago, a fascinating internal document started circulating on social networks. It is a photocopy of a letter dated August 9 on the letterhead of administration chief for the Mari El Republic in the Volga region, addressed to heads of local government agencies. The document cites growing concern regarding “activization of foreign and domestic non-profit organizations” and calls on the officials to mitigate these threats. They are instructed to ensure that staff at all levels “minimize participation in programs and socio-political events funded by foreign and Russian non-profit groups.”
At the end of August, a colleague and I went on a research trip to a remote Russian province. We were planning to do a series of interviews not on police torture, nor threats to activists, nor corruption – none of the issues that the authorities define as “sensitive.” We were looking into a healthcare access issue that even the most vigilant official would have a hard time branding “politicized.”
A couple of days into our work, however, local officials demanded to see our accreditation documents to establish whether we were working in Russia legitimately and peppered us with questions straight out of a Soviet spy film. “Who invited you here?” “Who pays your travel costs?” “Where are your headquarters?” “Who funds your organization?” “Who is arranging your meetings for you?” “Where is your authorization from the federal authorities?” And on and on.
We tried to explain that our Russia office has been registered in Moscow for close to 20 years and we’ve never been asked for “permission” when we travel to this or that region for human rights research. We explained that this was one of several research projects, so we were simply gathering data to develop policy recommendations. Our efforts proved fruitless. By the next morning, local health care workers had received instructions to stay away from us and to exercise special caution vis-à-vis “foreign” actors in light of “the increasingly tense political environment” – another infamous time-warped cliché. This outcome was especially absurd given that we were actually looking to their region for best practices, and that by denying us access the regional officials essentially would not allow us to tell a positive story.
Once back in Moscow, I asked a friend to share that story with a federal government official knowledgeable about the origins of this law. The official merely shrugged in response: “This is definitely not what we’re aiming at. But one just cannot second guess those regional officials and prevent all their inane initiatives.”
I am inclined to believe that the Kremlin did not directly instruct local bureaucrats to behave that way. Those behind the law most likely meant it to be used selectively, against critics of the government. But it is already evident that the law served as a signal from Moscow to local bureaucrats: do whatever you want to put certain groups in their place.
Another thing that Moscow should think about is how it’s going to sort out the problems resulting from USAID’s forced withdrawal. After all, most USAID funds in Russia were being spent on programs very far from politics. They went towards supporting projects in the areas of HIV and TB prevention, integration of people with disabilities, assistance to orphans, and other socially vulnerable groups. So will the Russian government pick up directly where USAID left off? Is it planning to enable the good work to continue, or is it betting that citizens harmed by the closure of USAID-funded projects won’t join the ranks of the protesters?
The United States and other democratic countries should send a strong message about the need to assist Russia’s civil society and ensure that this support will continue. It is needed now more than ever, and Russia is a better place for it.
This is a slightly edited extract from a longer article at CNN’s Public Square.