Russian civil society groups are developing a diverse range of strategies in response to a new law classifying non-government organizations as “foreign agents.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week vehemently rejected Kremlin claims that Russian NGOs are directed by Washington, responding to a request from two leading rights activists, the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Lev Ponomarev, the head of For Human Rights (right).
“In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so,” Clinton wrote.
“The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.”
Clinton’s comments came in response to the activists’ open letter to President Barack Obama asking: were they, or were they not his spies?
“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told Julia Ioffe. “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”
The Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights have joined other NGOs, including the Russian branch of Transparency International and the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, in refusing to register as foreign agents.
The Interregional Association of Human Rights Organizations (Agora) has asked Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov to clarify the NGO law, a first step in what the group’s leader Pavel Chikov calls a “multi-step system” of responding to the measure:
According to the law, Russian NGOs that “take part in political activities in Russia, including in the interests of foreign sources,” are foreign agents. What does the term “in the interests of” mean? Are the provisions of the Civil Code that regulate actions “in the interests of someone” applicable in this case? ….Chikov said that they would use a variety of methods in the regions, for example registering an NGO as a foreign agent to subsequently demand its formal removal from the register, or “provoking a ruling suspending the NGO’s operation for refusal to be registered as a foreign agent with the purpose of appealing against that decision.”
Agora recorded more than 850 cases of persecution against Russian rights activists and non-governmental organizations in 2011, the Other Russia notes, continuing a trend that has been steadily on the rise since 2008.
The Russian authorities and commentators in pro-Putin publications like Pravda routinely conflate U.S. governmental agencies like USAID and autonomous non-governmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute, misleadingly claiming that “the latter … are accountable to the Department of State.”
Representatives of the Russian embassy recently challenged NED president Carl Gershman on the draconian NGO law, suggesting that it was less restrictive than U.S. restrictions on foreign lobbyists, Joel D. Hirst reports:
With his singular clarity, Gershman responded. The problem with the Russian government, he said, is that it views civil society as “a bunch of lobbyists” representing foreign interests – not as legitimate interlocutors of the Russian people. TKO.
International solidarity is essential if civil society groups are to perform the Sisyphean task of defending freedom and democracy from authoritarian threats, Gershman told a recent meeting at the Woodrow Wilson Center, citing some four dozen states, including Bahrain, Ecuador, Turkmenistan, Venezuela and even Malaysia which have cracked down on civil society.
“Democracy is never safe,” Gershman said. “But ensuring vigilance can’t be done just by the international community. It’s very important to have international action and solidarity, but that work can only succeed if there are mobilized forces from within – all you can really do is support these internal forces.”
Contrary to expectations, the Arab Spring has prompted further restrictions on civil society, a leading expert told the Wilson Center forum on Understanding and Responding to Attacks on Civil Society: The Roles of Politics and Law.
“Unfortunately, the trends have been against democracy, against expansion of that space of civil society,” said Maina Kiai, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of assembly. “With more and more restrictions coming up to take away these rights, we are at a point where we have begun the fight again. This time it’s much more subtle, much more ‘rule by law’ than ‘rule of law’, and it’s very scary,” he said, citing anti-NGO laws pending or passed in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Russia.
Democratic states and donors are failing to counter the growing appeal of the “China model” of developmental authoritarianism, said Kiai, formerly a prominent rights activist in Kenya.
“Globally, donor countries are beginning to move towards accepting the Chinese model of development,” he told the Wilson Center meeting, co-sponsored by the World Movement for Democracy and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
“For some reason, the lessons of the Arab Spring are not moving across the world – the understanding that you cannot have sustainable development without democracy,” Kiai noted. “Everybody’s fawning over Ethiopia, but why are we doing this without trying to understand the sustainability of that assistance?”
While authoritarian regimes are increasingly learning from each other and developing more sophisticated methods for closing political space, pro-democracy groups have not been as innovative. “Many governments have increasingly become more subtle in their efforts to limit the space in which civil society organizations, especially democracy and human rights groups, operate,” according to Defending Civil Society, a newly-updated updated by the ICNL and the World Movement for Democracy.
Clinton’s “quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years,” Ioffe writes in The New Republic:
Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow (left), and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.
The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharansky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.
AGORA is funded by the NED to provide legal and informational assistance to civic activists and organizations under pressure. SOVA and the Moscow Helsinki Group are also NED grantees.