The Russian government today submitted to parliament a bill providing additional grounds for unscheduled checks of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), RIA Novosti reports:
Under the bill, grounds for surprise inspections of NGOs would include the failure to rectify infringements by a deadline previously set by an authorized agency, complaints by individuals and legal entities, and information provided by government agencies, local authorities and the media about alleged elements of extremism in the operation of NGOs, as well as information about violations of legislation by NGOs from federal and local authorities.
Russian authorities today suspended the country’s leading independent election monitor for six months after it refused to register as a “foreign agent”.
“Lined up behind Golos, there are currently over 60 NGOs at various stages along the route to mandatory closure if they continue to reject the self-incriminating ‘foreign agent’ registration,” writes CSM’s Fred Weir:
Activists with Golos say they are considering various response strategies, among which is a risky plan to officially disband the organization and recreate it under a new name.
“We are working on what to do,” says Grigory Melkonyants (above), deputy director of Golos. “We realize that just paying the fines that have been levied on us won’t stop the authorities from closing down Golos and prosecuting its leaders. We are suing the prosecutor’s office and the Justice Ministry, and we will take that all the way to the Constitutional Court if necessary. We’re going to launch an appeal to the European Court,” he says.
“But there is no doubt that the closure of Golos is a signal to the whole NGO community. The goal is to scare them,” and make them stop any activities that irritate the authorities, in Moscow and around the country, he says.
Among the NGOs on the list and facing suspension in coming weeks are some obvious Kremlin irritants, such as Russia’s largest human rights organization Memorial; the Russian branch of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International; the legal activist group Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms, JURIX; the Nizhni Novgorod-based Interregional Committee Against Torture, which deals mainly with allegations of police brutality; and the Goldman Prize-winning Baikal Environmental Wave, one of the country’s most effective grassroots ecological groups.
But it’s harder to explain why some completely non-political groups also seem to find themselves in the authorities’ sights. These include the St. Petersburg Side-by-Side LGBT film festival; theYaroslavl Regional Hunters and Fishermen Society; the Saratov-based Center For Social Policy and Gender Studies; the Kostroma branch of the Soldiers’ Mothers, a group that has been praised both in Russia and abroad for its work on the painful issues of conscription and military reform; and the country’s only independent pollster, the Levada Center.
The Kremlin is using the “foreign agents” law to curtail a broad range of work by independent organizations, says a leading rights group:
Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of warnings and violation notices issued under the law from the prosecutor’s office to nongovernmental organizations. These documents reveal an apparent effort to limit advocacy, advisory, and public education activities on a wide spectrum of issues that involve comment on, or interaction with, government authorities.
In March 2013 the Russian government began an unprecedented nationwide inspection campaign of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations to expose “foreign agents,” i.e. groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” and require them to register as such. Four months into the campaign, at least 62 groups have received warnings or orders to register as “foreign agents” or have been taken to court by the authorities.
“Prosecutors’ documents provide disturbing insight into Russian government efforts to suppress independent organizations,” said Hugh Williamson, the group’s Europe and Central Asia director. “The authorities have defined political activity so broadly as to ensure government control over just about any organized activity relating to public life.”
The Obama administration’s attempts to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations have not borne fruit for the victims of the Kremlin’s human rights abuses, says the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Kristina Olney, adding that the US should make human rights a priority issue in its relationship with Moscow:
First, the United States should fully implement the Magnitsky Act….. This list, however, needs to be expanded to an 280 additional human rights abusers in Russia.
Second, the United States should urge its allies and partners, particularly those in the European Union, to implement laws similar to the Magnitsky Act and impose sanctions on Russian human rights violators. ….
Third, the United States should find a way to assist Russian civil society groups with funds it has already set aside, in effect, for that purpose but remain unused. The Foreign Agents Law has made Russian groups loath to receive foreign funding since they do not want to lose public credibility and trust by being branded a “foreign agent.” To make matters worse, the Kremlin last year shut down the operations of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the primary conduit for U.S. foreign assistance in Russia.
“Nonetheless, congressional staffers and experts on Russia are confident that the United States can find an alternative mechanism for civil society assistance,” says Olney:
Here, the aim would be to provide everyday Russians with what Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, described as “useful services” such as “free legal consultations” and “educational programmes.” What’s more, as former Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich (left) pointed out in a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation, U.S. lawmakers can reprogram these existing funds and help Russians to create a brighter future in a manner that has “no budgetary impact for the United States.”
In at least three cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the prosecutor’s office made no distinction between activities or affiliations of employees of civil society groups in their private capacity and those they engaged in on behalf of their organization.
1. Election Transparency
Golos Groups (Moscow, Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk)
Golos (“voice” or “vote” in Russian) is a widely used name for a large network of election monitoring groups in Russia’s regions. The organization leading the network, the Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights “Golos” (Golos Association), based in Moscow, may be the first Russian organization to close as a result of being targeted under the law as a “foreign agent.”….
Two more groups, the Kostroma Soldiers’ Mothers Committee (Kostroma) and the Democratic Center (Voronezh), were warned by the prosecutor’s office for involvement in observing federal elections in December 2011 and March 2012 – before the “foreign agents” law was even in effect.
2. Cooperation with UN Treaty Bodies
Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” (St. Petersburg)
The Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” (ADC Memorial), which assists victims of discrimination, was the third group the Justice Ministry took to court for refusing to register as a “foreign agent.” (The second, after the Golos Association, was the Kostroma Center for Support of Public Initiatives, which was cited for hosting a roundtable on Russia-United States relations with the participation of a US diplomat.)………..
Public Verdict Foundation (Moscow)
………….Public Verdict’s case was the first in which the prosecutor’s office branded as “political” nearly the entire spectrum of work typically carried out by human rights groups. These include: “involving society in discussing reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, monitoring how citizens’ rights are respected in public events, providing legal assistance to individuals accused under the ‘Bolotnaya [protest rally] case,’ preparing and coordinating work on drafting an Alternative NGO Report to the UN Committee Against Torture [on Russia’s compliance with the Convention against Torture];” offering “recommendations to participants of public protests regarding [appropriate] behavior at the rallies”; and “organizing and supporting campaigns of petitions to state authorities.”
3. Monitoring Politically Motivated Human Rights Violations and Providing Assistance to Victims
On April 29 the Moscow city prosecutor’s office issued a notice of violations to the Memorial Human Rights Center, one of Russia’s most prominent rights organizations, giving the group one month to eliminate “violations of federal legislation” and register as a “foreign agent.”
The prosecutor’s office concentrated on the group’s work exposing politically motivated administrative detention and criminal prosecution and asserted that “Russian legislation does not provide for any crimes committed on political motives.”
Agora Human Rights Association (Agora) is a prominent rights group that provides legal assistance to nongovernmental organizations and civic activists. In a notice of violations issued to the group, the prosecutor’s office alleged that the provision of legal assistance to political activists was a “political activity.”
4. Countering LGBT Discrimination
Side by Side and Coming Out (St. Petersburg)
Soon after its inspection of two prominent groups advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, the prosecutor’s office filed administrative charges against both groups for failing to register as “foreign agent” organizations.
Side by Side was founded specifically to organize LGBT film festivals in several Russian cities. On May 6 it received notice of violations from the Central District prosecutor’s office in St. Petersburg citing two counts of alleged “political activity”: publication of a brochure on the international LGBT movement and participation in an awareness-raising campaign, called “Let’s Stop the Homophobic Bill Together.”
Coming Out is a regional group that conducts awareness-raising campaigns about LGBT rights and culture and provides legal advice to victims of violence and discrimination. In the notice of violations, the prosecutors said that the group receives funding from the Consulate General of the Netherlands and the Embassy of Norway and is allegedly engaged in “political activities.”
Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms / JURIX (Moscow)
The Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms / JURIX trains lawyers, provides expert legal analysis, and engages in strategic litigation on constitutional law issues. In a May 7 violations notice, the prosecutor’s office ordered the group to register as a “foreign agent,” citing as “political activity” some of the staff’s participation in an advocacy campaign urging the St. Petersburg legislative assembly to reject a bill banning “homosexual propaganda.” ……………
5. Providing Expert Assessments to State Entities
GRANI Center for Civic Analysis and Independent Research (Perm)
On April 22 the regional prosecutor’s office in Perm issued a notice of violations to the GRANI Center for Civic Analysis and Independent Research (GRANI), which provides expert analysis on issues of government transparency and civic participation in decision-making. The notice instructed the center to register as a “foreign agent” organization because it received foreign funding in 2013 and engaged in activities aimed at “shaping public opinion about state policies.”…………
Transparency International-Russia (Moscow) and Agora Association (Kazan)are accredited by the Justice Ministry as independent expert entities to evaluate legislation and other legal documents to ensure that they do not promote corruption. The prosecutor’s office cited the fact that both groups have accreditation as evidence of their engagement in “political activity.” Transparency International-Russia received a warning on April 26, and Agora received a violations notice on April 30.
6. Research and Public Opinion Studies
Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies (Saratov)
The Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies is a well-known sociological research center in operation for 10 years. The prosecutor’s notice of violations, dated April 24, says the group’s “political activity” consisted of an April event entitled, “Review of Social Policy in the Post-Soviet Region: Ideologies, Actors and Cultures” and a book it published, Critical Analysis of Social Policy in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union…….
Warnings issued by the prosecutor’s office to at least four organizations stated that research publications and analysis of public opinion polls was considered “political activity.” These included the Levada Center (Moscow), the Foundation for Assistance to Public Opinion Research(Moscow), the Center for Independent Sociological Research (St. Petersburg), and the Center for Independent Social Research and Education (Irkutsk). The prosecutor’s office issued thePanorama Information and Research Center (Moscow) a notice of violation ordering the group to register as a “foreign agent” because it carries out this kind of work.
7. Environmental Advocacy
Although the “foreign agents” law exempts “defense of flora and fauna” from the definition of “political activity,” the prosecutor’s office warned at least 14 environmental groups that they might be required to register as “foreign agents” and ordered one group to do so.
Baikal Environmental Wave (Irkutsk)
Baikal Environmental Wave, a high-profile group that strives to protect Lake Baikal from industrial pollution, is the only environmental group that the prosecutor’s office is known to have ordered to register as a “foreign agent.”…………
Amur Environmental Club “Ulukitkan” (Blagoveshchensk)
The Amur Environmental Club “Ulukitkan,” founded in 2002, defends the rights of indigenous peoples to preserve their traditional lifestyles and sustainable use of natural resources.
8. Funding from “Political” Foundations
Center for Support of Democratic Youth Initiatives / Youth “Memorial” (Perm)
In at least one case, the prosecutor’s office characterized a group’s activity as politically based not only on the activity itself but also on the foreign donor’s identity.
The Center for Support of Democratic Youth Initiatives focuses largely on historical memory projects. In an April 29 notice of violations, the prosecutor’s office cited several of the group’s projects as political. These included a project funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that aimed to “develop democratic activism among Russian youth” through raising awareness of the history of repression and a project funded by the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation (EVZ) that focused on human rights education.