At a meeting with FSB leaders on 14 February, Vladimir Putin put an end to any doubts about his intention to implement his controversial ‘foreign agents’ bill. ‘We have a law’, he announced. ‘And we need to enforce it.’ With this instruction, Putin turned a poor law into a conspicuous and ugly witch-hunt. The heat (if you’ll excuse the pun) is now on, as the first ‘agents’ are paraded before the Russian public (and it is by no means just human rights organisations that are feeling it). The worst thing is that this law has set in motion yet another mechanism for the repression and harassment of anyone involved, however marginally, in civil activism.
'Foreign agent here' says the banner displayed atop the Moscow HQ of Memorial, a civil rights NGO. Photo: Polit.ru
What to expect from an inspection
Russian NGOs are already very familiar with so-called ‘inspections’ by regulatory authorities. For many years now, they have submitted comprehensive and regular reports of their activities and finances to the Justice Ministry and other bodies. With a fraction of the resources, the voluntary sector is subject to as much paperwork and monitoring as the business world, if not more. Just imagine, then, to also, suddenly be subjected to inspection in connection with the ‘foreign agents’ law, to be accused of ‘extremism’ in your activity, and to be investigated under another such pretext - possibly all at the same time? That’s exactly the situation in which hundreds of Russian NGOs have been finding themselves since February.
Across Russia, small and understaffed organisations have become the subjects of inspection commissions. Led by officials from the Prosecutor’s Office, the commissions usually include representatives of the Justice Ministry and Tax authorities, and less frequently from the FSB, the Police, the Federal Migration Service (FMS), the Fire Service and so on. Some Moscow based organisations have also found a film crew from the NTV channel on their doorsteps. This happened, for example, at ‘Memorial’, when staff had to eject ‘reporters’ illegally attempting to film the inspection process.
One inspector spied something suspicious on a bookshelf – a volume whose title started with the words, ‘Polemical questions...’. ‘What’s this?’ he asked. ‘Polemical sounds almost like ‘political’’.
Here are just a few examples of what has been going on, memorable for their farciality (although of course there was little amusing about them).
In St Petersburg inspectors asked staff of NGOs to produce such arcane documents as a rat control certificate and proof that they had all undergone chest x-rays. At the St Petersburg Human Rights Resource Centre employees were asked about their rubbish disposal arrangements, and at the NGO Development Centre the inspectors assiduously photographed the spines of all books with titles in foreign languages.
In a Moscow organisation that runs academic exchange programmes, one of the inspectors also spied something suspicious on a bookshelf. It was a volume whose title started with the words ‘Polemical questions...’. ‘What’s this?’, asked the inspector. ‘Polemical sounds almost like ‘political’’.
One member of the auditing group visiting the Moscow office of an international NGO quietly asked its staff, in a moment of empathy, ‘You wouldn’t on the off chance know what we’re supposed to be finding here?’
The Russian Foreign Agents Law (an amendment to the Law on NGOs) came into force on 21st November 2012. It requires all foreign-funded NGOs involved in ‘political activity’ to register at the Russian Ministry of Justice as ‘foreign agents’. Organisations engaged in ‘activities relating to science, culture, the arts, health, social support, support for the disabled, environmental protection and philanthropy’ are, theoretically at least, not subject to the new law.
The law has attracted widespread criticism as being discriminatory, unlawful and unconstitutional. Most have noted that the phrase ‘political activity’ is ambiguous and can be used to encompass any activities that protect public interests. With its MI6 and James Bond undertones, many NGOs also find the ‘foreign agent’ label ethically unacceptable. The law represents a significant tightening of the screws on NGOs, and provides for the criminal prosecution of people working in the sector. Organisations that refuse to register as ‘foreign agents’ face various sanctions, up to and including closure.
A second wave
In an interview on German television on 5 April, Vladimir Putin stated that ‘654 non-governmental organisations operating in the Russian Federation between January and April received a total of 28.3 billion roubles from abroad, almost $1 billion [£580 million], and 855 million roubles of that was channelled via diplomatic missions.’ Listening to the president, many people working in the Russian voluntary sector probably imagined that his aides had accidentally given him the wrong figures, and were confusing NGO funding with deposits by Russians in Cypriot bank accounts. No one has confirmed this, of course, and meanwhile the second half of April has seen a new wave of inspections, some of them repeats of earlier ones.
On 22 April, for example, inspectors returned to the Moscow offices of the Civil Assistance Committee, a well known NGO working with migrants. The reason for the visit was ‘information’ passed on to them from Georgy Fyodorov, a member of Russia’s Public Chamber. Officials from the Prosecutor’s Office and the FMS checked the IDs of everyone on the premises, given that Mr Fyodorov had claimed that the Forum was involved in ‘organising illegal immigration and the legalisation of illegal immigrants’. A day later other members of the Public Chamber passed a motion in support of Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Committee, but tellingly only nine of the Public Chamber’s 126 members signed the motion.
Inspections do not, of course, stop with human rights organisations. Judging by the growing number of NGOs who have been subjected to one, the main qualification for this honour is simply the receipt of foreign funding. ‘Perspectiva’, for example, an organisation working with disabled people and one of Russia’s leading NGOs, received a letter from its local Prosecutor’s Office in Moscow on 22 April. Just the day before, it had organised a grand dance marathon for people with disabilities, which included a collection towards funding for its support projects. Now it was faced with an administrative marathon: it was required to produce, within 20 hours, a huge list of documents going back three years, including everything relating to funding and any media publications.
‘In normal countries support [for disabled people] is provided by the state, whereas here all the state does is run checks on the people who provide the support.’ (NGO director)
You only have to call in at Perspectiva’s offices to see that there are no agents here, and that the organisation does immensely valuable work supporting disabled people in Russia. ’Perspectiva is a very important and professional organisation' agrees Natalya Taubina, director of‘Obshchestvenny Verdikt’ (Public Verdict), an organisation that provides free legal aid for victims of unlawful actions by the law enforcement authorities (of course, Public Verdict has not escaped inspection either). ‘In normal countries this support is provided by the state, whereas here all the state does is run checks on the people who provide the support’.
In the second phase of its inspection, ‘Memorial’ was asked to, produce, in the space of 24 hours, documents adding up to 8766 pages – the equivalent of ten copies of Tolstoy’s massive ‘War and Peace’. Although, frankly, the absurdities of the present situation are perhaps more reminiscent of writers such as Gogol or Kafka.
There is only one topic of conversation in Russia’s voluntary sector these days — who has been audited and who not. Those who haven’t yet had an inspection are preparing for one; those who have, for another one. In these circumstances it is very difficult to actually get on with the work the organisation was set up for in the first place.
Only obeying orders
‘Today I was planning to visit Boris Yeltsin’s grave’, Georgy Satanov, head of the INDEM Foundation wrote on his Facebook page a couple of days ago. ‘But I, like others, had a second visitation from the inspectors, and had to go to work. Forgive them, Boris Nikolaevich; they are only obeying orders.’
Voluntary organisations are not, in fact, the only hostages to this situation. The authorities themselves have seen their workloads increase exponentially, forced to drop what they were doing and race around the country inspecting NGOs.
Igor Kalyapin, director of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture sympathises with the bureaucrats who were forced to inspect his organisation. ‘In Nizhny Novgorod’s central district alone there are 40 NGOs to be inspected over three years. The office of the local public prosecutor, who is responsible for the process, is simply disappearing under piles of documents. When she asked me to come for an interview, she said, ‘Come whenever you like – the weekend, in the evening, at night – whenever suits you.’ Her staff are being asked to get their heads round the totally unfamiliar activities of very specific organisations: among the NGOs on the list are the Hari Krishna group, the Jewish Cultural Centre, the environmental lot and the people who rescue stray dogs. I asked her why she hadn’t asked the Ministry of Justice for information about them – after all we all have to lodge our annual reports and accounts with them. Her answer? ‘We were told to get on with it ourselves.’
Sign up as an agent
According to Tatyana Vagina, deputy director of the Justice Ministry’s NGO department, as of 15 April 528 inspections had taken place in 49 regions. None of them had been registered as a foreign agent; none of them had been judged to be involved in political activity. In the two weeks since then, however, the situation has changed considerably. NGOs have been receiving ‘warnings’ about the dire consequences of breaking the law and recommendations that they register as foreign agents.
On 25th April, Ms Vagina was in court for the first case brought against an NGO under the new law. The charge placed before the election watchdog Golos was that it had failed to register as a foreign agent. The organisation presented a convincing case that since the law came into force it had not received a penny of foreign funding, that its activities had nothing to do with politics, and so on. It was all to no avail - the organisation was fined 300,000 roubles (£6000) and its director Liliya Shibanova 100,000 roubles (£2000). Shibanova summed it up: ‘today was a test-drive for a plan to destroy every NGO in Russia.’
Golos, the only election watchdog active in Russia that is independent of the government, became the first NGO to be charged for its refusal to register as a 'foreign agent'. Photo: Polit.ru
The most surprising thing about how the ‘foreign agent law’ has worked thus far is the indecent haste with which the authorities are ‘flushing out’ agents who do not even formally meet the definition of what is very controversial legislation. The sledgehammer seems to be working in a very hit-and-miss manner, forced to stretch the law in unbelievable directions. ‘People and the Law’, an NGO working in the Mari El Republic, has been advised to register as a foreign agent because its constitution includes a clause about ‘holding to account officials who infringe human rights’, a phrase interpreted to indicate ‘political activity’. ‘Help for people with Cystic Fibrosis’, meanwhile, has been taken to task by the Moscow region prosecutor’s office for having an founding objective to ‘promote the rights and legal interests of people with cystic fibrosis with the statutory authorities’.
'Even if your organisation has been cleared of ‘agent’ status, this doesn’t mean it’s off the hook. You can be fined if your office’s electrical wiring is too old, if you haven’t installed soundproofing or if you don’t have a sign advertising your opening hours.'
The Kostroma Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee has also fallen foul of the law because its members acted, in a private capacity, as election observers (again, before the law came in to force), while several environmental organisations (the Baikal Environmental Wave in Irkutsk; the ‘Green House’ in Khabarovsk, etc.) have also been told to register, even though it is difficult to classify their remit as political in the broad and amorphous definition used in the new law.
Even if an organisation has been cleared of ‘agent’ status, this doesn’t mean it’s off the hook. You can be fined, for example, if your office’s electrical wiring is too old, if you haven’t installed soundproofing or if you don’t have a sign advertising your opening hours. One regional organisation has just been fined a total of over 600,000 roubles (£12000) – more than many Russian NGOs’ annual turnover.
Clearly, some of these unlawful and impulsive decisions will be challenged and some will be overturned. There may even be an acknowledgement of officials acting in an overzealous fashion. Might we even dare to imagine that under a principle of ‘one step forward, two steps back’, this discriminatory law might even be repealed?
Alas, even if all this happens, it will be next to impossible to undo the harm caused by these few months of mudslinging and harassment. It has simply become very difficult for the Russian public to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ NGOs.
In the speech to FSB leaders that I quoted at the beginning of this article, Vladimir Putin stated that it is his government’s intention to support the development in Russia of a strong, competent and mature civil society. The process he had in mind will presumably begin only once Russia’s fledgling, self-reliant and self-nurturing civil society has been conclusively inspected and neutralised.