On 8 July, two of Russia’s largest NGOs—the Committee against Torture (KPP), which investigates police violence and abuse of power, and one of the country’s most active voluntary organisations, and Dynasty, a charitable foundation funding educational and scientific projects—announced that they were closing down.
The reason? Earlier that day, Russia’s Federation Council finally published a list of 12 organisations, whose activities were to be investigated by the General Prosecutor’s Office, Foreign and Justice Ministries regarding their compliance with Russian law.
As organisations receiving funding from abroad, KPP and Dynasty had been recently added to the official register of ‘foreign agents’; and both decided that they could no longer work under such conditions.
KPP, founded in 2000, has not yet decided on its future, and may split into four or more smaller organisations, each with a separate remit. It will take the decision in the next month, but it is already clear that it will be difficult to continue its human rights ‘flying squad’ project.
This project was set up in 2009 after KPP decided to look closely into crimes committed by the police and local authorities in Chechnya; and now has more than 230 cases of alleged torture under investigation, and another 100 at a preliminary stage.
Dynasty, which was set up by Dmitry Zimin, founder of the Russian mobile telecommunications giant VimpelCom, has also not yet announced any plans for the future.
Russian NGOs are often the main port of call for Russian prisoners. Max Avdeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
KPP and Dynasty announced their closure on the day the Federation Council, Russia’s upper legislative chamber, made public its so-called ‘patriotic stop list’: a list of 12 foreign NGOs that will probably be declared ‘undesirable’ in Russia.
The list includes such big players as Open Society Foundations (financed by George Soros), the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the MacArthur Foundation, The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Freedom House, all US based, as well as the Education for Democracy Foundation and East European Democratic Centre (both based in Poland), the Ukrainian World Congress, Ukrainian World Coordination Council and the Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights.
This list was forwarded to the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, and the Prosecutor General’s Office. If the organisations on it are indeed declared undesirable, they will be banned from working in Russia, and anyone working with them will risk a fine or even criminal charges.
In other words, Russian NGOs will be cut off from at least half of their funding, as over the last few years, US and British NGOs have become an important source of support for Russian rights organisations.
Turning the screws
The ‘Stop list’ bill, signed into law by President Putin at the end of May, is the latest turn of the government screws on Russia’s NGO sector. The clampdown began two years ago, when officials started carrying out inspections of organisations under the ‘foreign agents’ law that applies to all NGOs receiving foreign funding that engage in ‘political activity’ (which can include, for example, environmental groups).
In practice, the maximum penalty for breaking the ‘foreign agents’ law is a fine of up to 600,000 roubles (£6,775), a hefty sum, but not a fatal one for large organisations.
The new undesirable organisations law imposes much more serious sanctions: a foreign or international NGO can be declared ‘undesirable’ if it ‘represents a threat to the basis of Russia’s constitutional order, its defence capability or the safety of the state’.
The law gives the Prosecutor General and his representatives almost unlimited powers: with the agreement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs they can ban organisations from carrying out any programmes or projects on Russian territory, which basically means they can just stop NGOs working in Russia.
Basically they can just stop ‘undesirable’ NGOs funding anything in Russia
The law also introduces practical obstacles to Russian NGOs’ receiving grants from abroad: banks and other financial institutions must refuse to carry out financial or other property transactions with an organisation that has been declared undesirable.
The fact of the refusal has to be registered and forwarded to the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which will then forward it to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice.
Meanwhile, anyone attempting to work for an undesirable organisation in Russia can be fined between 5,000 and 100,000 roubles (£56-£1,128), depending on their level of responsibility within the organisation, and if they are fined twice in any given year they can be charged with a criminal offence and fined 300,000-500,000 roubles (£3,385-£5,642)—around a year’s salary for the average Russian.
Courts can also impose community service of up to 360 hours or a prison sentence of two to six years, and the law gives no guidance as to when one or other penalty is appropriate – judges must evidently decide for themselves whether to impose a fine or a prison term.
As yet, the Federation Council’s list of organisations has no actual force in law, but the chances are that they will be declared undesirable and will be unable to operate any further. Russian NGOs will then be forced to freeze all contacts with the bodies in question.
‘Nobody wants to go to jail’, says Yelena Topoleva-Soldunova, a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights. ‘So the chances are that not only will our NGOs stop working with undesirable organisations, but the foreign funders themselves will not risk contact with their Russian beneficiaries.’ For their part, Russian NGOs will be forced to freeze all contacts with the ‘undesirables’.
Topoleva-Soldunova gives me just one telling example of these closures. ‘The Mott Foundation has been involved over the last 15 years in the community foundation movement’, she says.
The first community foundation was set up in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio, and they now operate across the world. Community foundations are designed to pool donations into a co-ordinated investment and grant-making facility to improve a given town or region, as decided by the local community, and are an important means of fostering the development of civil society at a local and regional level. ‘There are about 50 foundations now in Russia,’ Yelena tells me.
‘They not only collect and distribute money from individuals and businesses, but attract government funding as well, while grants are awarded on a competitive basis. And the Mott Foundation was the first organisation to support this scheme in Russia.’ That good work might now be at risk.
The disappearance of these funding organisations will inevitably lead to the closure of many social and human rights projects in Russia. It is already happening. On 21 July, the MacArthur Foundation announced the closure of its Moscow office. Its parting statement summarises very well the sense of regret at what is happening.
Standfirst image: Correctional Facility 32, Perm, Russia. Max Avdeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.