In troubling déjà vu, Russian government says foreign agent nonprofits are getting millions

NGO Grafitti In November 2012, the day the 'foreign agents' law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, 'Foreign Agent!' and 'Love USA' on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. (Photo: Yulia Klimova/Memorial)

Russia’s Justice Ministry reported that nonprofit civil society groups in the country received more than a billion dollars in funding from abroad in 2016, but said the number of those it tarred as foreign agents last year fell by almost half.

Because the ministry didn’t specify who received those funds, its assertion is impossible to verify. But the numbers mirror those floated by Vladimir Putin in 2013 when he told a national television audience that foreign funded NGOs were receiving more than $300,000 a month from abroad, and used that outrageous figure to justify a crushing crackdown.

This year, the Justice Ministry’s figures are more modest. According to statistics reported by the business daily Vedemosti, 45 nonprofits that the ministry specifies as foreign agents received $14.8 million dollars, or an average of $330,000 a piece – a figure well beyond what most foreign agents ever receive.

The paper further said that $1.2 billion had flowed in from abroad and had been distributed across 4,322 NGOS operating in Russia.

The Justice Ministry named the United States, Germany, Norway, Cyprus and Great Britain as the main financiers of civil society work in Russia. The ministry singled out the British Embassy, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Heinrich Böll Foundation as the main grant givers.

The ministry also posted financial figures on foreign agents for the previous year, saying they received $16.6 million in 2015.

russian ministry of justice The Russian Ministry of Justice. (Source: minjust.ru)

Vedemosti reported that the Justice Ministry had slapped the foreign agent label on fewer nonprofits last year. In 2016, the number of foreign agent NGOs on the ministry’s list totaled 154, and it added another four during the first quarter of 2017.

But the ministry said the number of NGOs it tarred with the label in 2016 actually fell by nearly half. If during its record-breaking year of 2015 it named 81 foreign agents, then last year it named only 43. Further, it said, there were 14 NGOs that managed to fight their way off the list in court battles.

Another 16, however, were said to have “liquidated” as a result of being called foreign agents. Those would have been organizations that couldn’t pay fines or who couldn’t afford lengthy court battles to try to get their names removed from the foreign agent list.

In total, the Justice Ministry said it collected $138,000 by fining NGOs that disputed their inclusion on the list.

Although the financial figures posted by the ministry are more conservative than Putin’s outlandish charges of four years ago, some former and current NGO directors are now looking over their shoulders in expectation of further repressive steps.

“That’s a big figure,” said Andrei Zolotkov, the former chairman of Bellona Murmansk, which dissolved in 2015 after being called a foreign agent. “Without specifying concrete NGOs, you can name any figure, and the bigger it is, the bigger the threat will seem from NGOs with foreign financing.”

Russia’s troubled nonprofit sector has been on the Kremlin’s hit list since 2012, the year the Parliament pushed through the NGO law in retaliation for enormous street protests that Putin charged were financed by the West.

Under the law, any nonprofit receiving any of its funding from abroad, and engaged in so-called “political activity,” is designated as a “foreign agent,” a pregnant term associated with espionage. The Justice Ministry then keeps them on a blacklist and forces them through arduous audits, fines them, and routinely shuts them down.

Ever since, the term “political activity” has been applied so broadly that it’s impossible to define.

Bellona Murmansk was accused of political activity for publishing a report on industrial pollution. The Environmental Rights Center Bellona in Petersburg was called a foreign agent in January for hosting a website. The Kola Ecological Center, which was called a foreign agent last month, landed on the blacklist because some of its members attended a public hearing at the Kola nuclear power plant.

Several attempts to massage the law’s language to at least define what political activity is have come to nothing.

Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora human rights and legal assistance organization – which was sued out of existence last year – told Vedemosti that foreign agents get less than one percent of all foreign funding going to NGOs in Russia.

“That means that the pressure isn’t over financing, but over what a concrete organization does, which the authorities don’t like,” he said.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no