Russia’s Justice Ministry Defends ‘foreign agent’ law by saying everybody has one

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)

In a case that’s been dragging on for more than two years, Moscow’s Justice Ministry has said its law against so-called “foreign agent” law on non-profits operating in Russia are no harsher than those in other countries, while Russian non-profits seek to overturn the legislation.

The ministry’s reasoning is part of a submission to the European Court of Human Rights, which is handling a suit from 62 environmental and human rights organizations operating in Russia, which are seeking to overturn government restrictions again at civil society groups operating in Russia that accept even small amounts of foreign money in grants and contributions.

It remains unclear when the case will be resolved, but if the Human Rights Court rules in favor of the non-profit groups, judges could demand that Moscow overturn a law, which numerous international groups have said is designed to stifle the Kremlin’s opponents.

The case was brought in 2013, and Russia’s Justice Ministry has asked for numerous extensions to answer the suit. But late last week, Russia’s Justice Ministry submitted a new round of responses to the Human Rights Court in which it argued that the Europe and the United States have similar laws on their books, and that Russia’s is no worse.

The foreign agent law came into effect when Russian President Vladimir Putin was the focus of enormous demonstration sparked by Kremlin assisted fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. Putin blamed the US State Department for stirring up the expansive marches and protests, which took place across all of Russia’s 11 times zones and enveloped all of the country’s major cities. Putin’s charge was outrageous, but it set the suspicious mood toward foreigners that has characterized Putin’s 18 years in power.

Under the NGO law, non-profits receiving any funding from abroad and engaged in fluidly defined “political activity” were forced to sign up with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents,” or face crippling financial penalties. Despite the threat, almost no one did.

In 2015, the Kremlin gave the Justice Ministry the prerogative of discerning political activity on its own and putting NGOs on its foreign agent blacklist. The list swelled, and more than a third of non-profits operating in Russia shut their doors to escape devastating fines and prosecution.

Those who have held on and battled their foreign agent status through the courts, however, filed a suit with the Human Rights Court demanding that the Kremlin define its slippery terms. In March of 2013, the court agreed to take up the suit.

At issue to the court are several questions. First, the court wants the Justice Ministry to determine whether its definitions of “foreign agent” and “political activity” are clear enough to be understood and enforced.

Then it wants to know how much money would constitute “foreign financing” to non-profits that receive it. Further, it wants Russia to explain how it conceived of the law in the first place, specifically whether it’s “necessary to a democratic society” and if preventing political activity is such a good idea anyway.

The Justice Ministry has sent responses to most of the questions by now, most recently in September. But the court has sought clarification on whether the law jibes with accepted practices in Europe and the United States – which the Justice Ministry says it does. In particular it cited Washington’s Foreign Agent Registration Act, which required those lobbying on behalf of foreign governments to register with authorities.

Initially put on the books in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda, the US law has gained new relevance as authorities investigate possible collaboration between the campaign of US president Donald Trump and representatives of the Russian government.

Indeed, Russia has been trying to justify its own legislation since it came into effect by citing the US law, and non-profits involved in the suit at the Human Rights Court remain unimpressed by the argument.

“Russian authorities have been struggling to convince the court that persecuting human rights and environmental organizations is just part of a world trend and that they do it in Europe and the US,” Pavel Chikov, head of the rights group Agora, which is part of the suit, told the Vedomosti Russian business daily. “But at the same time they want to paint lobbyists and politicians with the same brush as civic society activists – and it was the lack of clear boundaries that caused us to bring suit in the first place.”

The newspaper noted that the Justice Ministry has still left a number of questions from the Human Rights Court unanswered, but likewise reported that this was the last question and answer exchange before the court rendered its verdict. No date has yet been set for the decision.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no