Russian authorities signal they will continue raids on NGOs in search of ‘foreign agents’

Photo: Russian Justic Ministy

Publish date: April 12, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia’s office of the Prosecutor General has signaled its intentions to continue inspections on all 654 non-governmental organizations operating in the country that receive foreign funding, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

The Prosecutor General has also said these organizations have received nearly $1 billion in foreign financing over the last four months, and that it can furnish documentary proof, Ekho Moskvy radio station reported.

The Prosecutor has yet to offer this proof, or to make public a list of the 654 NGOs that received this funding.

The Prosecutor General said further to the Interfax news agency that a number of NGOs in the country are refusing to comply with the sweep of inspections

The Ministry of Justice meanwhile posted a report (in Russian) on its website regarding the number of planned and unannounced checks on NGOs it had performed in 2012. The report said the Justice Ministry requires more powers to continue NGO inspections.

The Prosecutor General was also quoted by the radio station as saying the new foreign agent law is in line with a law in the United States requiring foreign funded organizations to register with the government as well. But Bellona and other Russian NGOs like Transparency International have repeatedly refuted that claim.

Prosecutor’s statement bolsters Putin claim

The remarks by the Prosecutor General seem aimed at outcry earlier this week from NGOs toward an interview President Vladimir Putin gave Germany’s ARD television last Friday in which he claimed NGOs had received 28 billion roubles ($905 million) in the four months since Russia’s stiff new law requiring NGOs engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” register as “foreign agents.”

So far, NGOs, including Bellona, have boycotted the registration.

The Moscow Times quoted Putin as telling the German broadcaster that: “For four months after we adopted the respective law on these organizations’ accounts, can you imagine how much money came [to them] from abroad? You can’t imagine […] 28.3 billion rubles.”

The paper quoted him further as saying: “These are organizations engaged in domestic political activities. Shouldn’t our society know who is getting this money and what it is for?”

According to calculations by the Moscow Times, the supposed 28 billion rouble influx to NGOs would mean each of the 654 Putin cited are receiving $382,000 a month.

Prominent NGOs heads in Russia, including the Environment and Right Center (ERC) Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin and Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest NGO, bashed the figure, both saying they were not aware of any non-governmental organization in Russia that was receiving such large sums of money.

Nikitin added that: “This is obviously an attempt to make NGOs look bad, as if they are rolling in money. But this is a lie, and at such high level politics, Putin cannot lie.”

A month of intensive sweeps

Beginning last month, Russian NGOs, including ERC Bellona, have been subject to staggering numbers of unannounced inspections by Russian authorities and threatened with fines. The inspection groups include an array of officials from the Prosecutor’s office to the fire department and health and sanitary inspectorates.

On Wednesday, ERC Bellona Executive Director Nikolai Rybakov was summoned to the St. Petersburg prosecutors’ office for the second time in as many weeks to find out if the organization would be fined as much as $20,000 for various alleged infractions found when his office was raided on March 20.

Despite 15 tomes of information assembles for prosecutors by ERC Bellona, prosecutors again postponed a decision without explanation.

On Friday, Bellona Murmansk Director Andrei Zolotkov said his office had received a telephone call from local prosecutors asking that it deliver a number of documents by Monday.

Zolotkov who is attending a conference in Moscow, said he had not received the called directly, but said his organization would do what was required of it.

Why have the inspections become so massive?

Marina Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General’s Office, Wednesday told ITAR-TASS that, “at first it was planned to check the observance of the legislation on non-governmental organizations in 20 regions in the selective way.”

She said, however, that during the course of the initial inspections, prosecutors received information that from the time the foreign agent law came into effect on November 21, the 654 NGOs cited by Putin had received  “more than 28.3 billion roubles from abroad,” ITAR-TASS quoted her as saying.

Gridneva told the agency that when it was discovered that none of the NGOs initially inspected had registered as foreign agents, prosecutors decided to inspect NGOs in all of Russia’s regions.

According to an unnamed source who spoke to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, ITAR-TASS reported, Putin is seeking to deplete the funding of NGOs, who he says are working together to foment “Orange Revolutions,” in reference to the 2004-2005 political unrest in Ukraine when presidential elections there were marred by charges of massive corruption, and drew out hundreds of thousands of protesters.  

But the how exactly an organization is to register as a foreign agent remains murky. When the law took effect, the organization Shchit i Mech (Shield and Sword) did seek to register with the Justice Ministry. But the organization was told that, because it was an NGO, the Justice Ministry could not provide it with the information, the Moscow Times reported at the time.

Prosecution for prize money

At present, only Golos, the vote-monitoring NGO is being prosecuted for not registering itself as a foreign agent.

Golos revealed massive vote fraud during the December 2011 elections to the Russian Duma, which sparked months of street protests in Moscow and throughout Russia.

Administrative proceedings initiated by the Justice Ministry opened against Golos on Wednesday

Golos Deputy Executive Director Grigoriy Melkonyants yesterday told the Russian news portal that there were no grounds for designating the organization as a foreign agent.

Melkonyants said that so far Golos has been presented with two administrative indictments, on against its executive director, Liliya Shibanova, and another against the organization itself.

Shibanova earlier this week told RIA Novosti that the group has not received foreign funding since the foreign agent law took effect.

But according to Melkonyants, the Justice Ministry is seeking to label the group as a foreign agent for its receipt in 2012 of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee prize – or so-called Sakharov Prize – which awarded the group €7,728, quoted him as saying.

If found guilty of not registering itself as a foreign agent the group could be fined as much as 500,000 roubles ($16,000) and Shibanova up to 300,000 roubles ($10,000), the BBC  reported.