Russian NGOs blast Putin’s estimate they have received nearly $1 billion in last four months

Still from German television

Publish date: April 9, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

Numerous representatives of Russian NGOs took umbrage with the accuracy of president Vladimir Putin’s accounting to German television in which he stated that non-governmental organizations had received close to a billion dollars since the country’s controversial new “foreign agent” NGO law was signed in 2012, the Moscow Times reported.

In the interview broadcast Friday, Putin said there were 654 active NGOs in Russia being funded from abroad, meaning each organization receives an average of $382,000 a month, according to the paper’s calculations.

Putin made the comment to dismiss German criticism of the recent wave of inspections of Russian nongovernmental organizations, said the paper.

“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 ($905 million),” he told Germany’s ARD television channel, as quoted by the Moscow Times.

“These are organizations engaged in domestic political activities. Shouldn’t our society know who is getting this money and what it is for?” Putin said, according to the paper.

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona immediately slammed the figures presented by Putin as vastly overestimated to the point of being an “outright lie.”

“They have a problem with basic arithmetic – I don’t know where Putin and his inner circle went to school, and further have no idea on what they base this overestimation,” said Nikitin. “ I think he just made it up, because I don’t know of a single NGO in Russia that received anywhere near $382,000 a month.”

Nikitin said Putin’s remarks were a disingenuous shot at NGOs in Russia to cast them in a poor light.

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

Government agency says Putin’s figure five times too high

Nikitin added that Putin was recently more and more prone to evading the truth, and that ERC Bellona had not received “even a fraction of the amounts” Putin cited as flowing from foreign donors.

According to the Ministry of Economic Development, as cited by Vedomosti, losses in financing from foreign donors put yearly figures received from abroad by NGOs at about five times less than the billion-dollar figure cited by Putin.

Russian daily Vedomosti on Monday quoted Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying the president was citing confidential information obtained by the security services, said the Moscow Times.

Scolded by Merkel and greeted by topless protesters

Putin’s remarks to German television came during a visit to a trade fair in Hannover, Germany, where he was greeted by topless female protesters who had written “Go to hell Putin” across their backs in Russian.

He was also chastized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the recent swoops on some 2,000 NGOs in Russia with a wide array of governmental departments such as the Prosecutor General, the fire department and the health inspectorate.

An overwhelming majority of these NGOs, including ERC Bellona, could now face fines as much as $20,000, ostensibly for health and fire code violations. 

“This is about NGOs being able to work well and freely,” Merkel said, as quoted by Reuters. “A lively civil society can only emerge when individuals can operate without fear or worry, of course on the basis of law.”

Tatyana Lokshina of Moscow’s Human Rights Watch told the Moscow Times that, beyond adopting the draconian new law on NGOs, the current Kremlin campaign was leading to systematic harassment of NGOs, including threats and intimidation of activists and their family members.

Indeed, in November – the month the law took effect – the offices of Memorial and For Human Rights were vandalized. The anti-corruption group Transparency International was also targeted by pro-Kremlin youth groups for vociferous demonstrations, demanding the organization register as a “foreign agent.”

So far, no NGOs have registered themselves as foreign agents and say they will refused to do so, including ERC Bellona.

NGO heads dumfounded by Putin’s figures

Like Nikitin, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the elder human rights activist in Russia and the head of the Moscow Helsinki group, immediately questioned Putin’s figures and said they were overestimated.

“This is being done to show that these organizations allegedly have money to burn. Everyone influences public opinion in the way they see fit,” Alekseyeva told Interfax on Monday.

“I believe it’s overestimated because even if this much money was paid in such a short period of time, I would know the organizations that received this money, and I don’t know such organizations,” she said.

Other groups like vote-monitoring organization Golos toted up the amount of foreign funding they had received for this year.

“For this year, we have only received 16,000 euros ($21,000) from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and 100,000 from the European Commission,” Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, told the Moscow Times. “This funding will be spent on concrete projects that will span longer than a year and will not be connected with election monitoring.”

Golos has come under special scrutiny by the Kremlin since revealing massive vote fraud in December 2011’s Duma elections, which ignited huge demonstrations that lasted for months in Moscow and other large Russian cities.

One NGO leader, who asked that his name not be used, told Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper that Putin should publicize the list of the 654 NGOs he claims received $1 billion over the last four months.

Sergei Nikitin, head of Amnesty International’s office in Moscow – which was also targeted in the recent “unannounced inspections” by authorities – told the Moscow Times the same.

He said that if Putin had a list of 654 NGOs that receive foreign funding, it should be made public because the Justice Ministry already collects this information.

According to an earlier law on NGOs was passed in 2006, all NGOs have to present their reports to the Justice Ministry every year. These reports are public and can be perused on the ministry’s website, though many that have reported to the Justice Ministry are missing, according to a Moscow Times perusal of the site.

United Russia party suggests confiscating foreign funds

In yet another strike against NGOS, Mikhail Starshinov, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has suggested introducing legislation to confiscate foreign funding from organizations receiving funding from abroad if they do not register as foreign agents, Kommersant newspaper reported Monday.

Starshinov called his initiative a “preventive measure,” Kommersant reported, as quoted by the Moscow Times. The seized funds, according to Starshinov, should be collected in a special fund that would then allocate them to child care or to projects to help disabled people.