Russian NGOs undergoing unprecedented Kremlin sweeps

Publish date: April 2, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian authorities are raiding non-governmental organizations to make sure they comply with a law intended to stem foreign meddling in Russian politics, President Vladimir Putin said last week, eliciting cries from the US State Department that the Kremlin’s repressive new regime in on a “witch hunt.”

The swoops on NGOs began on March 19, when Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, was the focus of a so-called unannounced inspection by an array of officials from the Russia Prosecutor General to the health department and fire officials.

The Prosecutor General gave ERC Bellona a mere three days to produced requested documents that would have taken months to assemble ranging from financial documents, the groups honorary titles, medals, and certificates of merit, as well as documents on whether ERC Bellona employees receive regular chest x-rays. On Wednesday, ERC Bellona’s director, Nikolai Rybakov, will appear at the Prosecutor General’s office in St. Petersburg, where it is hoped he will learn of ERC’s status following the raid.

The participation of the fire, labor and health departments in many reported checks beginning with Bellona ­– groups with no affiliation with the NGO ­– baffled Pavel Chikov, a member of the presidential human rights council, he said in an interview with Bellona Tuesday.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge called the wide-ranging crackdowns “another act of paranoia from Putin’s increasingly frightened government, which is borrowing tricks from the past to suppress social dialogue.”

In the week following the raid on Bellona, the checks swept throughout Russia, and some 2,000 NGOs have thus far been checked in a move that is criticized by Kremlin critics as intimidation. Alexander Nikitin, chairman of ERC Bellona said as many as 5,000 NGOs in St. Petersburg alone would be facing checks.

Midweek, special attention was focused by authorities on Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization, and the anti-corruption group Transparency International.

The crackdown comes as an enforcement measure of the recent Russian law requiring all NGOs with foreign funding that engage in vaguely defined political activities to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents.” Leading Russian NGOs have denounced the law as impossibly vague.

The new laws came into effect in November, and the majority of Russia’s NGOs that receive foreign funding boycotted registering themselves as foreign agents – a term that is pregnant with Stalin-era spy scares. Further, the Russian Justice Ministry complained to the Duma that it had been provided no guidelines on how NGOs could follow the law, going so far in January as to turn away those NGOs who did wish to register in line with the new statutes.

Putin subsequently turned over enforcement activities to the Prosecutor General and Federal Security Service, or FSB, the KGB’s successor organization.

International outcry

France and Germany have summoned Russia’s ambassadors to explain the recent searches, while the US, Britain and the EU have expressed concern, AP reported.  

Russia’s rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, asked Putin about the raids, saying they have been conducted for no apparent reason, Russian media reported.  

Kremlin says its combatting money laundering

Putin responded that the goal was to “check whether the groups’ activities conform with their declared goals and whether they are abiding by the Russian law that bans foreign funding of political activities.”

Hours before he spoke, the prosecutor general’s office said the raids aimed to weed out underground groups and combat money laundering.

Who is ‘political’?

Although rights activists such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have faced the most pressure, the Russian searches have also affected groups offering French-language courses in Siberia and those promoting bird-watching, Reuters reported.

“The prosecutor general’s office has become a kind of repressive machine, instead of serving as institution that enforces the law,” Sergei Krivenko, another member of the presidential human rights council said.

US State Department calls swoops a ‘witch hunt’

In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland slammed what she called a Russian “witch hunt” against non-governmental organizations.

“These inspections appear to be aimed at undermining important civil society activities across the country,” Nuland told reporters in Washington, adding that the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, has expressed his displeasure to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Nuland said the laws passed last year by Moscow impose “harsh restrictions on NGO activity in Russia.”

“They are chilling the environment for civil society, which is taking Russian democracy in the wrong direction,” she added.

Nuland said the US was continuing its support for Russian advocacy groups, using platforms outside of Russia to direct funds to organizations.

This is all the more difficult as The US Agency for International Development (USAID), the main US conduit for funding Russian civil society efforts, was expelled from Moscow as early as October.

Putin, who returned to the presidency in May, has repeatedly accused NGOs of being fronts allowing the U.S. government to interfere in Russia’s affairs.