Putin’s promises to tone down ‘foreign agent’ NGO law gets mixed reception from rights leaders

Publish date: July 5, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

In a modest easing of his stance on the rigid and controversial law branding NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity as “foreign agents,” Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with rights activists said the legislation should draw distinctions between certain types of NGOs.

Putin, who served his first two terms as president between 2000-2008, has been clamping down on dissent since he returned to the Kremlin last year, and has tried to foment anti-Western sentiment among the public as a source of political support after he faced enormous protests against his rule.

Rights advocated are also wont to abandon their mistrust of Putin,  who has waged a consistent and steady war against civil liberties for more than a decade.

Putin told the meeting of rights groups in Novo-Ogaryovo,that he is prepared to accept amendments to the law that would differentiate between groups receiving foreign funding to engage in patriotic activities, social welfare programs and deal with ecological problems, from those he characterizes as attempting to influence Russia’s internal politics or international affairs.

The latter, he said, would still be obliged to register with the Russian Justice Ministry as foreign agents, the RBK Russian news agency reported.

“This is a position we will not change,” he was quoted by Vedomosti newspaper as saying.

The meeting was also attended by Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society Development.

But clearly differentiating between the two kinds of groups would be difficult, said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona.

“Putin will never back off his insistence that those NGOs that engage in internal politics are ‘foreign agents’ – he wants them to bear the label,’” he said. “The debate is still about what constitutes interference in internal politics, and that is an academic argument that can continue ad infinitum.”

Nikitin did, however, say that Putin’s remarks signal a modest climb-down before critics of the law, which has provoked concerns among western governments and stirred Kremlin opponents to decry the law as an effort to silence them.

“Russia is a country of campaigns,” said Nikitin. “There was the construction campaign of [Soviet Premier Leonid] Brezhnev, the temperance campaign of [Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev, and the long and ongoing campaign against NGOs by Putin,” Nikitin said. “All of the other initiatives failed, and maybe the cracks in this one are becoming evident, too.”

Arbitrary NGO raids

Russian authorities ranging from local prosecutors to fire inspectors to the tax inspectorate have since March fanned out across the country and raided some 600 NGOs under the law, signed by Putin last July, in an effort to root out arbitrary violations that carry with them heavy fines.

The raids were authorized by Putin himself, who charged regional prosecutors with carrying them out because he was frustrated with the Justice Ministry’s inability to enforce the law

ERC Bellona has fallen under the heels of the pervasive inspections as well, and as a result of a prosecutorial raid on March 19, could face fire and health code fines of up to $20,000 – though ERC Bellona would appeal any ruling against it.

Nikitin and other rights campaigners have said the law, and its vague description of what constitutes “political activity” is being interpreted to broadly and arbitrarily, and targets groups involved in conducting public opinion surveys, countering discrimination against homosexuals, offering medical consultations and assistance, advocating for the environment, and even groups running wildlife preserves and animal shelters.

Only one NGO that receives foreign assistance has registered as a foreign agent under the new law, which took effect in November – the little known Supporting Competition in CIS Countries group. The remainder of Russian NGOs have refused to register themselves under the foreign agent moniker, which smacks heavily in Russian of Soviet spy-mania.

‘Mishaps have occurred’

In his remarks to rights advocates yesterday in Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin seemed to acknowledge that prosecutors and tax inspectors conduction the raids had cast their net too widely.

“I see that in practice, unfortunately, certain mishaps that we did not foresee are occurring,” Putin was quoted by Reuters as telling the gathering.

“It’s necessary to separate (NGOs) involved in political and social issues and not to cause trouble to organizations that only deal with social and healthcare issues,” he said.

Putin ordered his administration to analyze and amend the law to avoid ambiguity, but made clear that foreign-funded NGOs deemed to be involved in politics would still be forced to register.

“If people are involved in domestic politics and receive cash from abroad, society has the right to know which organizations these are and who funds them,” he said.

How to make the distinctions

Nikitin, who has close relations to many people who attended the meeting with Putin, predicted that NGOs connected with vote monitoring, like Golos – which has already been fined $13,000 and suspended for six months for refusing to register – human rights organizations such as Amnesty and Memorial, anti-corruption groups like Transparency International, and any group attempting to influuence Russia’s foreign relations would continue to fall under the boot of the foreign agent law.

Raids likely to continue

Nikitin did not foresee that the unprecedented number of unannounced swoops on NGOs by authorities in search of arbitrary health or fire code violations would cease in any significant way.

“It’s a tool of intimidation for local authorities,” said Niktin, “a way of stamping out local nuisances.”

But he also predicted the fines materializing from such raids would serve only to cease the work of small organizations.

Speaking of the allegations directed against ERC Bellona by the fire, health and tax inspectorates, Niktin said, “Fines will not close our doors, but they can certainly close the doors of smaller organizations.”

Nikitin also said the zeal with which regional prosecutors carry out raids depends on geography.

“The Murmansk region has been milder in its approach, where St. Petersburg and Moscow have seen wide scale raids,” he said.

He noted that Bellona Murmansk had received a simple telephone invitation to deliver documents about its activities to local prosecutors, where ERC Bellona had been given a mere two days to assemble some 15 tomes of information about every aspect of the organization, from its office specifications to its mandate.

Others to whom Niktin spoke about the meeting with Putin said that even though the Russian president seemed agreeable the notion of amending the law to protect certain NGOs from registering as foreign agents, “there still isn’t any timeframe established, and no legislative work has so far been done to draft the amendment.”

Late last month, however, during the G20 Civil Summit in Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvokovich said he is “prepared to hand over a package of amendments to the NGO legislation to the Russian government and support them as a citizen.”

Dvorkovich’s proposed amendments have not yet been made public.

Government funding for NGOs proposed

At the meeting, Putin also offered that the federal government would pump some 3 billion rubles ($90.4 million) into a fund to be created for helping finance NGOs, Vedomosti newspaper reported. 

These state funds would be administered by the Civil Dignity movement, directed by Elle Pamfilova, a respected veteran human rights advocate. 

Pamfilova, who served as the head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights during the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev until 2010, was quoted by The Moscow Times as saying it would be a “tough decision” for her to accept the distribution of the funds.