Russia’s Ministry of Justice has slapped five more non-governmental organizations with the “foreign agent” label five days following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature on new law allowing the Ministry to apply the controversial moniker without an organization’s consent, the official Interfax news agency reported.
Prior to the Justice Ministry move over the weekend, only one NGO in Russia had officially registered as a foreign agent, and had done so voluntarily – a little known legal organization facilitating trade law between Russia and the former Soviet republics.
Putin signed the law granting the Justice Ministry the authority to force NGOs to be named as foreign agent June 4. Should organizations then fail to register themselves as such, they will face fines, though the law does provide for organizations to appeal the designation in court.
According to Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, the new law allowing the Justice Ministry to hand out the foreign agent label is a natural turn in events.
“The authorities have long been asking why there is a law for agents if there are no agents registered – this new law makes the process easer,” said Nikitin. “Now the Justice Ministry can register organizations as agents and let the organizations fight the designation in court.”
In turn, he said, this will drain NGOs of resources as they fight interminable court battles.
“The burden is now shifted to NGOs to wash themselves clean of the label,” said Nikitin. “And it will progress like this – if an NGO has foreign ties, it’s a matter of time before it finds itself on the list and immersed in litigation that effectively stops its work.”
New additions to the ‘foreign agent’ list
The new NGOs that have been labeled foreign agents include election monitoring organization Golos as well as the regional Golos organization, the Kostroma Center for Support of Civil Initiatives, the Saratov-based Center for Social Policies and Gender Studies and the regional rights group, the Union of Don Women, reported the agency.
A statement released on the Justice Ministry’s website (in Russian) said the organizations had been given the label “in accordance with the entrance into force of court decisions confirming political activities financed by foreign sources of funding, that is the implementation of activities in the capacity of non-commercial organizations fulfilling the function of a foreign agent.”
Court battles mounting
Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s human rights ombudsman and head of the NGO Civic Dignity, told Interfax that she intends to assist a number of NGOs, including Golos, file complaints against the Justice Ministry for their involuntary inclusion in the foreign agent list.
“The weakness of this law is that the procedure for including an organization in the list is poorly formulated – what kind of organizations, on the basis of what decisions. There’s a lot of ambiguity,” Pamfilova told Interfax. “For instance, if an organization has refused foreign financing, must it always carry the foreign agent label? If so, what incentive is there to turn from foreign to Russian financing?”
The Moscow Times, citing another Interfax report on Monday, quoted Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants as saying, “This will in no way affect our work.
“Our association is in the process of liquidation,” Melkonyants continued, according to the paper. “As for our regional group, that already hasn’t been working for a while.”
He said his organization’s lawyers were preparing a complaint to set a precedent.
New law just another new beginning
Other NGOs can reasonably expect to find themselves on the new involuntary foreign agent list in the near future.
A Moscow court last August found in favor of ruling Transparency International as a foreign agent. A higher court of appeals let the original decision stand in December, according to the Interfax report.
On May 23, the same Moscow court found against Memorial, Russia’s oldest rights organization, saying it must register as a foreign agent. In December, a St. Petersburg court had handed down the same ruling for that city’s chapter of Memorial.
“The Justice Ministry will continue to work against NGOs and fight the label for years in court, only to find they are still foreign agents,” said Nikitin.