A recent report delivered to Russia’s Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Right says the number of NGOs operating in the country since its strict “foreign agent” law took effect two years has shrunk by a third.
The report, complied by the Perspektiva program and was presented to the Presidential Council earlier this month as part of the Soobshchestvo, or Community, conference.
Alexander Svinin, head of the Perspektiva project said that overall, the number of NGOs operating in Russia since the Kremlin’s foreign agent NGO law took effect in November 2012 had declined by 33 percent, the Interfax Russian newswire reported.
Apparently unimpressed by the number of NGOs who voluntarily signed up to be called foreign agents – a term associated in Russian with treason – President Vladimir Putin in June 2014 granted the Justice Ministry sweeping powers to name foreign agents on its own.
The list immediately began to grow, swamping dozens of NGOs in costly, protracted court battles to clear their names of the foreign agent status, or in fines they are unable to pay. Many groups have elected to dissolve their status as NGOs, while others sought out other legal ways that they can continue to operate.
Yet others have decided to completely ignore mounting fines and court proceedings.
Decrease in NGOs no coincidence
Svinin’s report was reluctant to tie the decline in NGOs to the 2012 laws ushered in by Putin, but the numbers were clear. The law requires non-profits receiving foreign funding and engaging in vaguely defined “political activity” to declare themselves “foreign agents,” or large fines and possible disbandment.
Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg, said the downward spiral of operating NGOs as identified in Svinin’s report was no coincidence.
“The goal of the current powers are to suppress public activity in all aspects of life,” said Nikitin in an email interview.
“As such, the number of NGOs and activists is dropping – fear, financial problems, bureaucratic hurdles – these are tools of the current regime and they are using them,” he said.
Environmental and human rights groups in cross hairs
Indeed, the past months have seen increasingly harsh tactics used against environmental and human rights NGOs in particular, something Presidential Human Rights Council Chairman Mikhail Fedotov noted in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on October 1.
Fedotov called the Justice Ministry’s campaign to net ecological and human rights organizations a “witch hunt,” according to the official Tass Russian newswire.
The reasons for the inclusion of environmental and human rights NGOs on the foreign agent list are often bizarre and arbitrary, Fedotov pointed out, citing the Justice Ministry’s recent the inclusion of Sakhalin Environmental Watch and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
The Committee for the Prevention of Torture wound up on the list for supposed “political activity.” Fedotov noted that the political activity cited by the Justice Ministry was based on the fact that the group’s chairman – like dozens of other NGO leaders – also sits on Putin’s own Presidential Human Rights Council.
Sakhalin Environmental Watch was called a “foreign agent” for alleged political activities as well. These activities included the group’s reposting of another NGOs petition calling on President Vladimir Putin to protect the Arctic from oil spills to its own social media page.
Fedotov’s examples were trenchant but far from exhaustive. Other environmental groups that have been forcibly included on the foreign agent list for equally dubious political reasons include Bellona Murmansk, Ecodefense, and Planet of Hopes.
Bellona Murmansk managed to plead down the 300,000 ruble fine (or $4,400 by current exchange rates) levied against it. But why was the group deemed a foreign agent?
“The Ministry of Justice thinks we are political because we’ve written that current [Russian] legislation makes it more profitable for industry to pay fines for pollution than putting in place environmental measures” to prevent pollution, said the group’s Anna Kireeva.
The group last week was forced to disband as an NGO, and is now seeking alternative legal routes to pursue its work on nuclear issues, renewable energy and industrial pollution.
Ecodefense’s co-chair Vladimir Slivyak said the Justice Ministry designated his group as a foreign agent for protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant – something the Justice Ministry said was tantamount to protesting the state itself.
Instead of fighting the fines and the foreign agent designation in court, Slivyak told Bellona his group has simply chosen to refuse the demands of Russian officialdom and continue its business. So far, the civil disobedience has worked.
Treason charges sneaking into the campaign
More ominous is the case of Planet of Hopes, whose director Nadezhda Kutepova was forced to flee Russia with her three children when it became apparent Moscow might charge her with treason.
Her group worked to protect the rights of victims of radiation accidents in her small closed nuclear town, Ozersk, where Russia’s notorious Mayak Chemical Combine is located. Planet of Hopes was forced onto the foreign agent list in April for receiving a foreign grant in 2008 – four years before the NGO law took effect.
She was further targeted for remarks she made in a June 2014 interview with Bellona’s Russian-language news pages in which she presented the radiation dangers still facing residents of the Chelyabinsk Region, where Ozersk is located.
Kutepova has received political asylum in France, but warned in an interview with Bellona over the weekend that several other ecological NGOs working with victims of Mayak may see treason charges filed against them.
ERC Bellona’s Nikitin said that levying treason charges has been made all the easier in recent years by changes in Russian security laws, turning them into banana peels any journalist or environmentalist could slip on. This is doubly so for anyone living or working in a closed nuclear city, like Kutepova’s hometown of Ozersk, where local affairs are dictated by the defense and security services, said Nikitin.
“People living in these cities are walking a razor’s edge and risking a charges of espionage – and that was especially so for Kutepova,” he said. “There are too many reasons [provided by the new security laws] to charge her with treason,” said Nikitin.