Russia names 100th ‘foreign agent’ in baffling new crackdown on NGOs and foreigners

russian ministry of justice The Russian Ministry of Justice. (Source: minjust.ru)

The Russian Ministry of Justice has named a total of 100 “foreign agents” NGOs as of this week, and has tabled a new bill that would immediately shut down non-profits it deems guilty of repeated failures to inform the Ministry of their activities, Russian media reported.

The Justice Ministry also forwarded another bill, which it presented to the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, that would forbid government officials from taking part in activities sponsored by foreign agent NGOs, the newsru.ru portal reported.

The bill would likewise forbid government employees from sitting on boards of foreign agent NGOs, which should prove particularly difficult for the functioning of the Presidential Council itself. The group includes a number of NGO heads whose organizations have been tarred with the foreign agent label.

The bill goes further to suggest banning Russian citizens and companies from communicating with foreign and international organizations without authorization from the Russian government, said newsru.ru.

putin fedotov Putin (far left), Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin (center) and Chairman of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Mikhail Fedotov at a 2012 meeting. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

It would also forbid government officials from traveling abroad on unofficial business with money obtained from foreign governments, foreign organizations, foreign individuals, and Russian organizations obtaining funding from abroad without official permission, said the portal citing reports from Tass.

These new laws and amendments are another step for Russia toward dictatorship, and isolating itself from the rest of the world,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director. “To both strangle civil society in Russia and make it illegal to cooperate with foreign organizations will make Russia turn its back on the future.”

Where is this all coming from?

The sheer breadth of bad news for NGOs and paranoia over contact with foreigners that’s exploded over the past week stymied Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona.

“One gets the impression that some kind of game is afoot, or some imitation of work that would be performed by the Ministry has been contrived – all for the purpose of having something to say should the president or parliament ask [the Ministry] ‘what are you doing?’” said Nikitin in an email interview.

“And then they will show how many organizations they have put on the list of agents, and how many they’ve taken off,” added Nikitin. “This is a useless and harmful practice – it is not to anyone’s benefit, least of all the government’s.”

Who is number 100?

As for the identity of the 100th member of the Justice Ministry’s list, there’s some confusion: Newsru.ru said the milestone slot went to the Omsk-based “Sobytie” photography club. But other media reports indicate the Krasnoyarsk-based Friends of Siberian Forests was actually the 100th recipient of foreign agent status.

A Justice Ministry release vaguely credits both with being the 100th foreign agent NGO.

That the nature conservancy organization would be registered as the 100th foreign agent – or at least tie for the spot – is consistent with recent moves by the Justice Ministry against ecological groups, which Presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council head Mikhail Fedotov early last month called a “witch hunt”.

“The decision to include these organizations in the roster has been taken by the Ministry of Justice based on the results of a review of materials they have furnished,” said the Justice Ministry in its terse statement.

The continued hammering of non-profits by the 2012 law on NGOs has over the last three years reduced the number of civil society groups operating in Russia by 33 percent, said a report delivered to Fedotov’s council in late October.

Shell game with agent groups

The apparent confusion over which organization gets the big number 100 is due to scratching another organization late last week from the foreign agent list.

“Every day someone gets designated as an agent, and from someone’s proud name the appellation of agent is subtracted,” said Nikitin. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

bodytextimage_nikitin4833.JPG Bellona's Alexander Nikitin Credit: Bellona

Soldier’s Mothers of St. Petersburg, which advocates against the Russian army’s shady conscription practices, was taken off the list for “stopping activities that correspond to foreign agent activities” which mainly concerned speaking out for conscripts sent to fight in Ukraine, the group’s spokesman, Alexander Peredruk, told the RBK Russian newswire.

Peredruk said official confirmation that his group is in the clear hasn’t yet arrived from the Justice Ministry, but a notation on the foreign agent list shows the group has been “excluded” – hence the coin-toss between the Omsk soccer club and Friends of Siberian Forests.

The Kremlin-sponsored 2012 law on NGOs stipulated that all NGOs in Russian receiving foreign funding and engaging in vaguely defined “political activities” must voluntarily list themselves as foreign agents with the Justice Ministry. NGOs across the board boycotted.

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.

But the recent heat added to the campaign is, to Nikitin, beyond logic.

“No one believes that these organizations and people are guilty for everything in government being rotten. I don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “[The current campaign] gives the impression that all is going so well with the government that there’s nothing else to do but search out enemies and agents. Why this is so is incomprehensible.”

Charles Digges