After four years of legal challenges to the vagueness of the Russian ‘foreign agent’ law’s vague reference to NGOs engaged in “political activity” being subject to fines and closure, the Duma has decided to define what constitutes a political action. Sort of.
NGO leaders and legal experts said the new formulations of what constitutes political activity – a charge that has landed 108 NGOs on the foreign agent list – remains as elusive as before.
By the law, NGOs in Russia receiving funding from abroad and engaged in hazily defined political activities must register with Russia’s Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents,” a paranoid term in Russian closely associated with espionage. The law was generally boycotted when it took effect in 2012.
In June 2014, Putin handed the Justice Ministry sweeping powers to name foreign agents on it’s own. To date, most of the 108 foreign agents on its list are there for supposedly engaging in political activities – some of which strain the credibility of even the most liberal interpretations of the term. .
A more concrete definition of the term was put to discussion after a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights on October 1. Putin charged Russia’s Public Chamber, a legislative oversight committee, to suggest and analyze the new amendments.
All told, a third of Russia’s NGOs have had to close as a result of the current foreign agent legislation. It doesn’t look like the new amendments will slow that die off.
Andrei Zolotkov, currently an adviser with Bellona and formerly director of the now defunct Russian NGO Bellona Murmansk – which shut down after it was declared a foreign agent – said proposed amendments to the foreign agent law, which took effect in 2012, were noting but a little bit of lipstick.
“The amendments under proposal are of a cosmetic character and don’t change a thing in the practices of regional branches of Russia’s Ministry of Justice,” he said.
New definitions look like same old assumptions
The Justice Ministry has suggested that those NGOs that hold two public demonstrations or more per year be considered guilty of engaging in political activity, and thus registered as foreign agents, according to Alexander Brechalov, secretary of Russia’s Public Chamber, an oversight committee that analyzes proposed legislation.
Another criterion that would land an NGO on the foreign agent list is the amount of money it earmarks for political activity, the daily Kommersant reported.
According to Brechalov, organizations that shy away from public demonstrations and instead focus on distributing leaflets or brochures, or providing food and drink at demonstrations, are examples of political expenditures, he told the Russian news portal Gazeta.ru.
NGOs spending 75 percent of their budget on such activities, as well as on publishing newspapers, reports and booklets of a political nature would be considered guilty of engaging in political activity, too.
Sergei Nikitin, chairman of Amnesty International’s Russian offices said the suggested provisions defining political activity were as slippery as ever, and essentially define as political any criticism of the government or effort to influence public opinion in any way.
“Absolutely any organizations could fall under these formulations [of a foreign agent],” said Niktin in an interview.
Jealous guarding of the political sector
The biggest factor that would contribute to an organization being tagged as a foreign agent, Brechalov said, would be its participation in any kind of involvement in political campaigning, be that in the form of organizing election observers, or supporting nominations of political candidates or parties.
This would include distribution of information about candidates and their positions on issues of importance to a given NGO.
Natalya Tabunina with Public Verdict, an independent legal watchdog and itself a foreign agent, said that Brechalov’s definition activity in the political sphere left a lot of grey area.
“In my understanding, political activity is competing for power or direct support of a specific candidate or a party on the part of an NGO,” she said. “ If an NGO spends money to print brochures for candidate X, that’s political activity. But if an NGO prepares and releases brochures criticizing the human rights situation, that isn’t political activity in the least.”
Vladimir Slivyak , co-chair of Ecodefense, one of Russia’s oldest environmental organizations, and also a foreign agent, said the provision against NGOs directly involving themselves in political campaigns is over two decades old. It’s well understood, he told Gazeta.ru, that if someone in an NGO wants to run for office, they must leave the NGO.
“Political activity as I see it is direct participation in the political process,” he said. “Pickets and meetings concern other issues than political issues – for example, people came out to defend a park with old trees, or, like us, against he construction of a nuclear power plant because it would cause irreversible damage to the environment and peoples’ health. But even the courts equated our protests with political action.”
Federal changes won’t equal local compliance
Bellona’s Zolotkov is certain the new definitions will do nothing to deter regional Justice Ministry departments from maintaining their prowl for foreign agents.
“Finding a misplaced comma when you need one, or documenting [somebody’s] presence in a wrong place and at a wrong time – it’s just so simple, very easy,” he said.
Bellona Murmansk’s experience with being labeled a foreign agent gave Zolotkov a grim view born of experience.
“I can say without reservation that the wishes of local bureaucrats suck up to federal authroties and report on their vigiliance has reached cartoonish proportions,” he said. “But trying to argue one’s way out of their decisions is a waste of time.”