Russian Justice Ministry sinks NGOs in new mire of ‘political activity’ definitions

NGO Grafitti In November 2012, the day the 'foreign agents' law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, 'Foreign Agent!' and 'Love USA' on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. (Photo: Yulia Klimova/Memorial)

According to new amendments suggested to the foreign agent law on Russian NGOs by Russia’s Justice Ministry, civil society organizations could be torpedoed for “political activity” if they “spread […] evaluations of decisions accepted by government organs and policies conducted by them.”

The Justice Ministry on Friday published on the official Russian-language portal of draft legal acts several more amendments to the law to clarify what constitutes the hazily defined political activity that lands so many Russian NGOs in hot water with authorities.

Fully one third of Russian NGOs have been shut down for political activity since the law took force four years ago. The official TASS newswire reported 113 NGOs are currently listed as foreign agents.

The Justice Ministry’s amendments are subject to a period of public commentary before they are adopted, but NGO leaders and legal experts largely assume that nothing can mitigate the eventual bulldozing effect of the amendments now.

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

NGOs in Russia now ‘pointless’

The scope and potential interpretation of the new amendments is so broad that Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg, said by email, that it’s “pointless to even try operating an NGO in Russia.”

He spent the weekend studying the amendments and concluded that, “in my understanding, it doesn’t’ even matter now whether the amendments are adopted or not.”

“It’s not even important what your organization is doing – if [the Ministry of Justice} has decided to write you into the foreign agent list, they’ll write you in,” he wrote.

The 2012 law, which passed unanimously in a Duma stacked with supporters of Vladimir Putin, says NGOs accepting foreign funding and engaged in political activity must declare themselves “foreign agents” – a term smacking thickly of espionage.

Foreign cash no longer required for potential shutdown

But under another new amendment to the law that the Justice Ministry calls a “new practice,” an NGO doesn’t even have to be receiving money from abroad to fall afoul of the “political activity” to be declared a foreign agent.

It’s enough, under the new amendments, for somebody currently employed by an entirely Russian-funded NGO to see their new workplace branded a foreign agent because they have on their resume past experience at an NGO that did receive foreign funding, said Nikitin.

bodytextimage_nikitin4833.JPG Bellona's Alexander Nikitin Credit: Bellona

Andrei Zolotkov, who headed up Bellona Murmansk until it was dissolved as an NGO for being a foreign agent was equally damning of the new amendments.

He said in an email that the provision of “’evaluating government decisions’ means only one thing: shut up and know your place.”

“How many enemies can [the government] create out of thin air?” continued Zolotkov. “They’ve painstakingly habituated us to one point of view – we went through that in Soviet times.”

NGO directors and the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society have complained the non-existent definition of political activity in the law leaves it open to subjective interpretation – and leads to targeting NGOs unpopular with authorities.

In February 2013, 11 Russian NGOs, the Moscow Helsinki Group among them, lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in France protesting the law.

In June 2014, after the Justice Ministry complained of NGOs’ reluctance to comply with the law, Putin gave it sweeping powers to name its own foreign agents.

Selective targeting becomes general

The publication of Friday’s new amendments have led NGO chairs and legal experts to the conclusion that founding any kind of NGO in Russia at all is utterly futile.

Other areas for which an NGO would be found guilty of committing political activity include attempts to “influence the development and implementation of state policy and the formation of state bodies, local self-government bodies and the decisions and actions.”

ingressimage_kaliningradprotest.jpeg Simple environmental protests like this one will be considered political activity by NGOs under the new amendments. (Photo:Bellona) Photo: Galina Raguzina/Ecodefence

Gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, pickets, public discussions and speeches are also considered political activity that would lead to an organization’s branding as a foreign agent, or closure.

Non-profits are also considered political if they aim to “gain a certain outcome” in elections or referendums, by monitoring elections or referendums, establish referendum or election commissions, or engage in the activities of political parties.”

Bellona’s Zolotkov has repeatedly contested that cross over between NGOs and active engagement in Russia’s political party system has been illegal for 30 years and is something the NGO leaders widely acknowledge.

In summary, the Justice Ministry amendments posted on the draft legal acts portal state that political activity is defined as steps taken by an NGO at “shaping social and political views and opinions, including carrying out and announcing public opinion polls or other sociological research,” and involving Russian – citizens – including minors – in an NGOs activity.

Lastly, the Justice Ministry listed as a political act financing the activities of an NGO.

Igor Kalyapin, whose non-profit Committee for the prevention of Torture – which was declared a foreign agent because he earlier worked for an NGO receiving foreign funding, told the Vedomosti daily newspaper (in Russian) that the Justice Ministry amendments could have been spelled out more simply.

“They could have just written that ‘political activity is all that is not in agreement with the government,” he told the paper.

Russian Comparisons to US foreign agent law ‘irrelevant’

Since the inception of its foreign agent law, the Russian government has repeatedly defended it by citing the US’s 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

But Olga Sidirovich , Director of Russia’s Institute for Law and Public Policy called the comparisons “irrelevant” and “inappropriate,” telling Bellona Monday that, “FARA, in comparison with our federal law, much more narrowly defines the forms of activity it regulates, and excludes public organizations (NGOs).”

She said FARA’s roster of foreign agents is overwhelmingly comprised of commercial organizations conducting fee-based lobbying services with US government structures.

Among these are the Russian groups Endeavor Law Firm PC, which lobbies positions of the Russian Foreign Ministry, tycoon and Putin-ally Oleg Deripaska’s Global Strategic Communications Group, which Sidirovich said lobbies for the Rodina Russian political party, which is unofficially led by Russia’s flamboyant deputy prime minister for defense, Dmitry Rogozin.

She added to the list New York’s public relations firm Ketchum Inc, the law firm Alston & Bird LLP and the law firm Venable LLP, all of which lobby for the Russian government and Gazpromeksport, the export wing of Russia’s natural gas monopoly Gazprom.

None of the groups have been required to do anything but register with the US government. None have been fined or closed, said Sidirovich.

 

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no