Putin’s Human Rights Council says Justice Ministry botched NGO law amendments

fedotov union of journalists Mihakail Fedotov. (Photo: Russian Union of Journalists)

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights and Civil Society, said proposed amendments to the country’s NGO – or foreign agent – law are an “inappropriate” response to a review of the legislation ordered by Vladimir Putin in October.

Fedotov is thus far the highest-ranking political figure in Russia to challenge the new amendments, and he said he intends to register his objections to President Putin by February 10, the Russian daily Kommersant reported.

Fedotov further threatened to announce to Putin that the Justice Ministry, which carried out the review, had failed altogether to do its job. Other members of the presidential council told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta Russian daily that this report could culminate in a push to overturn the NGO law altogether.

The amendments, which were published by the Justice Ministry last week, were intended to clarify a portion the 2012 NGO law that has deviled Russian legal experts and gutted the non-profit sector because of its virtually limitless application and potential for abuse.

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)

Under the original law, NGOs receiving foreign funding and engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” were to report themselves to the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents.”

For their part, non-profits have demanded a clear definition of “political activity,” and refused en masse to self-apply the foreign agent label. Since 2014, Putin has allowed the Justice Ministry to declare foreign agents on its own.

The current 114 NGOs designated as foreign agents have mostly found themselves on the Justice Ministry’s list for supposed political activity, which is entirely defined by the Ministry’s regional offices, say NGO leaders and lawyers.

Putin’s orders defied

In a departure from his historically unapologetic rhetoric around his NGO law, Putin in October ordered that the Justice Ministry produce a definition of political activity that, “must not be elastic, and must not “on the sly spur everything that appeals to representatives of the government.”

But Fedotov said the possible amendments do just that.

“Fedotov’s stand on these amendments gives us a glimmer of hope that Putin will step back and soften the amendments, as well as give NGOs the possibility to survive,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director.

On whole, the foreign agent law is bleeding the Russian non-profit sector dry, and has forced more than 30 percent of them to shut their doors over the last four years.

‘Anyone’ can be declared political

“[The new amendments] make it such that any activity can be called political,” Fedotov was quoted by Kommersant as saying. He added that his council had sent numerous suggestions on the amendments to the Justice Ministry before they were published, “but, unfortunately, they were not taken into account.”

“If we don’t see that these amendments produce any affect, the we must speak about how the Justice Ministry failed to fulfill the president’s orders,” Fedotov said.

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent."

Fedotov and other experts told Kommersant that the argument over a definition of “political activity” could continue endlessly. Fedotov’s said the amendments seek not to define the term, but rather to widen the lasso of those who could be ensnared as political.

Such was the case with Bellona Murmansk, Bellona’s former partner NGO on the Kola Peninsula, whose report on industrial pollution in Russia’s Northwest was determined to be political in nature. The group was dissolved as an NGO in October.

NGO’s choice between starvation or hemlock

Darya Miroslavskaya, head of the Lawyers for Civil Society (in Russian) group agreed, and said there is virtually no recourse for groups winding up on the foreign agent list.

She said “not a single foreign agent has been able to prove in any court that it doesn’t conduct political activities.”

The only groups that have been able to scratch themselves off the Justice Ministry’s foreign agent list, she said, are those “who’ve totally rejected foreign funding, or have dissolved themselves.”

Arguments will be endless

Miroslavskaya said that, by all appearances, the spy-mania smear implied by naming a group a foreign agent “suits the government just fine.”

Because of that, she said the argument over what constitutes political activity “has already reached a dead end, because the argument isn’t over what political activity is, but rather who it permitted to engage in it.”

Even if that argument wears itself out, she said, “yet another argument over what kind of financing is considered foreign will flare up and take its place.”

The devil in the details

Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona in St. Petersburg, spelled out the three most dangerous definitions of political activity offered by the amendments – NGOs that publicly evaluate decisions of any government branch; NGOs that hold demonstrations, and NGOs that publicize results of any kind of public polling.

bodytextimage_nikitin4833.JPG Bellona's Alexander Nikitin Credit: Bellona

As dangerous, said Nikitin, is that under the new amendments, somebody currently employed by an entirely Russian-funded NGO would likely see their new workplace branded a foreign agent because they have on their resume past experience at an NGO that received foreign funding.

One member of the Russian Duma – which passed the NGO law unanimously in 2012 – hurried to say corrections could be made.

“Further formulations will be corrected such that the boundaries of political activity are exactly defined and clear to all,” Yaroslav Nilov, head of the Duma Committee on Public Organizations told Kommersant.

He acknowledged that the notion of political activity had been foggy since the NGO law went into effect.

Happy foreign agents?

But – contrary to overwhelming evidence to the contrary – Nilov claimed that only a handful of NGOs netted by the Justice Ministry are dissatisfied with their status as foreign agents.

Those disgruntled groups, he said, would be examined further to see if their activities were political.

“If it’s ecologists who want to save butterflies and birds, that’s one thing,” Nilov told the paper. “But if they make announcements about whether a minister or governor should be removed, that’s a completely different matter.”

Whether there is, in fact, any real difference, said Andrei Zolotkov, former director of Bellona Murmansk, is immaterial. To him, the amendments in their current form “mean only one thing – shut up and know your place.”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no