Russian legislators and human rights officials come out swinging over NGO law amendments

duma.jpg The Russian Duma. (Photo: Youtube still)

Russian human rights officials are slugging it out on the floor of parliament with the country’s Justice Ministry over Moscow’s foreign agent law for NGOs and its definition of “political activity”– a vague charge that has closed down a third of Russian non-profits since the law was adopted.

Human rights experts across the board have told Bellona that should the amendments pass, there’s little hope non-profits in Russia will continue to exist at all.

The amendments, opposed by human rights circles, could soon be adopted as law when reviewed by both parliamentarians in the Duma and the Federation Council, its upper body, Justice Minister Alexei Konovalov said yesterday, according to the official RIA Novosti Russian newswire.

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society, has meanwhile mounted a vociferous political and media campaign to divert the Justice Ministry’s suggested definitions of “political activity” from being adopted.

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

At the end of January, the Justice Ministry – as directed by President Vladimir Putin – published proposed amendments that would define political activity that lawyers and activists, among them Fedotov and Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman Ella Pamfilova, agreed threw definition even further off course and even more subject to selective and arbitrary interpretation.

Even with some editing, though, the law as it currently stands is so amok that one environmental NGO leader, Nadezha Kutepova, had to flee Russia for fear she’d be locked up for espionage.

‘Latex’ amendments stretch too far

In a Russian television interview earlier this week, Fedotov said that the Justice Department’s broad definition of political activity would make “every NGO in Russia a foreign agent.”

[The amendments] are of such rubber, latex I would say, formulation, they can be stretched to fit any organization, any charity fund, that you wish,” Fedotov said.

He added the amendments were intentionally devised as an expandable smother blanket by the Justice Ministry “probably so they could add to the number of organizations listed as foreign agents […] the revisions are so written than any organization can be considered a foreign agent because the amendments are just a rewrite of the original [2012] law.”

In recommendations to the Duma and the Justice Ministry last month, Fedotov told Bellona in an email interview that the term “political activity” as applied to NGOs be restricted solely to “a struggle for political power.”

The amendment package

His suggestion, made in all seriousness, would certainly slash the fat off the amendments as they currently stand.

Among things that could land NGOs in official hot water for political activity in the amendments include publicly evaluating government decisions made by the government.

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.”

Helping to finance an NGO would also be considered political activity.

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

In closing, the Justice Ministry amendments 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 their activities.

If ‘political activity’ appeared vague before…

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

For their part, non-profits 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 121 NGOs designated as foreign agents have 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.

Should the amendments be adopted in their current form, suggested Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, said “there’s no point in trying to operated an NGO on Russian soil – its already difficult, but these amendments would be the end.”

Andrei Zoltkov, former director of Bellona Murmansk, agreed and said that’s the point of the current amendments.

“The mean only one thing,” he said in an earlier interview. “Shut up and know your place.”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no