Criticizing Russia’s NGO law is punishable ‘political activity’ leading to ‘foreign agent’ label, says Justice Ministry

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

In its mounting campaign against NGOs, Russian’s Ministry of Justice has suggested that criticizing the country’s notorious “foreign agent” law for non-profits is itself an act of “political activity” that should lead to punishment.

A report on NGO activity, obtained by the Russian daily Vedemosti said complaints about and criticism of the Kremlin supported 2012 law on NGOs should land nonprofits who speak against the law on the Justice Ministry’s list of “foreign agents.”

Other new means the Justice Ministry has for tarring an NGO as a foreign agent include “activities that aimed at discrediting internal and international policy, decisions of the country’s leadership (including anything relative to events in Ukraine), as well as demands to change legislation.”

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

The law, which has been denounced internationally, stipulates that NGOs who receive funding from abroad and engage in “political activity” must register with the Justice Ministry as foreign agents, a term heavily associated with espionage. In 2014, the Justice Ministry was handed sweeping powers to name foreign agents on its own.

Now, speaking out against the law is yet another trapdoor through which non-profits can fall.

NGOs are against the foreign agent law both for its implication that they are spies, and because the Russian Duma has still failed to clarify what legally constitutes “political activity,” a charge that has shut down a third of Russia’s NGOs, and hung the foreign agent label on 126 other non-profits, according to the most recent figures from the Justice Ministry’s website.

There have so far been no reports of Russian NGOs landing on the foreign agent list for criticizing the NGO law, but it will put anyone fighting the designation of  “foreign agent” in court in an awkward position. Likewise, it’s unclear whether leading human rights figures, such as Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society – who is fiercely critical of the law – could face censure for his opposition to the legislation.

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)

Further, the Presidential Council is a government body made up of dozens of NGO directors who are constantly engaged in questioning the NGO legislation. The new addition to the law would mean their  discussions of the legislation with other federal appointees to the Council would be illegal.

“The is another serious setback for the civil society in Russia,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director. “This is a Kafka novel with a Catch 22 twist. I keep wondering what the next trick will be and whether or not I will be surprised.”

Many in the NGO community are simply getting exhausted by the raft of new edicts flowing from Moscow, and wish the Kremlin would just honesty announce its agenda of exterminating civil society.

“Honestly, I am already bored by these holy dances of Duma deputies around the term ‘political activity,’”  Andrei Zolotkov, who formerly headed Bellona Murmansk until it was declared a foreign agent and shut down, said in an email interview. “I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow someone suggests that those who have foreign currency must declared themselves as foreign agents and turn up every day at some government bureaucracy to give an accounting of their activities.”

He said that the battle over the foreign agent law has already been going on for some time and heightened government attention to it signals only one thing: “Citizen’s opinions must correspond to those instructions that are given by the ruling party.”

“The USSR is not far away,” said Zolotkov. “You just need to rebuilt it with the corresponding legislation.”

Alexei Artemov, director of St. Petersburg’s Environmental Rights Center Bellona, laconically responded to a request for comment on the new developments by writing, “As we are not allowed to criticize, we will refrain from commentary.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no