Russian Duma defines ‘political activity’ for NGOs, adding more ambiguous criteria to name ‘foreign agents’

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

Publish date: May 23, 2016

Russia’s Duma passed what it calls a definitive meaning of the term “political activity’ as it relates to the country’s embattled NGOs that accept foreign funding, a move activists say has made the term as impossibly broad as before.

Russia’s Duma passed what it calls a definitive meaning of the term “political activity’ as it relates to the country’s embattled NGOs that accept foreign funding, a move activists say has made the term as impossibly broad as before.

The original NGO law of 2012 stipulated that non-profits operating in whole or in part on foreign funding register themselves as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice if they engage in political activity. The Ministry in 2014 was given broad powers to name foreign agents on its own.

The new amendments passed their crucial second and third readings Friday, and will go to the Duma’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, before they are brought to President Vladimir Putin for his signature.

Vladimir_Putin_Amur_tiger_August_2008-1 Vladimir Putin shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun. Credit: Wikipedia

Up to now, the original law has seen the closure of a third of Russia’s NGOs on the basis they were conducting political activity.

Russian NGO leaders have long complained that political activity was barely defined in the original law, making compliance impossible. Putin last October tasked the Justice Ministry with developing amendments to the law that would narrow the definition.

The Justice Ministry responded in January with new criteria for political activity that were so expansive the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society called them useless, and fought for their exclusion from the law.

But for a little tweaked language and a provision granting “socially useful NGOS” a pass on getting tarred as foreign agents, observers say the new amendments have laid the bear traps even more broadly.

How all of this will impact the activities of Bellona’s offices in Russia is not yet clear, and dozens of other internationally assisted environmental groups are also left for the moment to scratch their heads.

“We will need to review the law when its’ published,” said Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in St Petersburg by email. “But I can say that in comparison to what now concretely defines political activity and what its forms are will not make things any easier.”

“The list of political activities encompasses practically everything, from defense, to international politics, to socio-economic and national relations, and legislation regulating human rights,” continued Nikitin. “In short, the activities of NGOs are maximally restricted.”

bodytextimage_nikitin4833.JPG Bellona's Alexander Nikitin Credit: Bellona

“It would have been simpler for lawmakers to write one sentence,” Nikitin said “’Any non-profit receiving resources – money, computers, etc, for example – from abroad is a foreign agent.’”

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director, said by email that the new amendments “effectively put a ban on all independent NGOs in Russia, and make it almost impossible for non-profits to take part in any democratic processes in Russia.”

Artem Alexeyev, a lawyer and director of ERC Bellona, said in an email that the new amendments have not yet taken force and that it’s still unclear when they will.

Alexeyev’s opinion about how the amendments will apply to environmental organizations was divided.

“Ecological NGOs aren’t influenced by these changes at all,” he wrote. “The language is aimed at those NGOs that, roughly speaking, meddle in politics”

He said informing people about environmental violations, decisions concerning the environment and natural resource usage, as well as city planning aren’t political activities.

“But this can be interpreted different ways,” he conceded. “Until it all comes into force, it’s unclear what the courts will say about political activity – the law says one thing, but the Constitutional Court [Russia’s highest] may interpret it differently.”

What the amendments say

According to a summary of the amendments published by Interfax, NGOs can be found guilty of political activity for participating in or conducting public meetings, demonstrations, gatherings, marches or pickets – or anything that can be interpreted such. They also can’t participate in public debates, discussions or appearances.

bodytextimage_kaliningrad.jpg A protest mounted by the Russian anti-nuclear group Ecodefense of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Ecodefense) Photo: Фото:

NGOs will also be called foreign agents for activities meant to influence the outcome of elections, referendums, how voting is conducted, participating in the activities of any political organization, and issuing public appeals to any level of government.

This, noted Nikitin, includes the popular practice of sending so-called open letters to any level of Russian government.

To avoid the misstep of political activity, NGOs must also refrain from attempts to draft legislation, or attempt to influence amendments to existing legislation. This element of the new amendments seems already to have taken effect.

Last week, the Justice Ministry threatened to label as foreign agents any NGOs leveling criticism at the new amendments.

This amendment also puts in an awkward position the members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, which is comprised of NGO heads from around Russia, as it could gag a federally appointed body from critiquing the application of the new amendments.

Also at risk are NGOs who air their opinions via what the amendments define as “contemporary information technologies” about decisions and policies emanating from any government agency.

This comprises everything from television and radio broadcasts where an NGO leader might be asked to comment on a policy, to newspapers and the internet, including NGO news outlets and bloggers, Nikitin noted.

Nikitin Alexander Nikitin giving an interview on Russia nuclear waste policy to a Russian television crew. (Photo: Anna Kireeva/Bellona)

“Even a [news] article on our site expressing an opinion about the work of the government and its members is forbidden,” he said. This could have bowdlerizing repercussions for, Bellona’s Russian-language environmental news department.

Further, NGOs can neither participate in conducting public opinion polls or other socio-political studies, finance public opinion polls or sociological studies, or involve minors in opinion polls or sociological studies.

Who is safe from the accusation of political activity?

The new amendments also include a carrot for so-called “socially useful” NGOs. These NGOs, said the Kremlin Press Service, will be added to a list of socially oriented NGOs that provide publically useful services over a period of a year or more.

At two years such NGOs “will achieve status, additional benefits, and preferences,” read the Kremlin release, adding that the exact NGOs to be added to the list are still under discussion.

As reported by Interfax, groups that will be exempted from the foreign agent label and running afoul of political activity are those operating in the sciences, culture, arts, healthcare, and organizations whose activities are directed at social services and social assistance.

“As you can see, we’re left with a lot of ambiguities, peculiarities and contradictions,” said Nikitin. “For example does the area of ‘security,’ which the amendments call political activity, have any bearing on ecological, nuclear and radiation security, or not?”

“The types of safety and security are very numerous, so this will have to be made clear,” Nikitin added.

Can the war on foreign agents last forever?

Andrey Zoloktov is a Russia adviser with Bellona and former director of its affiliated NGO, Bellona-Murmansk, which was shut down in 2015 for the political activity of producing a report on industrial pollution in Russia’s North.

In an emailed response he took a long view of the current shellacking NGOs are taking at the hands of Russian officialdom.

“I suspect these notions of ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable organizations’ relative to NGOs is a temporary definition,” he wrote. “They’re the creation of a specific circle of people who need always to be in a state of war, who need a form of enemy whom they can blame for their failures – I don’t think such a situation can last very long […] it’s a dead end.”

As of Monday, the Justice Ministry has 127 NGOs listed as foreign agents.