Putin nods to excluding eco-groups from foreign agent list

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

President Putin has again floated the idea of amending Russia’s draconian “foreign agent” law for non-profits, asking his government to review propositions that could lighten its impact on muzzled environmental organizations.

On Friday, Putin charged Sergei Kiriyenko, his new first deputy on domestic affairs, to study how the law is applied ecological groups in Russia. The new considerations come as Russia begins 2017 as its Year of Ecology

A third of the organizations listed on the foreign agent list are environmental organizations. Human rights activists in Russia have long said that the law unfairly targets environmental groups.

One is Bellona Murmansk, which closed down after being called a foreign agent in March 2014.

On Thursday, Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society, asked Putin to strike environmental organizations from the Ministry of Justice’s list of foreign agents.

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

By the law, NGOs in Russia receiving funding from abroad and engaged in hazily defined “political activities” must register with Russia’s Ministry of Justice as foreign agents, a term in Russian closely associated with espionage.

Attempts led by Fedotov to clarify the meaning of political activity in the law fell flat in 2015 and several more environmental NGOs wound up on the Justice Ministry’s foreign agent list.

Some NGOs have chosen to fight the designation in court. The designation has swamped dozens of NGOs in costly, protracted court battles to clear their names of the foreign agent status, or choked them fines they are unable to pay.

Fedotov said Friday that Russian law protects environmental organizations from being considered foreign agents at all, and asked the Putin government to strike any of those organizations from the notorious list.

“The reason is simple,” Fedotov told the BBC’s Russian service. “It’s easier and cheaper to put environmental NGOs on the roster of foreign agents than it is to solve problems of environmental conservation.”

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of St. Petersburg’s Environmental Rights Center Bellona, stopped short of being optimistic, and said “we should wait to see what will come of this.”

“It would have been ideal abolish this law all together,” he said on Monday. “But after it was adopted by the Foreign Ministry, it created many wonders that made abolishing it impossible.”

He said the approach to the law has been to apply it “step by step” and to gauge reaction to NGO closures.

“The reaction was negative because the Justice Ministry interpreted the meaning of ‘political activity’ in its own way, and included any organization receiving foreign funding on the list,” Nikitin wrote in an email.

kiriyenko&putin Vladimir Putin (left) and Sergei Kiriyenko. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

He said Kiriyenko’s current task to review the law with an eye to excluding environmental organizations was a new way of looking at the issue.

“There’s less than a month before the Year of Ecology beings,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

It’s doubtful that changes to the law would impact the former NGO status of Bellona Murmansk.

Andrei Zolotkov, Bellona Murmansk’s former head, said the law in its current form doesn’t allow for an organization that’s been called a foreign agent to clear it’s name.

“The law doesn’t have a retroactive affect,” he said. “We were included in the list and we liquidated by our own decision – it won’t have any effect on Bellona Murmansk because it not longer exists.”

Anna Kireeva, formerly of Bellona Murmansk, said “we never did anything political – we never supported any political organizations. That we were included on the list isn’t even a mistake, it’s just unfair.”

In November, the fourth anniversary of the foreign agent law coming into effect, Amnesty International released a scathing report that pointed out the losses to Russian society that extensive NGO closures had led to.

The group’s director, Sergei Nikitin, said, “the foreign agents law was designed to shackle, stigmatize and ultimately silence critical NGOs.”