Court appeals could clarify law that smothers Russia’s non-profits

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

Publish date: May 25, 2017

Russia’s Justice Minister has said it’s working on a response to a demand from the European Court of Human Rights to explain the country’s repressive “foreign agent” law for non-profits.

Russia’s Justice Minister has said it’s working on a response to a demand from the European Court of Human Rights to explain the country’s repressive “foreign agent” law for non-profits.

And one non-profit that was tainted by the Justice Ministry as a foreign agent has appealed to Russia’s Constitutional Court to knock down critical parts of the law that have led to more NGOs being broadly targeted for so-called political activity.

The legal maneuvers come before Vladimir Putin’s presumptive bid to capture a fourth presidential term in the coming 2018 elections. The Justice Ministry recently fired a broadside at non-profits in Russia by claiming they are receiving billions of dollars from abroad – a time honored Kremlin tactic that many think signals a renewed crackdown on independent humanitarian, environmental and academic agencies.

At issue in the European Court is how Russia determines which non-profits are “foreign agents” and how it defines “political activity” – two labels that have suffocated Russian civil society and forced the closure of dozens of internationally funded NGOs since the law took effect in 2012.

Last week, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov told the Kommersant daily newspaper that the ministry was preparing a response to the European Court by its deadline of July 19, but he offered little to suggest that the government would be softening its position.

“What the petitioners are complaining about is entirely based on Russian legislation and decisions of the national courts,” he told the paper. “Authorities aren’t anticipating any adjustments to the law before the court date.”

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

The petition to the European Court was brought by the environmental group Ecodefense and 61 other non-profits in Russia who have been called foreign agents for receiving even minimal financing from abroad and engaging in fluidly defined “political activity.” The bulk of these groups are environmental NGOs whose activities in nature conservation, ecological education and nuclear regulation have been accused of stirring up public opinion against the government.

In a separate case, the Levada Center, Russia’s single independent polling agency, has filed a Constitutional Court appeal to have its name stricken from the Justice Ministry’s foreign agent blacklist.

The Levada Center complaint focuses on a 2016 amendment to the NGO law that classified sociological studies, such as polls, as part of its wide interpretation of the kind of political activity that earns NGOs the foreign agent label.

The group ­­– which often publishes opinion polls on Putin’s popularity that ironically corroborate his soaring approval ratings – often cooperates with other sociological think tanks and academic institutions from abroad to share and gather its data.

The Levada Center wound up on the foreign agent list in September after publishing a poll showing sliding support for the Kremlin-fueled United Russia party ahead of that month’s parliamentary elections.

Lev Gudkov, the organization’s director, told the Interfax newswire that the group had undergone several Justice Ministry audits since the NGO law came into effect and only landed on the foreign agent list last year.

If the constitutional court grants the appeal, not only would the Levada Center be taken off the foreign agent list, but the law itself could be pared back by the court from targeting groups that are seen to influence public opinion as politically motivated.

That, in turn, could add weight to the suit before the European Court for Human Rights, as Ecodefense and other environmental groups routinely end up on the foreign agent list because of the Justice Ministry’s murky and shifting definitions of political activity.

If Konovalov responds to the court in full, he will have to address several questions. First, the court wants the Justice Ministry to determine whether its definitions of “foreign agent” and “political activity” are clear enough to be understood and enforced.

Then it wants to know how much money would constitute “foreign financing” to non-profits that receive it. Further, it wants Russia to explain how it conceived of the law in the first place, specifically whether it is “necessary to a democratic society” and if preventing political activity is such a good idea anyway.

Up to now, appeals by rights activists, most notably the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society, to pin down what the Kremlin thinks political activity is have only muddied the waters further, and the vagaries in enforcement have disproportionately fallen on environmental groups.

In March 2015, the Justice Ministry tagged Bellona Murmansk as a foreign agent over a report it wrote detailing industrial pollution in Northwest Russia.

In 2015, Sakhalin Environmental Watch was called a foreign agent for reposting a petition to Putin to its social media page, which called on the president to protect the Arctic from oil spills, on its social media page.

More recently, the Justice Ministry has busied itself rooting out even the possibility of dissent. In January, the law shut down Environmental Rights Center Bellona because it operates a website on which opinions might be expressed.

The Justice Ministry’s answer so far seem clear: political activity is not so much engaging in politics as it is seeming to have an opinion about politics, however benign or nonpolitical.

That might be embarrassing to admit to a court whose business is enforcing uniform principles of human rights among the European Convention’s signatories. But as a new round of presidential elections that will heavily favor Putin come around, at least the world will know how much Russia values independent opinions.