In an unexpected ease of hostilities toward environmental groups, the Kola Ecological Center was peeled off the Ministry of Justice’s list of “foreign agents” where it had landed in April.
That the group was taken off the list might be the first sign that Russia’s Justice Ministry is withering under the weight of a suit numerous NGOs filed against it in the European Court of Human Rights.
If the court finds in favor of the NGOs in a hearing scheduled for this fall, it could cripple crucial portions of the NGO law and let dozens of them currently laboring under the foreign agent label off the hook.
The Justice Ministry often touts its expanding and contracting rolls of foreign agents as evidence that the 2012 law on NGOs is being fairly enforced, when more often the dropping of certain non-profits reflects that they have actually closed under pressure.
After the law was enacted in response to unprecedented street protests throughout Russia against Vladimir Putin’s rigging of parliamentary elections, it shut down more than a third of NGOs operating in the country and disproportionately targeted environmental groups.
The law seeks to dry up foreign funding for Russia’s civil society sector by naming groups that receive even small amounts of money from abroad as “foreign agents” and accuses them of conducting “political activity.” Once on the list, groups have to cope with onerous audits, fines and lengthy court battles to clear their names.
Bellona Murmansk was included on the foreign agent list in 2015, and the Environmental Rights Center Bellona followed in January of this year. Both groups later closed after electing not to pursue expensive legal proceedings that likely would not have been fair.
But the Kola Ecological Center earlier this month emerged from its stint as a foreign agent surprised but mostly unscathed.
“It was very unexpected,”Yury Ivanov, the group’s former head, told Bellona after his group had been taken off the blacklist.
The circumstances of Kola Ecological Center’s inclusion on the list, after all, barley differed from what had befallen other groups.
In April, the Murmansk division of the Justice Ministry filed a broad accusation against the organization, claiming it had been financing “political activities” with foreign funding. Among those activities, said the Ministry, was the group’s critique of a plan to extend the run times of the reactors at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant. The Center had also been invited by numerous government structures to develop recommendations on how to handle spent nuclear fuel.
It also attended – but did not participate in – official government organized public hearings on the fate of the Kola plant’s reactor extension plans.
During these efforts – which were undertaken with government cooperation – the center was not receiving any funding from abroad at all, yet the Murmansk branch of the ministry still called it a foreign agent.
“After our organization was called a foreign agent, we began the process of liquidating hand in hand with filing a complaint with the federal Justice Ministry to be removed from the list because we hadn’t received any foreign funding,” Ivanov said.
The complaint evidently reached the federal levels of the Justice Ministry, because on August 9, the group found out it had been removed from the foreign agent list, Ivanov said.
Ivanov’s suspicions were right: According to documents furnished by the Justice Ministry, his group had been excused from the list because it simply hadn’t received any foreign funding during the year that officials said it had.
“Even under the NGO law, the organization’s activities can’t be considered political,” said The Club of NGO Lawyers, which defended the Kola Ecological Center, in a release. “We are glad that we were able to secure its exclusion from the list – this is just one of the first victories in this matter. Now we will clear them of all fines.”
Indeed, in an Orwellian twist, the Kola Ecological Center is still liable for a 150,000 ruble ($2000) fine. That’s because the original NGO law stipulated that non-profits receiving foreign funding were required to put themselves on the foreign agent blacklist voluntarily – something only one NGO has ever done.
But Ivanov still sees a softening by the Justice Ministry in its approach to his organization, and he attributes that to the massive suit brooding against the Ministry in the European Court of Human Rights.
“I think the decision to take our NGO off the roster is tied first of all to the fact that the ministry is preparing for a massive suit from the European Court, and for that reason is cleansing the roster,” said Ivanov.
The suit targets the heart of the NGO law. The court is demanding Russia explain how it determines who is a “foreign agent” and what constitutes “political activity” –two concepts that Russia’s non-profit sector has for years argued are impossibly broad and arbitrary.
Should the court find in favor of Russia’s NGOs, it could lead to the law’s unraveling – a major defeat for the Putin government as the 2018 elections approach.