Russia to answer for its ‘foreign agent’ law in European Court of Human Rights

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

Russia’s Justice Ministry is finally ready to offer a defense of its “foreign agent” law which says the 2012 legislation has actually been good for the country’s non-profit sector, and doesn’t differ from similar laws imposed on NGOs by the West.

The 130-page written response comes in answer to a suit filed by 62 Russian non-profits before the European Court of Human Rights, which seeks to overturn restrictions aimed at civil society groups in Russia that accept foreign money.

The case has ground on for nearly a year as Russia’s Justice Ministry has asked for extensions to answer the suit. But lawyers representing the non-profit plaintiffs said Wednesday they have finally received the thrust of the Ministry’s argument.

“Essentially, they are saying the law has been a positive thing,” said Maria Kanevskaya, a lawyer with the non-profit Jurists Club, which is representing the NGOs before the court in Strasbourg, France.

The Ministry further argues that countries like the United States and Germany have similar laws on the books to monitor the activities of groups that receive international funding.

Russian NGOs will, of course, disagree, and Kanevskaya has until January 16 to present her arguments to the court.

The initial legislation, brought into force when Russian President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented nationwide street protests, targets non-profits that receive even small amounts of funding from outside.

The groups are examined for suspected “political activity,” and are branded by the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents,” a laden term that Russians unquestioningly associate with espionage. The ministry then publicized the list and forces groups to advertise their foreign agent status.

The debate over what, in fact, constitutes political activity has raged since the law took effect, and non-profits charged before the European Court that the term is intentionally elastic and gets applied to anyone the government doesn’t like.

The law’s repercussions have been staggering. By 2015, as the law neared its third birthday, it had forced the closure of more than a third of the NGOs operating in Russia, one of which was Bellona Murmansk. The Environmental Rights Center Bellona followed earlier this year.

Environmental groups have taken a disproportionate fall as a result of the law. In nearly every case, they are charged with political activity for ordinary acts of environmental advocacy, often in cooperation with state institutions and industries.

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

Both of Bellona’s Russian offices were said to be acting politically simply for trying to influence public opinion on environmental matters – a charge familiar to most of the NGOs currently involved in the suit at the European Court of Human Rights.

Ecodefence, a Russian anti-nuclear group, and one of the main plaintiffs in the case, was told its protests of a nuclear power plant build in Kaliningrad amounted to anti-government activity.

The European Court of Human Rights now wants Russia’s Justice Ministry to describe on what criteria it names foreign agents, and how it determines the dooming notion of political activity. As Russia has signed on to the European Convention of Human Rights, the court could conceivably demand that Moscow strike down the law.

But Kanevskaya said the Justice Ministry is turning back to some shopworn arguments to defend the law.

“They say that the law doesn’t violate the European Convention, and that Europe and the United States have restrictive legislation on foreign financing as well,” she said.

America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 has been a favorite trope of the Ministry in justifying Russia’s legislation. The act, which was conceived to choke funding for Nazi propaganda, has been since used only to reveal, though not restrict or prevent, lobbying by foreign governments.

Even then, the burden of proving a group is acting at the behest of foreign interests is on the US government – which Kanevskaya noted is not the case in Russia.

She said the foreign agent designation amounted essentially to a death sentence for affected NGOs.

“At practically any moment, the government can liquidate an NGO by calling it a foreign agent,” she said.

Once an NGO is on the foreign agent list, she said, the Ministry can essentially bleed it out of existence with a steady flow of fines and court battles to clear its name.

Despite the suit, Most NGO leaders in Russia are not actually expecting that a favorable ruling by the European Court would make much difference. In 2015, Putin signed legislation that allows the country’s Constitutional Court to throw out any decisions the European Court might hand down.