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‘Are we really foreign agents?’ – Russia’s crackdown on civil society

Valentina Cherevatenko is head of the "Women of the Don" Alliance, an NGO in southern Russia's Rostov region © Alliance "Women of the Don"

By Valentina Cherevatenko, head of a Russian non-governmental organization (NGO) which is being sued under the so-called “foreign agents law”. The law, enacted by the Russian authorities late last year, requires any NGO receiving foreign funding and engaging in what it defines very loosely as “political activity” to register as an “organization performing the functions of a foreign agent”.

Earlier this year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our NGO – the “Women of the Don” Alliance, named after the mighty river Don which flows near our city Novocherkassk, in southern Russia’s Rostov region.

For 20 years we have focused on the promotion of human rights and peace through non-violent means. It came as a shock to us when in March this year our offices were raided by a host of authorities – the prosecution office, the tax office, the police, the security services, the fire brigade and the financial auditors. Ostensibly, they wanted to check on our activities in connection with the “foreign agents law”.

We have never kept our activities secret – we have helped thousands of people who can testify to this.

Our NGO has lawyers, human rights defenders and psychologists on hand to advise people from around the region on a range of issues affecting their everyday lives – family, labour, housing, pensions. More than 12,000 people have visited our surgeries.

More than 7,000 people – military and civilians, teachers and students; members of parliament and local administrations, journalists and police from all over Russia have taken part in our projects. In the last two decades, we have dealt with violence against women, gender discrimination, peace and cooperation between different peoples, cooperation with law enforcement and human rights.

Over time we have grown, and now we are one of the biggest and most influential NGOs in the Rostov Region. The “Women on the Don” Alliance includes eight groups and more than 60 activists in different cities across the region.

We have been providing material and psychological support to people who became destitute and homeless as a result of flooding in the town of Krymsk, which was completely submerged under water in July last year. With the help of 250 volunteers, soon after the flooding, we sent trucks with clothes, drinking water, hygiene materials and food. We organized a seminar to educate teachers from the town on how to counsel the victims of flooding.

Since last December we have been working on a project to promote dialogue and tolerance between different sectors of society. In this dialogue we want to promote different voices on the most important issues of our everyday life and we want this to be done in a civilized, tolerant manner. We want people to learn to respect different points of view.

So, are we really foreign agents? Who are we working for if not for our own people? How can our activities be viewed as “political”?

Russian law does not define what constitutes “political activity”. This has given the authorities free rein to prosecute NGOs on a whim!

In the last eight months following the March raid on our organization we have spent hours and hours trying to prove that our only aim is to help ordinary people in their everyday lives – is this a political ambition? Maybe this should be the ambition of all politicians.

The “Women of the Don” Alliance has nothing to be ashamed of and we have nothing to feel guilty for. We are proud of our work. That’s why, at a meeting of the organization we decided that we cannot and should not label ourselves as “foreign agents”.

The courts threw out all of the administrative charges against us. However, we are being sued now for refusing to register as “foreign agents”.

What will become of us, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to me, because my work is my life.

I know that everyday people who we have helped are phoning us to offer support.

The closure of our organization will affect so many people. It will be really awful if the authorities try to make us close down our organization by making life impossible.

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Read more:
The "Women of the Don" Alliance 
(NGO website)
Read more about Russia's restrictive laws in the September/October 2013 issue of Wire magazine

Russia: Voters’ rights NGO is first victim of ‘foreign agents’ law
 (News story, 25 April 2013)
Russian Federation: Freedom of Association at imminent risk 
(Public statement, 20 November 2012)