Open letter to Putin – 148 NGOs slam ‘foreign agents’ law

By Sergei Nikitin, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director

The offices of the NGO HRC Memorial in Moscow were vandalized with graffiti
The offices of the NGO HRC Memorial in Moscow were vandalized with graffiti “Foreign agent. Love USA”. © Yulia Orlova/HRC Memorial

It’s common knowledge that some members of the Soviet secret services came to work for the KGB after watching films about Soviet secret agents and enemy spies. Some openly admitted it.

In these films, Soviets were seen as scouts while foreigners were always portrayed as spies. For years, government censorship barred the foreign James Bond films from the Soviet screen, but the 90s era of videocassette recorders brought these in too. The spy, James Bond, was known by his codename – Agent 007. Despite his eye-catching appearance, all compatriots were convinced – he was not one of them.

As the years went by, fans of spy films moved on from the KGB to other positions, but it seems like the image of the foreign enemy agent has lingered in their memories. And, who knows, maybe this led to the idea that if you call someone you need to discredit an “agent”, the unpleasant associations would then do the trick. Russian people do not like “agents”.

In their view, anyone who criticizes the government – including civil society organizations – deserves to be defamed with this title.Among them were the NGOs who accused the government of human rights violations, in a bid to protect ordinary citizens from the authorities’ illegal actions. These defenders were a thorn in the side of Russia’s ruling elite. Hence, the decision was made that something had to be done with them.

Said and done.

Two years ago, the law adopted by the State Duma entered into force. It is universally known as the “Foreign Agents” law, despite the fact that it is actually an amendment to an old law “on non-commercial organisations”. The updated law with all its novelties wasn’t put into use at first, but in February 2013 the Russian Prosecutor’s Office began mass inspections of NGOs across the country. These inspections were followed by court hearings. The wide-scale campaign to smear NGOs began.

However, despite the authorities’ demands, human rights activists refused to call themselves foreign agents voluntarily. When all the Russian NGOs united in solidarity and declared, once for all, that they are not “agents”, it prompted widespread admiration.

Russian authorities had to rush to modify the fateful law. Following these amendments, “foreign agents” are now being unilaterally registered, without any judicial review. The leading human rights organizations are on this list too. Registration now consists of a penstroke by the Ministry of Justice. Just this week, two more organizations were put on the register and stigmatized by the “foreign agent” label.

Russian NGOs still reject the insulting stigma – none of the forcibly registered organizations is going to lie to themselves and to society. They are not “agents”. These people, representing various NGOs in different cities around our country are working for the good of our fellow citizens by helping those whose rights have been violated by the Russian authorities.

The past two years of pressure and denigration of civil society activists, the wave of state propaganda and streams of lies and insults have made the lives of human rights defenders, environmentalists and activists very difficult. Their struggle is widely known amongst their NGO colleagues in other countries, evident through numerous solidarity actions that have been conducted abroad in support of Russian civil society over the past two years.

Up to the present day, on the second anniversary of the shameful “Foreign Agents” law, almost 150 NGOs – national and international – have signed a letter to President Putin calling for him to overturn the disgraceful legislation.

Along with my colleagues from Amnesty International, and in the presence of journalists, this week I delivered this letter to the Presidential Administration. Our colleagues from 32 countries that have signed the letter are now waiting for Russian authorities to react.

We brought the letter with six pages of signatures and a 90cm x 150cm poster reprinting the words of the letter. To our great surprise, both were accepted, although the large poster caused some fuss among Presidential Administration employees.

One might say: “Oh, everything is meaningless.” It is nothing like that. More than 50 years of Amnesty International activism in every region of the world suggests the opposite.

There were darker days in the history of our country. We experienced numerous campaigns of lies and slander against individual citizens, groups of citizens and nations. Mudslingers have been always singing from the same song sheet as the authorities.

However, the inexorable course of history teaches us that truth is always restored and justice prevails. It may take years, and sometimes requires a lot of strength.

But we all know that those defamed and stigmatized with the “foreign agent” label are very brave and courageous people. And ultimately, this dark page of history will be remembered with disgust.

A version of this blog originally appeared (in Russian) on Ekho Moskvy’s website.

Read more:

Russia: Joint NGO letter to the President of the Russian Federation to stop clampdown on freedom of association (Open letter, 9 October 2014)Lawfare to destroy ‘enemies within’ – Russian NGOs tagged as ‘foreign agents’ (Feature, 9 October 2014)
Speak Out Russia! (Campaign)
Russian NGO branded as ‘foreign agent’ after reporting on Russian military action in Ukraine (News story, 24 August 2014)
Russia: A year on, Putin’s ‘foreign agents law’ choking freedom (News story, 20 November 2013)