Russian NGO branded as ‘foreign agent’ after reporting on Russian military action in Ukraine

Russia’s official branding of a civil society organization as a “foreign agent”, an expression akin to “spying”, for speaking out on Ukraine is a sign of the country’s determination to suppress any information about its military activities there, Amnesty International said.

On 28 August, the Russian Ministry of Justice added the NGO “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg” to its official list of “foreign agents” under the 2012 law.

The decision came after its leader, Ella Polyakova, spoke publicly about the alleged death of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine against the Ukrainian forces.

Her organization received a list of some 100 Russian soldiers allegedly killed in Ukraine and a further 300 wounded, and demanded investigation into these allegations. The Kremlin denies sending troops to Ukraine and any direct Russian involvement in what it insists is Ukraine’s internal conflict.

“The timing of this decision indicates that the Kremlin is determined to muzzle its critics and keep a strong lid on any information which suggests that Russia plays a direct part in the conflict in Ukraine, although evidence to the contrary is mounting every day. The message is clear: if you dare to speak out, there will be serious reprisals,” said Sergei Nikitin, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director.

Ella Polyakova said that her organization had been subjected to numerous investigations over the last year, which seriously interfered with their daily work. 

“Our public call for investigation into the death of soldiers in Ukraine was probably the last drop which led to the decision to include us in the list of foreign agents,” she said.

Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg will contest the decision in court as they consider it to be unlawful. 

Ella Polyakova insists that the NGO does not receive any foreign funding. This, according to the law, is the necessary attribute of a “foreign agent”. The other necessary attribute is participation in political activities. According to the government, the NGOs’ political activities consist of  “forming public opinion” via their publications and seminars. 

Another NGO, the Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information, also known for its independent position and critical pronouncements, was added to the “foreign agent register” on the same day.

Russia’s so-called “foreign agent’s law” was passed in June 2012 and came into force in November 2012. It was changed earlier this year giving new powers to the Ministry of Justice to add NGOs to the register of “foreign agents” without their consent and without the need to go through lengthy court hearings as had been the case until recently.

Hundreds of NGOs in Russia have experienced unannounced “inspections” by the authorities since the law was enacted; several have been heavily fined for refusing to brand themselves “foreign agents”, and some forced to close down. Twelve independent NGOs have now been added to the register against their will, in the course of less than three months.