Lawfare to destroy ‘enemies within’ – Russian NGOs tagged as ‘foreign agents’

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.“Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

A blue banner embossed with Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous World War II lament is among the numerous wall hangings in the offices of Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg

The NGO’s founder Ella Polyakova, an experienced human rights defender and pacifist, sees it as a fitting parallel to the situation she currently faces. 

Soldiers’ Mothers is among hundreds of Russian NGOs to be targeted by inspections and other forms of persecution by the authorities under a draconian “foreign agents law” passed in July 2012. 

Since 28 August this year, it is among those that have been effectively tarred as foreign spies: organizations and their directors have simultaneously been smeared by Russia’s state-run media. 

In Russian, the term “foreign agents” has strong associations with Cold War-era espionage, bringing to mind other epithets such as “traitor” or “enemy”. 

Polyakova’s offence? She dared to speak publicly about the alleged death of Russian soldiers in Ukraine – in a climate where the Russian authorities have repeatedly denied any involvement the armed conflict.

In today’s Russia, it instantly raises eyebrows and invites increased scrutiny when organizations work on issues out of kilter with the party line.

According to Polyakova, “The main reason for the law was to prevent human rights organizations having an impact on public opinion.” 

Besides Soldiers’ Mothers – which defends the human rights of those serving in Russia’s armed forces – NGOs working on issues as disparate as election monitoring, the environment, homophobia and other discrimination are among those the Ministry of Justice accuses of “fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent”. 

‘An open lie’

Initially, the authorities expected the so-called “foreign agents” to register themselves as such and print the label on all publications. 

Instead, the NGOs banded together and railed against the title. They took their fight to the courts after making a pact to never agree to such terms voluntarily.

“‘Agent’ always means a person who is fulfilling the orders of someone else. That’s an open lie. This is unacceptable. No foreign donor ever gave us a specific order; we wouldn’t work like that,” said Oleg Orlov, chairman of the board of Moscow-based Human Rights Centre Memorial, which is among those targeted and works on a wide range of human rights issues. 

The law has two main rationales for labelling an NGO a “foreign agent”: it has to be involved in “political activities”, and it has to receive foreign funding. 

The greatest difficulty lies in defining “political activities”. The Russian authorities’ loose interpretation of the term puts a range of organizations on a collision course with state agencies.  

Oleg Novikov, spokesman for Public Verdict, an NGO that works to tackle police abuse, attributes this “primitive logic” to the authorities’ fear that foreign influences will erode their power base. 

His organization has been targeted merely for providing free legal assistance to those detained during and since mass opposition protests at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012. 

NGO raids

Shortly after the law came into force at the end of 2012, the federal Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of Justice began to inspect NGO offices. Their goal was to find some justification – however minor – to label the organizations as “foreign agents”.

Numerous NGOs described to Amnesty International how these inspections often lasted up to a month or more, and frequently involved a panoply of state bodies. Representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, tax inspectors, labour inspectors, the media regulator and sometimes even fire and sanitation officials took part. 

Even reporters from the national NTV channel sometimes accompanied the officials. On one such inspection of Amnesty International’s Moscow office in March 2012, staff were told the reporters’ presence was a “coincidence”.  

Some NGOs faced this ordeal more than once. Meanwhile, their legitimate work ground to a halt as they jumped through hoops to comply with these inspections. 

Those who were subsequently ordered to register as “foreign agents” faced stiff fines when they refused to do so. The ensuing legal battles and smear campaigns intimidated NGO workers, caused donations to atrophy and, in a few cases, prompted the organizations to close for good. 

The genie was out of the bottle, and worse was yet to come.

The second assault

Deflated by their initial failure to force independent NGOs to register as “foreign agents”, the Russian authorities further tweaked the law in June 2014. The Ministry of Justice was given the authority to unilaterally brand organizations as, effectively, foreign spies.

The affected NGOs have again become mired in lengthy court battles to clear their names. Around a dozen eventually took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, where it is ongoing. 

Meanwhile, persecution of the organizations has stepped up. 

“A new life started once the law was adopted,” said Polyakova, explaining that her office was broken into and some of her phone lines were cut. Calls to the organization’s hotline decreased, presumably out of fear the information would be monitored. 

Memorial had their Moscow offices vandalized twice – someone spray-painted “foreign agents” across the outside wall, and the entrance door was destroyed by unknown hooligans. 

Grigory Melkonyants, Deputy Director of Golos, Russia’s sole independent election watchdog network, spoke of waning public support: “In general, people’s attitude has changed towards NGOs. Politicians and officials have turned against us because of propaganda.” 

Golos returned €7,000 in prize money from the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award in 2012, but it didn’t stop them from being labelled “foreign agents” and becoming mired in many months of legal battles. 

There was a brief glimmer of hope last month, when a Moscow City Court ruled that the organization is not a “foreign agent”. But several days later, the Central Election Committee barred Golos observers from monitoring polling stations at Russia’s regional elections. 

There are fears that even harsher restrictions could be in the pipeline. New amendments to the law are already being discussed to stop representatives of any state agency from collaborating with an organization on the list. 

‘Enemies within’

The “foreign agents law” is at the centre of a raft of repressive legislation brought in since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.

Taken together, these laws reflect an official perception of civil society as a “fifth column” intent on undermining the state, explained Aleksandr Daniel, a leading historian with Memorial’s St. Petersburg Centre for Historical Research:

“At the moment, the official worldview is being formed. There is a concept of the state as always strong and surrounded by enemies – which operate via enemies within.”

This mind-set has only become more entrenched since March 2014, after Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Now anyone becomes a target if they question the state’s motivation or actions – and dissent is almost always instantly crushed. 

“I still cannot breathe freely considering all that is happening,” said Daniel. 

Working towards a better future

Russian NGOs remain adamant that their activities are aimed only at helping ordinary people in Russia. 

What makes the situation even more incredible is that their work is otherwise respected by the authorities. 

Several of the human rights organizations under attack are simultaneously receiving presidential grants for some of their activities. 

Ella Polyakova of Soldiers’ Mothers even sits on the President’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. She has urged the council to take the matter up directly with President Putin himself.

And so the struggle continues.

“Today we face problems with the government. We have substantially less support in society. But this doesn’t change our course. We have to do what we do – maybe we need to do it more intensely,” said Aleksandr Daniel.

Oleg Orlov agreed: “I’m a patriot – I love my country and want the situation to be better. Our government calls this politics. Though I think it’s a natural desire of any citizen to want to see an improvement.”

Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between 6 and 12 October Amnesty International activists stand with them in solidarity during a week of action to make sure Russia’s leaders know that the rest of the world will not be silent. Take action and find out more on