Russia: Four years of Putin’s ‘Foreign Agents’ law to shackle and silence NGOs

More than a hundred organizations have seen their funding shrink, their reputations tarnished, and their staff intimidated under Russia’s draconian “foreign agents” law, said Amnesty International ahead of the fourth anniversary of its coming into force on 21 November 2012.

A new report ‘Agents of the people’: Four years of “foreign agents” law’ in Russia highlights the high price Russian society has paid as independent critical non-governmental organizations have been forced to close, valuable services have been restricted and scrutiny of government policy in a wide range of areas has been silenced in what amounts to a calculated assault on freedom of expression.

The foreign agents law was designed to shackle, stigmatise, and ultimately silence critical NGOs.

Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia

“The foreign agents law was designed to shackle, stigmatise, and ultimately silence critical NGOs. It has caught a wide range of NGOs in its net and come at considerable cost to individual rights and the quality of civic discussion in Russia. The ultimate losers are not just NGOs but Russian society,” said Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia.

In the last four years, 148 organizations have been included on the list of “foreign agents”, of which 27 have closed down altogether. These NGOs have performed important roles in protecting the rights of ordinary people. In many cases they provided services that the state has failed to provide, such as legal representation or psychological support for victims of discrimination or violence and environmental monitoring.

These vital contributions to the wellbeing of people in Russia are now either blocked or under threat because the NGOs risk being – or have already been – considered to engage in “political activity” and labelled “foreign agents” under the 2012 law.

Amendments to the law passed in June this year have served only to extend the extraordinary breadth of proscribed “political activity”, to include virtually any form of commentary on public policy or the actions of public officials.

Amnesty International examined cases of more than a dozen NGOs listed as “foreign agents” and conducted interviews with their leadership and staff. They include organizations working on a wide range of issues including: discrimination, the protection of women’s and LGBTI rights, the preservation of historical memory, academic research, criminal justice and prison system reform, consumers’ rights, and environmental issues. The one common theme is that all the organizations sought to engage people in the critical evaluation of government policy.

While funding in Russia was always limited, accessing it has become even harder in the wake of the aggressive demonising of NGOs in the Russian media. The effect of the “foreign agents” law has been to make funding from abroad – the only alternative available to NGOs – an insecure source of funds that brings considerable reputational and legal risk. Any NGO which has foreign funding and engages in what is deemed to be political activity is liable to fall foul of that law.

It is pretty clear that the main aim of the Russian authorities has been to stifle the growth of a critically engaged civil society and replace it with docile, dependent supporters of government policy. This scorched earth approach to civil society is not in Russia’s best long-term interests

Sergei Nikitin

While the law clearly says that “activities to protect the plant and animal world” should not be considered “political”, at least 21 environmental organizations have been included on the “foreign agents” register. 

When environmental centre Dront based in Nizhnii Novgorod (Central Russia) applied to be taken off the list, their request was refused on the grounds that they had received foreign funding. The three sources of funding cited were: 500 roubles ($8) from Bellona-Murmansk to subscribe to Dront’s newspaper, Bereginja; a loan from another environmental NGO listed as a “foreign agent”, Zelenyi Mir (Green World), which was repaid by Dront before the inspection; and, even more surprisingly, a grant from Sorabotnichestvo, a foundation run by the Russian Orthodox Church.

“It turned out, [the Church] gets some cash inflow from Cyprus and that’s why our regional Ministry of Justice (in strict conformity with the law, mind you) counted this money as ‘foreign’. It is a strange, surreal situation,” said Dront’s Chair Ashkat Kaiumov.

After Dront was ordered to pay a 300,000 rouble fine (around $4,800) on 1 February 2016 the organization’s leadership decided to temporarily suspend its activities until it is removed from the “foreign agents” list. Meanwhile it will continue working as an unregistered public movement which does not need official sanction.

If the Dront case exemplifies the slow strangulation of an organization, the attack on the Union of the Don Women showcases the persistent persecution of an NGO. It was one of the first organizations to fall under the “foreign agents” law in 2014, when the Ministry of Justice was given powers to compulsorily include organizations into its list.  As a response, the activists, set up a new organization, the Foundation of the Don Women, to carry on the work. However in October 2015 this too was declared a “foreign agent”.

On 24 June 2016 its head Valentina Cherevatenko was informed that a criminal case under Article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code had been opened against her for “willfully evading responsibilities” under the “foreign agents” law. If found guilty, Valentina could face up to two years in jail

Amnesty International calls on the Russian authorities to repeal the “foreign agents” law and lift arbitrary restrictions on NGOs’ work.

“The Russian authorities should be robust enough to accept constructive criticism from civil society groups and learn to work with them – not against them. The first step on this way is to repeal the ‘foreign agents’ law  and lift other arbitrary restrictions on NGOs’ work,” said Sergei Nikitin.