World-renowned Memorial Society Targeted in Russian ‘Foreign Agent’ Clampdown
Foreign agent image from RFERL
As well as effectively paralyzing the Levada Centre, Russia’s main independent pollster by formally labelling it a ‘foreign agent’, the justice ministry has initiated the same procedure with the renowned Memorial Society. The situation here is rather different, but the aim surely identical, that being to undermine, if not totally crush, independent civic organizations working in Russia.
Memorial has announced that the justice ministry began its unscheduled ‘check’ on September 5. This was officially on the instruction of the Prosecutor General’s Office “in order to establish the presence (absence) of signs that the organization as a non-commercial organization is carrying out the functions of a foreign agent”. Memorial have had to provide the justice ministry with documents pertaining to their work over the last 4 years, with over 30 thousand pages. The results of this ‘check’ are expected before September 30.
The justice ministry applied back in October 2014 to the Supreme Court to get Memorial dissolved. There was outrage which may, or may not, have been the reason for the ministry in January 2015 withdrawing the application.
In an interview to Radio Svoboda, Alexander Cherkasov, Head of the Board of Memorial, pointed to the absurdity of the situation. The organization is, in full, the ‘International Memorial Society’. How can an international NGO be labelled a ‘foreign agent’? In fact, Cherkasov notes, Russia’s Constitutional Court has left no scope for doubt or rhetorical questions. In April 2014, it judged that international NGOs cannot be foreign agents. Yet the check was ordered and is being carried out.
Cherkasov suggests that the new search is not necessarily the latest attack on Memorial, but rather a mechanism which works blindly, without engaging the brain. “This mechanism methodically finds anything that moves to be a foreign agent.”
This mechanism has certainly already targeted some parts of Memorial like the Memorial Human Rights Centre which was labelled a foreign agent back in 2013. Memorial HRC has no political agenda at all, but it has for many years monitored human rights abuse in Chechnya and the northern Caucuses, and politically motivated prosecutions throughout the Russian Federation and, recently, Russian-occupied Crimea.
Cherkasov says that one of the results has been that they spend much more time and effort on total nonsense. They have to provide detailed reports to the justice ministry four times a year, and there is an annual check for which they have to provide a huge number of documents.
They received a large fine last year for material which wasn’t labelled ‘foreign agent’, and another such case, on the basis of a denunciation, is pending. They are, in fact, not putting ‘foreign agent’ on their publications, meaning that in principle, they could be closed. Another problem is that some government structures refuse to work with organizations labelled as ‘foreign agents’.
Then in October 2015, the justice ministry came up with some very serious allegations against Memorial HRC, claiming that it was undermining the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional order and calling for the overthrow of the regime.
Memorial HRC, according to the justice ministry, was “undermining the foundations of the constitutional order” by forming negative public opinion “regarding the state policy undertaken by the highest bodies of State power; by expressing disagreement with the decisions and actions of the said Institutes of power, with the results of criminal investigations and court verdicts on high-profile criminal cases”.
The examples cited included Memorial HRC’s statement on July 29, 2014 that Russia’s actions against Ukraine fall under the definition of aggression. “In the view of the organization’s leaders, there was direct engagement by Russian soldiers in fight on the territory of another country. – against the legitimate authorities of a neighbouring country”.
The same Ministry officials noted that Memorial HRC had condemned the sentence passed by a Moscow court over the so-called 2012 anti-Putin protests on Bolotnaya Square. They repeat the authorities’ claims about the protests, then conclude that Memorial HRC “is expressing disagreement with a verdict passed by the Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow, in the name of the Russian Federation, with respect to the above-named individuals who organized mass riots, took part in them, called others to mass riots and violence against citizens, and to active participation in mass riots”.
The assessment given by Memorial HRC of the Bolotnaya Square prosecutions has been echoed by Amnesty International and other international NGOs.
In November 2015, the justice ministry also forcibly added the St Petersburg Memorial Research and Information Centre to its register of so-called ‘foreign agents’. This was described by Arseny Roginsky from the International Memorial Society as “a huge blow for all those involved in remembering the victims of the Soviet Terror”.
Under the present Kremlin leadership, Russia is becoming increasingly intent on ‘rehabilitating the perpetrators, including Joseph Stalin, and muffling information about their victims. The same is true of modern victims, as a glance at the organizations which are forcibly labelled ‘foreign agents’ demonstrates.
The law on so-called ‘foreign agents’ was first passed in 2012. Russian NGOs engaged in something termed ‘political activity’ and receiving any funding from abroad had to register as a ‘foreign agent’. The law was boycotted by a lot of civic organizations, so in June 2014 Putin signed into force a law which allows the Justice Ministry to forcibly include organizations on the register with this significantly restricting their rights and possibilities. A new law which Putin signed exactly one year later was slammed by rights organizations as being aimed at destroying civil society altogether. ‘Political activity’ has been so widely defined that it effectively includes criticism of corrupt officials, or groups of citizens who band together in defence of socio-economic rights. And, now, the Levada Centre which has increasingly been revealing growing dissatisfaction in the country.