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Russia launches dangerous new ‘foreign agent’ offensive against independent NGOs

Halya Coynash

New plans are underway to further stifle Russian human rights organizations and other NGOs whom the authorities have labelled ‘foreign agents’. These include the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre which plays a crucial role in monitoring Russia’s mounting repression in occupied Crimea,   The law on so-called foreign agents has enabled the regime to place independent NGOs under serious pressure since 2012, and the new legislation will give the Justice Ministry the right to prohibit specific programs, without any clearly defined list of reasons.  

Draft bill № 1052523-7  was submitted by the Government on 10 November, and it adoption by the State Duma is almost certainly merely a question of time.  Tatyana Glushkova from Memorial HRC notes that the key change proposed and, she believes, almost certain to be passed, is the imposition of preliminary control over the activities of the specific NGO,  NGOs labelled ‘foreign agents’ will be forced to send the Justice Ministry programs and other documents for carrying out events in advance of the launching of such programs and holding of the events. If the programs have not been prohibited, the NGOs will later have to report on their implementation and on whether the planned events were held.  The Justice Ministry will have the power to prohibit any particular program, and while it is stated that a reason must be provided, no exhaustive list of potential grounds is given. It seems likely, therefore, that any reason will be treated as sufficient. Failure to comply with such a ban will lead to the NGO’s dissolution.  “We are thus looking at what are effectively the gates to a hell of unlimited arbitrary will”, Glushkova writes.

The Law on Foreign Agents has been used as a weapon against civic NGOs since 2012.  The aim of branding renowned organizations, such the Memorial Society, as ‘foreign agents’, merely for receiving grants, is clearly to create the popular impression that these are ‘traitors’,  supposedly working for a foreign state - or in Stalinist terms, ‘enemies of the people’.  Glushkova notes that the initiators of this label constantly claimed that nothing was being prohibited.  The NGOs could continue doing what they were doing, and simply needed to label themselves as ‘foreign agents’ while doing so.  In April 2014, the Constitutional Court used this logic to claim that the imposition of such labels did not constitute state interference.  

This supposed lack of any bans was mere fiction.  In November 2014,, a mere 6 months after the Constitutional Court ruling, NGOs on the list of ‘foreign agents’ were prohibited from acting as observers at elections and referendums. In July 2018, such ‘foreign agent’ NGOs were also prohibited from putting forward candidates for the public committees which can visit political and other prisoners in detention.  In October that year they were also banned from carrying out anti-corruption expert assessments of normative-legal acts.  

In May 2015, the State Duma passed a draconian law on so-called ‘undesirable organizations’ with this allowing the authorities to ban any foreign or international NGO deemed  to threaten ‘state security’, ‘national defence capacity’, “public order and the health of the population” or ‘constitutional order’.  This seriously restricted the number of organizations that Russian NGOs, whether designated as ‘foreign agents’ or not, could take grants for their work.

In December 2017, the Russian Justice Ministry declared Krym.Realii, Real Time and many other services linked with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, as well as Voice of America, ‘media foreign agents’.  Moscow tried to present this as retaliation for the US-imposed requirement that RT [the Kremlin-funded Russia Today channel] register as an agent of a foreign government in America.  This was sheer nonsense.  While RT is a mouthpiece and propaganda tool for Moscow, the channels targeted are categorically not.  Russia has systematically crushed the independent media and freedom of speech in occupied Crimea, leaving Krym.Realii as one of the sole sources of reliable coverage of events and of human rights abuses under Russian occupation.

Then in December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into force a law making it possible to label virtually any journalist, blogger or civic activist a ‘foreign agent’.  Essentially any individual could be labelled a ‘foreign agent’ for circulating material produced by, for example, Krym.Realii, or for taking part in creating it, and for receiving money or assets from abroad, or from Russian legal entities receiving foreign funding.

After NGOs refused to voluntarily brand themselves as ‘foreign agents’, the Justice Ministry was given the power to do this by force. Since then, there have been astronomical fines against NGOs which do not place the ‘foreign agent’ label even on Facebook entries, etc.  It is clear from the systematic hounding of the Memorial Human Rights Centre and Memorial Society that the fines are intended to cripple and, ultimately, bankrupt NGOs, in particular those that report on rights abuses, rampant corruption, etc. and / or that seek to hold the regime to account.



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