Russia: the witch hunt to identify ‘foreign agents’

On 29 April, the Russian delegation at its Universal Period Review at the United Nations stated that it is not illegal to be a foreign agent, there are no repercussions for being considered a foreign agent – the legislation is only there to identify which NGOs receive foreign funding for political activities.

Then why create a witch hunt, whereby state-controlled media in Russia join in unannounced inspections, which are lead by the General Prosecutor’s Office, implying an organisation is doing something wrong, requiring an immediate response and a mountain of paper-work to be submitted? Especially when this information is actually already available with another state agency – the Ministry of Justice! And why introduce the term ‘foreign agent’, which has the connotation in Russian of a spy, enemy of the state? And why is submitting a report to an UN monitoring body considered a ‘political activity’?

The above are the open questions that follow inspections of non-profit organisations, which have had or are receiving foreign funding from 21 November 2012 onwards, the date the Law on Non-Profit Organisations as Foreign Agents came into force. The justification for the adoption of the law is based on the existence of the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). However, the US has always publicly stated that FARA is not aimed specifically at NGOs, but is largely applied to law firms and public relations agencies hired by a foreign government acting as an agent of a foreign principal.

To date at least 40 organisations are considered by the Russian authorities to be ‘foreign agents’. Four organisations have so far been charged with violating the law, by failing to register as such. The first was the organisation Golos (Voice), and its executive director, Lilyia Shabanova, who were fined 300,000 RUB and 100,000 RUB respectively.  The organisation, which works towards electoral reform, refutes it received foreign funding after the law came into force.  Whilst Golos had been awarded the Andrey Sakharov Freedom Award from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, they returned the cash prize once it arrived on their bank account.

The second organisation charged with violating the law was the Kostroma Centre for Civic Initiatives; election monitoring and a February round table “Resetting the Reset: Where Are Russian-American Relations Heading?’ were considered ‘political’.

And lastly – the Anti-Discrimination Unit of human rights organisation Memorial, which submitted a monitoring report to the UN Committee against Torture, which considered the Russian Federation in November 2012. This particular activity in itself is now considered a ‘political’ activity, making human rights work as a whole a precarious line of work, and makes one wonder if the Russian authorities consider all non-governmental organisations to be engaged in politics?

Following the Universal Periodic Review at the end of April a Russian commentator compared the foreign agent law and its requirement to officially register and for organisations to indicate their ‘foreign agentness’ on all their publications as the requirement by the German authorities in 1934 for Jews to start carrying a yellow start – enabling them to be ‘identified’.  A horrific comparison, but one that again reminds us of the question – why – what is the purpose of this legislation other than the impact it now has on civil society, intimidating, frustrating and paralysing their work in Russia?

Nathalie Losekoot is Senior Programme Officer, Europe at Article 19

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