Mikhail Metzel / EPA

NGOs in Russia suffer as Putin targets ‘foreign agents’

With steep fines and government inspections, Kremlin escalates enforcement of law regulating civil society groups

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Viktor Voronkov has seen it all before. Arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1983 for disseminating dissident literature, he went on to play a major role in developing Russia’s civil society at a time when the authoritarian system he fought against was nearing collapse.

Today Voronkov, a 69-year-old sociologist, believes tactics reminiscent of that system have returned to haunt him. Branded a foreign agent under the government’s newly toughened law against foreign-funded NGOs, the Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), which he founded almost 25 years ago in St. Petersburg, has been drawn into a potentially crippling legal battle with the state.

Facing onerous auditing requirements, intrusive government inspections and a hefty fine if he loses his appeal against the decision, he is counting the cost of continuing his work.

“We’ll ask for support from colleagues, from those we’ve helped before. But it’s going to be very expensive to keep going,” he said.

Since returning to Russia’s presidency three years ago, Vladimir Putin has launched a crusade against foreign influence. Seeing Western meddling in protests against his disputed re-election in 2012 and involvement of U.S.-funded NGOs in the revolution that toppled Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych last year, the Kremlin has ratcheted up a campaign to rein in outside forces. Organizations linked to Russia’s nascent civil society, which attracted much Western backing in the 1990s, have been the primary targets of the clampdown. Now with parliamentary elections next year, the campaign has geared up.

In July 2012, Putin signed into force a law obliging all nonprofits that receive funding from abroad and engage in political activity to join a government registry of organizations “performing the functions of a foreign agent.” An amendment from June 2014 empowered the state to add organizations without their consent, and the campaign to populate the registry has gathered pace. The CISR, which since its inception in 1991 has subsisted almost entirely on foreign grants, is among dozens of organizations under growing pressure from the authorities. 

On March 6, the organization received a warning from the Justice Ministry, giving it until April 20 to file a request to join the list. The political activities that the CISR is accused of conducting include the publication of an advice pamphlet for judges, the hosting of a debate in which negative comments about the government were made and an online advertisement for an academic book on Russia’s protest movement.

Voronkov is convinced the allegations are a mere pretext for carrying out the Kremlin’s agenda. 

“This law brings with it a sharp increase in [state] control. Today everything qualifies as politics. The very word ‘political’ is a red light for the authorities,” he said.

Almost all of Russia’s nonprofits opted to boycott the law when it came into force. A nationwide inspection of NGOs and advocacy groups that commenced in the spring of 2013, resulted in lawsuits by the Justice Ministry against those refusing to join the foreign agent registry. Among the groups that became involved in protracted legal battles were human rights group Memorial and election watchdog Golos, whose activity the state suspended that June.

The amendment grants state organs the power to brand any organization a foreign agent if, after an official warning, it fails to join the list voluntarily. The next day the Justice Ministry added five organizations to the registry, including Golos, and 52 have been added since, with several facing imminent inclusion. An updated list is published on the Justice Ministry’s website.

Refusing to register

If found guilty of failing to register, an organization is fined up to 500,000 rubles ($9,640) and is placed on the list automatically, with its director liable to face an additional 300,000 ruble penalty.

The largest fine imposed under the law so far has been against the Regional Press Institute, another St. Petersburg-based nonprofit, whose declared aim is the “development in Russia of independent media able to become the basis of a stable democratic society.”

Since opening in 1993 as the Russian-American Informational Press Center, the Regional Press Institute has relied entirely on foreign funding. In its two decades of existence, it has had various run-ins with the authorities, on several occasions coming under pressure to vacate its premises near the city center. On March 23 it paid 400,000 rubles for losing an appeal against its foreign agent branding.

Anna Sharogradskaya, 73, the institute’s founder and director, said half of the money to pay the fine came from donations, with the remaining 175,000 coming out of her pocket.

“I refused outright to register as a foreign agent. Semantically it already sounds like we’re guilty of a crime, and we won’t slander ourselves and those who assist us financially,” she said.

Close connections in the West caused problems for Sharogradskaya in the past. Her five-hour detainment at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport in July 2014 attracted international attention. Officials seized her laptop, iPad and 11 memory sticks containing materials she prepared for her annual two-month teaching stint in Bloomington, Indiana. The equipment was returned 10 months later, no longer operable. Charges against her of extremism, which carry a maximum four-year sentence, have since been dropped, although she said she still faces administrative charges connected to the incident. 

‘No prior warning’

The stepped-up campaign against foreign-funded NGOs has left many such groups fearful of intrusive searches and unannounced inspections. Those on the registry claim to have been subjected to increased bureaucratic demands, including excessive audits, the cost of which they must pay.

One of them is the St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, which provides legal advice to Russian army conscripts and first came under pressure when it began documenting reports of Russian deaths in Ukraine’s armed conflict. The latest audit is set to cost the organization 55,000 rubles. With its funds tied up, it has also turned to the public for help making ends meet.

“All the money is designated for specific projects. We can’t touch it. We can’t simply take money from one project and assign it elsewhere. Otherwise we’ll be violating the terms of our grant,” said the organization’s lawyer, Alexander Gorbachev, adding that about half the required sum has so far been donated.

According to Gorbachev, more than 10 government inspections have taken place at the organization’s offices in the past two years.

After securing a government grant last year, the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee terminated all outside funding. That grant is set to expire in July, and director Ella Polyakova doesn’t know if it will be extended. Despite her position on the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council, she has been unable to fix the organization’s problems. Today she describes the Human Rights Council as little more than a symbolic discussion club, adding that directors of several other organizations now branded foreign agents are also on its board.

Complaining of mounting administrative and financial pressure, several St. Petersburg NGOs have sought assistance from the Human Rights Resource Center, one of a handful of organizations in Russia offering advice to nonprofits. On March 27 the center released a report, “‘Foreign Agents’: Mythical Enemies and Russian Society’s Real Losses,” which analyzed 41 cases of forcible inclusion on the state registry.

The report criticized the formulation of the 2012 law, which defines political activity as “involvement in the organization and execution of political actions aimed at influencing state organs to change their political course” and “forming of social opinion with the above aims.” It noted that 70 different accusations of political activity were made against NGOs, including comments about the conflict in Ukraine and analysis of Russia’s legal system.

Since appearing on the registry, three organizations have opted to close down, with the resource center’s assistance, citing pressure associated with foreign agent status. A fourth, the St. Petersburg–based Freedom of Information Foundation, has ceased activity indefinitely after an unsuccessful appeal against the branding.

‘Eliminating’ the NGO sector

According to center director Maria Kanevskaya, Western-backed NGOs are perceived by the government as a primary source of funding for opposition forces, and the campaign against them is gathering pace.

“The state is basically eliminating the infrastructure of Russia’s NGO sector ahead of the 2016 elections. That’s what they planned to do [with this law], and they’re succeeding,” she said.

A clause added to the law on March 4, 2015, allows organizations that have not been receiving foreign funding or engaging in political activity for 12 months to be taken off the foreign agent registry. Kanevskaya said three organizations have applied for exclusion. While the resource center has been assisting them in the process, it is unclear how long it will continue its work.

Because of growing pressure and a lack of results, the organization has decided to close down, said Kanevskaya, who described the decision as personal.

“This law carries many dangers for directors of NGOs. To protect yourself personally, it’s safer to close. We cannot continue under the current circumstances. We just don’t see the point with the risks involved,” she said.

Many Russian NGOs continue in their efforts to challenge the Justice Ministry’s rulings. In a high-profile case on April 21, Transparency International Russia lost an appeal against its inclusion on the registry two weeks earlier. Others are seeking ways to reorient their activities or slip off the state’s radar. Some, like Golos and a number of LGBT groups, have reregistered abroad or established affiliates in other countries.

In the meantime, Russia’s Justice Ministry denies any discrimination against foreign-funded organizations, maintaining that inclusion in the state registry does not prevent them from receiving outside financing nor from continuing their political activities.

“[This law] does not bring any added restrictions to the activity of Russian nonprofit organizations. Instead, in accordance with international practices, it introduces necessary transparency to the process by which [they] receive outside funds. Its main aim is to bring openness to the activities of nonprofits and to introduce proper controls on their work, including on the part of society,” the ministry said in a written statement.

Voronkov of the CISR sees things very differently. For him, the foreign agent branding represents a major existential obstacle for many civil society organizations.

He has appealed the CISR’s status, citing a clause in the 2012 law that lists research among several fields excluded from the definition of political activity. But he and his 25 colleagues at the CISR are not optimistic. As they anticipate the court ruling, they are beginning to adjust to what Voronkov calls the “yellow star” on their shoulder, referring to the badge Nazis required Jews to wear during World War Two.

“In the Soviet Union criticism was banned, and powerful repressions took place. Now we’re gradually heading in that direction. Back then, we didn’t even imagine we could be free, but in the ’90s we tasted real freedom. What makes today worse is that we’re moving to fear from the freedom we knew,” he said.

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