Nikita Shvetsov / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Russia uses ‘foreign agents’ law to muzzle dissent

Broad application of the legislation could spell disaster for Russian civil society and environmental activists

June 15, 2015 2:00AM ET

On June 6 thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow to protest against a government crackdown on environmental and civil society groups. The Planet of Hopes, a nonprofit that promotes environmental and ecological education, is one of the 68 nongovernmental organizations that were put on the list of “foreign agents” since June 2014.

Russia’s Channel One TV claims that the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is paying the Planet of Hopes and its founder Nadezhda Kutepova to engage in industrial espionage and expose Russian nuclear secrets. On May 27, Russian officials fined Kutepova for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” She faces additional fines and possible jail time.

The first Russian civil society organizations in the post-Cold War era were formed around local environmental concerns. Since then, eco-friendly groups have enjoyed a favored status in Russia largely because they are not engaged in overt political activities such as holding rallies or political campaigns. In fact, the 2012 Foreign Agents law, which requires organizations that receive funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, excludes environmental advocacy groups from its purview.

Their localized focus and actions to protect the Russian landscape has helped them make a strong case for loyalty to Russia. However, over the past few months local political and business interests have been using the controversial law to dispense with NGOs that get in the way of development. The ease with which the law can be abused could spell disaster both for Russian civil society and environmental regulation.

European Environment Foundation / YouTube.com

Kutepova’s troubles go beyond receiving funds from external sources. For 15 years she has irritated local business and political forces with her advocacy. She represents plaintiffs suing the Russian government for damages related to radioactive poisoning from the state-run Mayak Enterprise, a former plutonium plant that now reprocesses spent nuclear fuel for the nuclear industry. She also defends the residents of Russia’s closed cities, walled-off towns created during the Cold War to protect nuclear secrets. Access to these cities is restricted to residents who have passes and visitors must receive permission to enter. Kutepova maintains that the pass-only system denies the cities’ residents basic civil rights such as freedom of movement and the right to have friends and family visit.

Russia’s Foreign Agent law is similar to the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act, but the U.S. law does not apply to nonprofits and has not produced a prosecution since World War II. Initially, the Ministry of Justice was reluctant to pursue NGOs that did not self-register. (Only two NGOs registered up until June 2014). For a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Human Rights Commissioner, Ella Pamfilova, appeared to waver on how judicial and police officials should apply the law, especially to groups that were not engaged in open political activities. Their indecision ended a year ago, when the Ministry of Justice started placing dozens of nonprofits that did not self-register on the list of foreign agents.

Routine inspections under the law have brought down on these NGOs a tempest of federal and regional inspectors — tax auditors, fire inspectors, state auditors looking for accounting irregularities and child protection workers searching for LGBT literature that is deemed inappropriate for minors. Each branch of government can and often does issue fines or file complaints against non-profit organizations. The inspection process alone amounts to a form of official harassment that can easily drive small and poorly funded NGOs out of business. The more resistant organizations such as the Planet of Hopes are gradually worn down, as more time and money is taken up answering official queries.

‘Our staff of four is made up of single mothers and a pensioner, who became an invalid after working on the Chernobyl clean up. I can’t think of a less likely fifth column.’

Nadezhda Kutepova

In the past few years, for example, regional officials have brought the Planet of Hopes to court alleging embezzlement and tax evasion, while local police confiscated Kutepova’s pass to her closed city, effectively placing her under house arrest. Kutepova successfully fought each charge in local and regional courts. The latest charges against Kutepova point to a more ominous drift. In her appeal, Kutepova quotes the Ministry of Justice’s allegations that the Planet of Hopes’ work defending those suffering from health problems related to radioactive contamination from the Mayak plant has “sharpened the sense of environmental hazards,” which generates “negative opinions” and “political tensions” in the region. The Ministry considers her work a political activity that poses a “threat to Russian national security.”

Media reports have gone farther, alleging that Kutepova is paid by the NED to invent public health problems and wage a fake campaign citing civil rights violations to make the city “an open door to western rivals.”

Still, the crackdown on NGOs and human rights activists is not a concerted effort to shut down civil society in Russia. Instead it represents a perfect storm of various political, media and business interests in Russian society that utilize the law to advance their own interests.

At the federal level, the uptick in application of the law shows a rising level of insecurity among Russian authorities to even relatively innocuous, dissident voices. Local political parties have requested inspections of potential foreign agents to harass rivals. Local businessmen use the law to get troublesome environmentalists out of the path of development, whether it is to halt the construction of a waste incinerator, nuclear power plant or a highway through a national park. Regional politicians have deployed the law to dispense with human rights groups concerned with police brutality and discrimination against ethnic and sexual minorities.

The multi-faceted utility of the law makes it an enticing tool, one that is increasingly difficult for NGOs to surmount. In part because of the U.S. history of spying on enemies and allies alike, there appears to be little that can be done from outside Russia without exacerbating charges of foreign meddling. As during the Soviet period, those in the United States can only watch and report.

Meanwhile, Kutepova will fight this charge as she has others — legally, in court. She plans to appeal the Ministry of Justice’s recent fine of $6,000 for failure to register as a foreign agent.

“We make a strange nest of spies,” Kutepova said with a grin responding to questions about the charges of industrial espionage. “Our staff of four is made up of single mothers and a pensioner, who became an invalid after working on the Chernobyl clean up. I can’t think of a less likely fifth column.”

Kate Brown is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of two award-winning books: "Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters" and “A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland." Her most recent book "Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten" will be published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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