Russia’s Scarlet Letter NGOs

In May the Russian government tightened the reins on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating across the country. President Vladimir Putin gave the green light for Russian authorities to ban the activities of “undesirable foreign or international organizations.” Groups deemed ‘undesirable’ will be forced to cease all activity in Russia and prohibited from communicating through local media sources. This new law criminalizes any collaboration with such groups. Violations of the law will also be met with heavy fines, restrictions on travel and prison sentences of up to six years.

Seen as a threat to “fundamental freedoms” by Amnesty International, the “undesirables” law is built upon another controversial ruling that has already been in place since 2012. In 2012, NGOs became required to register as ‘foreign agents’ to signify their participation in ‘political activity’ and the financial support they receive from abroad, or risk closure. Failure to do so could result in a fine up to over $16,000 with leaders being fined up to $10,000.

The main targets are human rights organizations that monitor local and national elections as well as advocate for underrepresented minorities.

The law sparked international outcry and resistance from NGOs that felt the term ‘foreign agent’ sustained troubling ties to the Stalinist era of purges, suspicion and Soviet isolation. Indeed, in Russia, ‘foreign agent’ is near synonymous with ‘traitor’ or ‘spy,’ Human Rights Watch points out.

In March 2013, the government launched an inspection campaign across Russia. At the time of inspection, around 20 groups were forced to comply with the law, while 55 were warned. ‘Foreign agents’ are required to refer to themselves as such on every publication, email, and website or risk further consequences.

As of July 24, the Ministry of Justice has registered 76 organizations as ‘foreign agents.’ Among such organizations is an association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights known as ‘Golos’, the Human Rights Center ‘Memorial’, and Transparency International Russia. Some of these organizations, such as the League of Women Voters in St. Petersburg and the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov were shut down in May.

To many these moves seem to indicate a retreat back into Cold War paranoia.

Since the passing of the foreign agent law, several organizations have been harassed and/or evicted from their offices. The offices of noteworthy human rights organizations in Moscow such as The Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Public Movement for Human Rights have been vandalized with graffiti suggesting their role as spies or traitors.

While endangered organizations can challenge their ‘foreign agent’ status in court, the majority of such cases have been unsuccessful. Consequently, many groups choose to cease activity rather than carry the scarlet letter of a foreign agent.

The problem with isolating NGOs for ‘political activity’ is that ‘political activity’ can mean anything, as many critics of the law have observed. Advocacy and human rights work can be categorized as ‘political activity.’ Essentially, the terminology used in this law provides Russian authorities with vast authority to restrict the activity of any NGO perceived as a threat.

Tanya Lokshina, Russian program director for Human Rights Watch, explains, “The bill is aimed at cutting them off from their international partners, further isolating them, and squeezing the very life out of Russian civil society."

To many these moves seem to indicate a retreat back into Cold War paranoia. Suspicion surrounding civil society in Russia is by no means a new issue. As the largest country in the world, leaders of Russia have continually had to wrestle with maintaining domestic stability across a landmass inhabited by over 185 ethnic groups. The policies of tsars, Soviet leaders, and now Putin have swung between openness to the world and suspicion.

During Putin’s first term in office, various measures were taken to limit the activity of organizations. In 2003, School of Peace, a Russian NGO that exists to defend the rights of Meskhetian Turks, faced possible closure.The foreign agent law became attractive to Putin following accusations of voting violations in the 2010 parliamentary election. These accusations triggered protests nationwide. A major suspect for the release of this information was Golos, a pro-democracy Russian NGO that monitors voting.

Because these NGOs find sympathizers in the West, they are suspect organizers behind dissidence in Russia—to permit them to operate without restrictions would be to risk a color revolution. The notion that pro-democracy groups desire revolution has been widely spread by pro-Kremlin media. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the resulting international community’s disapproval, import bans, and diplomatic tension have altered Russia’s image in the international community. These laws are just another example of the governments’ desire to limit dissidence.

A Public Justice Issue

It is not difficult to see how the Russian government’s tenuous relationship with its civil society is an issue of public justice.

The foreign agent law is repressive on a number of levels. Amendments made to the law in 2014 authorized the parliament to register groups as foreign agents without their consent. Furthermore, the ambiguity of these restrictive laws may prove unconstitutional, as Ella Pamfilova, Russian human rights commissioner, has argued. Pamfilova explains, “There are no clear legal criteria to determine the status of an undesirable foreign or international organization on the territory of the Russian federation.” Evidently, the vague legal framework for targeting NGOs provides ample space for abuses of the law.

Aside from ambiguity, the main issue is the existence of such harsh restrictions on NGO activity. The state has a role to protect the interests and rights of its people, but in this case, the state is determining the interests and stripping the groups of their rights to exist free of harassment or threats. It is an injustice to dishonor the efforts of organizations and prevent them from completing the very work that embodies the pursuit of justice in political, social, and environmental spheres.

The extent to which the closure of NGOs will change public opinion or halt progress on human rights advocacy is not yet clear, but further repression and isolation can be expected. Bullying NGOs only further isolates Russia in the international community. The US State Department has made several statements of concern regarding these laws,explaining, “Russians deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.” It has urged the Russian government to “uphold its international obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and the rule of law.”

It is Russia’s sovereign right to pass these domestic laws. While the United States and other countries cannot dictate Russia’s treatment of its civil society, it is important for the international community to maintain support for the existence and activities of NGOs in Russia. As the space for freedom of speech becomes narrower, the Russian government must ask itself whether laws disguised as security measures are indeed within the best interests of people who have come so far since the Iron Curtain fell.

-Nora Kirkham is currently a senior at Gordon College studying History, English and Political Science. This summer, she worked in Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Moscow, Russia.