Mechanism of excluding NGOs from the register of “foreign agents” doesn’t save civil society from crackdown

In March 2015 amendments to the law on non-governmental organizations, which make it possible to exclude NGOs from the register of “foreign agents” and which were long sought by moderate critics of the law on NGOs, finally came into force. Under the new regulations, an NGO can get rid of the stigma of a “foreign agent” after refusing to get foreign funding, not receiving it for a year and in case it is not involved in political activities. In this case, an NGO can submit an application to the Ministry of Justice, while the latter will have to “promptly request prosecutors to conduct unscheduled inspection of a non-profit organization”. Based on the results of this inspection, an NGO may be excluded from the register of “foreign agents”. Or else, it may not be excluded. So far, all the attempts by NGOs to get excluded from this register ended with no positive result. Neither the rulings of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, as was the case with “Golos” NGO, nor the refusal of foreign funding, as was the case of “Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg”, were of any help.

Recently yet another absurd way to harass undesirable NGOs was put into practice: a notorious Saint Petersburg human rights organization “Civil Control”, which was forcibly listed in the register of “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice (although earlier inspections had found no violations of the law on NGOs on its part), started to get fines for not listing itself voluntarily in the register of “foreign agents”. Thus, a new ridiculous hybrid of the two versions of the law on “NGOs fulfilling functions of foreign agents” came to life: initially NGOs had to get listed in the infamous register voluntarily, and those who did not do this by themselves were punished, but later – when it became clear that no one will list itself there on its own good will, – both the law and legal practice were changed. The Russian Ministry of Justice started to list human rights NGOs in its register by the dozen. And currently we also witness return of penalties for “failure to get listed”. But if earlier this was considered a form of coercion to get listed, now, after NGOs were forcibly listed in the register, it is not only despicable, but also senseless. This outright cynicism with which the authorities arbitrarily expand application of this law, doesn’t it prove that any “improvements” into the law on NGOs will have no positive impact on the overall situation of NGOs in Russia? Obviously, no such improvement is in sight. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason to share enthusiasm of those, who supported introduction of mechanism for “exclusion from the register” (Russian human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova being just one example).

A very real crackdown against non-government sector is taking place in Russia now against the background of the so-called “mitigation” of the law: almost fifty NGOs are currently listed in the register and at least another hundred will be listed there in the very near future. On March 2, 2015 Voronezh-based “Center of Media Rights”, Russia’s leading expert organization in the sphere of media law, became yet another victim of the law on “foreign agents”. Its director Galina Arapova was given a protocol of administrative violation for the failure to register her NGO as a “foreign agent”. In this particular case, the reason for this action on behalf of the Ministry of Justice were Arapova’s public statements concerning freedom of speech and the need for protection of journalists, which were qualified as “political”. Arapova claims that she spoke out on her own behalf and not on behalf of the organization, but this does not matter for judicial officials.

This time the tendency to punish everyone for everything, not even trying to understand the reasoning behind actions or the kinds of activities, was once again confirmed, although it was already quite obvious from the first day the law was enacted. The problem, however, is not simply that the law originally did not provide an opportunity for the organization listed in the register to get excluded from it. Major changes are still required in the notion of what are “political activities” or “impact on public opinion”, to name a few. Although they are interpreted by the competent bodies of authority in a rather haphazard manner, as a result becoming fatal for many NGOs, for some reason the authorities do not rush in to clarify them. At the moment, the Ministry of Justice continues to invent pretexts in order to add NGOs to its register of “foreign agents”, interpreting both the statement “Soldiers’ Mothers” against the war in Ukraine or the call of a completely apolitical organization “Siberian Eco Center” “to participate in the action against criminal prosecution of members of Greenpeace” as nothing less than “political activities”.

Some may say that these are “mere details” and that “it is important that a mechanism for exclusion from the register exists now”. But where have you seen this mechanism working properly, unless these faulty pieces of mechanism are replaced? The main thing here is that the authorities are not going to change their attitude towards NGOs, which refuse to act as servants and close their eyes on all the mistakes and crimes of the state. This is the main problem, and without solving it no positive changes are possible. Therefore, until the representatives of NGOs are free from a sense of protracted stranglehold on the neck, until the law on “Foreign agents” is not canceled, no mechanism for “exclusion of NGOs from the foreign agents’ register” will change anything, especially since it had been designed in such a way that no one in fact will be able to get excluded from the register.

by Sergey Mikheyev