New Legislation is a Setback for Russian NGOs

by Polina Philippova

Recently, and in great haste, the Russian Parliament adopted a new piece of legislation with a name that would have been appropriate for cold war times: ‘On regulation of activities of the NGOs, which fulfill the functions of “foreign agents”’. Sadly, the name adequately reflects the essence of the law, which presents the biggest threat that the not-for-profit sector has faced in the last 20 years.

The law requires that all NGOs that have any foreign funding and ‘participate in political activities on the territory of the Russian Federation’ get registered in a special registry with the Ministry of Justice. ‘An NGO is recognized as one … if it participates in the organization and implementation of political activities which aim to influence decisions of state authorities, their policy, as well as in the formation of public opinion …’

These NGOs, which get voluntarily registered, will have to include this newly acquired status of a ‘foreign agent’ in all their documents, publications and PR materials. There are quite a few other responsibilities that these foreign agents have to fulfill in order to comply with the law. Among other things, they will have to submit reports on their activities quarterly (currently it is once a year) and will undergo an annual audit (now compulsory only for foundations).

The fate of those NGOs that do not register is even more exciting – their activities can be suspended by authorities for up to 6 months and their bank accounts can be frozen. An NGO is provided with the right to appeal to a court to overrule this suspension and prove that it has not been engaged in ‘political activities’ using foreign money. This task seems to be impossible, and not only because of the notorious corruption of Russian courts. The problem is that the definitions of ‘political activities’ and ‘foreign money’ are drawn so broadly that almost anything can fall under them.

In fact, this is the first time that the term ‘political activities’ has been defined in Russia at all. Apparently, any attempt to influence public opinion or the decisions of authorities is a political activity. An example of such an activity was presented in between the first and the final hearings of this piece of legislation, when a great number of public organizations – many of which have some foreign grants – publicly expressed their strong concern that this law would damage the not-for-profit sector in Russia, and that it contradicts the Russian constitution. Obviously, they were trying to influence both the decision-making process and public opinion at the same time! If the law had been adopted by then, they all would have been fined, shut down or obliged to wear the label of a foreign agent for all honest people to know that they operate in the interests of some alien and presumably hostile states.

In fairness there were some changes introduced into the draft in between two readings. Religious, municipal and charitable organizations have been excluded, as have NGOs that work in the fields of culture, healthcare and some other innocent topics. However, education is not in this list and I do not think this is an accidental omission.

In the global economy, the notion of ‘foreign money’ also leaves lots of space for interpretation. If a Russian firm trades both domestically and internationally or buys Russian or foreign bonds and equities, it can be argued whether its donation to a suspicious NGO is foreign or domestic.

The idea behind this law is quite transparent – there is a noose hung above all organizations and as long as they wish to continue their operations they should very carefully censor each step they take, and make sure they do not interfere with the state or its individual representatives.

Russian legislators claim that this law is identical to a certain piece of legislation in the USA. In fact, this is not exactly correct. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is a US law passed in 1938 requiring that agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a ‘political or quasi-political capacity’ disclose their relationship with the foreign government and information about related activities and finances. The act was passed in response to German propaganda in the lead-up to World War II. It was used in 23 criminal cases during the war. In 1966 the Act was amended and narrowed to emphasize agents actually working with foreign powers who sought economic or political advantage by influencing governmental decision-making. This increased the government’s burden of proof and there have been no successful implementations since then.

The Russian piece of legislation is quite consistent with a number of laws that have been adopted very recently and which seriously infringe basic human rights guaranteed by the Russian constitution – freedom of speech (internet law, libel/defamation law), freedom of assembly (law on meetings) etc. The Russian authorities have laid another brick in the wall, which is meant to protect them from any public control or criticism by civil society institutes. The stronger the public outcry against the draft of this law, the faster legislators worked to adopt it.

Apparently, a desire to shut down a number of Russian NGOs was so strong that the legislators totally ignored the risks of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many NGOs that represent different vulnerable groups will think twice now before voicing the problems of their target audiences (for example, in efforts to influence state policy) or apply for foreign financing.

Well, we all know that any challenge is an opportunity. There is only one bright spot in this grim picture – this threat might help the not-for-profit sector of Russia to consolidate and to learn how to raise funds among the Russian middle class, which so far largely donates only to dying children. Russian NGOs have to convince the general public that their efforts to build a mature civil society and to establish the rule of law in Russia affect every person’s individual well-being. It is a difficult task but it has to be done.

Polina Philippova is director of programmes and donor relations for CAF Russia.