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Russia's "agents": Civil society and survival

What happens to Russia's civil society when non-governmental organizations are banned for foreign aid?


Pavel Chikov, a member of the AGORA Law Firm and a recipient of the Rafto Prize 2014, took the time to answer the question of what the Foreign Agents Act had entailed for the organization. He looked around the dark hotel reception, let his eyes go back and forth over the painting on the wall, straightened his shoulders and began: “We are focusing on converting the pressure we are experiencing from the authorities into a potential for further development. We try to spread our work – we try to adapt to the changes around us. ”

It was in November 2016 that I interviewed Chikov for the NEPORUS project. Although the lawyer expressed optimism on his own behalf, it appeared to be more despite than because of the situation the network is in. In February 2016, AGORA was declared dissolved by a local court in Kazan. The advocacy network, which since 2012 has provided legal aid in the heaviest lawsuits in Russia – for example, the case against the punk band Pussy Riot – had for years fought a seemingly useless fight against the so-called Law on foreign agents, introduced by the Russian state Duma in 2012. After protracted protests against the registration, the office had to discontinue operations in Russia and relocate the operation of the office to Western Europe.

Pavel Chikov, lawyer and leader of the human rights group AGORA, who won the Rafto Prize 2014. Photo: Ole Gunnar Onsøien / NTB Scanpix

"Agents". The reason for the move was the tightening following the election of Putin as president of 2012. The Foreign Agents Act, which came into force the same year, is more of an organized process against Russia's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) than a legal regulation. It first required all NGOs that received funding from abroad, or engaged in "political" activity within the meaning of "the influence of government and state agencies' policies," to register as "agents" in the Department of Justice. However, few organizations voluntarily wished to take on this much-burdened label. Thus, the law was changed to 2014 – and the Ministry of Justice in Russia was then authorized to register any organization as an "agent" after inspection or anonymous inquiries.

The terms of the law are diffuse and have been changed a number of times, especially as a result of protests from the president's own Council on Human Rights and Civil Society. For example, since 2014, anonymous signatories have had the opportunity to report NGOs to the ministry, thus provoking inspections and registration. These people have been tried to call in to testify, but never showed up. In other cases, it has been easy to find other signs of "political" activity and / or funding from abroad. In one case, an organization was declared a foreign agent because they had English-language encyclopedias on the bookshelves.

Uphill. AGORA is one of many descriptive examples of how the law works: The organization's office was subject to an unannounced inspection at the beginning of 2016. All the accounts and papers were handed out, and the Ministry of Justice went through this with the Argus eyes. They found nothing, but still demanded that the office be closed. When I asked Chikov why, he was crystal clear: “Some of us write in the press, and since the newspapers had not stated that the comment articles were written by 'foreign agents', we got a fine of 5000 euros. It was more profitable for us to shut down the activity. ”

Russian, non-governmental organizations are fighting uphill against the law. Reports written by Russians even though the state of Russian civil society concludes that the law stigmatizes these organizations and forces them into lengthy court proceedings with appeals and new charges. The law thus causes division and mistrust between the organizations. This is information that has been strengthened through interviews.

During the NEPORUS (2014 – 2017) project, postdoctoral researcher Jardar Østbø and I conducted 25 interviews with representatives of the NGO sector in Russia, and the same is true. Organizations that previously taught human rights, provided legal aid, or worked on the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinism, are suspected and countered by Russian authorities.

Deterrent. Although not all NGOs in Russia are affected by the law, it has a deliberate deterrent effect. NGOs that are registered become like a pariah: No one wants anything to do with them for fear of getting in the authorities' spotlight themselves, or being drawn into lengthy legal processes that hamper the organization's other activities. Organizations that run traditional legal aid and human rights education are particularly at risk, partly because these organizations also act as nodes in the network of Russian NGOs. Once infected, this will affect the entire network. Confidence is diminished, and the fear of being "involved" is stronger than the urge to challenge the content of the law and the jurisprudence it proposes.

An NGO registered in the Justice Ministry's agent register may be fined or forced inspected at any time if activity is suspected of being "political". You can even be fined for breaking the law even if you are not in the register. A recent example is Memorial International's depositor, Memorial International, who, just before Christmas, was fined 300 000 rubles for having opposed registration in the agent register. It was officially stated that Memorial International acted in a manner that was in violation of the "Rules of Activities of Foreign Agents".

Russian authorities and President Putin himself have argued that it is very easy for organizations to withdraw from the registry: The organization only needs to operate one calendar year without foreign funding, and can then apply to be deleted. However, the St. Petersburg organization HR-Center, which is a lawyer and legal aid office for Russia's civil society, shows in a May 2016 report a dismal statistic. At the end of 2015, individual 27 cases were established against 15 registered NGOs, all of which dealt with violations of the so-called "agents" regulations. The entire 5,2 million rubles had been applied for in fines from organizations that had failed to write "produced by a foreign agent" on internet publications, reports or press releases, and the entire 2 million rubles had been collected in fines from NGO budgets.

New bottom. Of course, Russia's civil society is not like the West, and may never be so. The peculiarity of Russia's development, however, is that former President Dmitry Medvedev's modernization focus created a breeding ground for new types of activity. Even with the limited

In one case, an organization was declared a foreign agent because they had English-language encyclopedias on the bookshelves.

the opportunities that existed, Russian NGOs experienced an increase in requests for legal aid, assistance in registering organizations and other types of services. The new Russian NGOs could be network organizations of lawyers such as AGORA, law and advisory offices, or a type of non-commercial enterprise that contributed to renewal of the public sector and communication between state and population. In addition to this, there was an increasingly complex network of idealistic organizations such as Memorial – an organization that was established already in the Soviet era and which has been devoted to settlement with the Stalin period all the time – as well as a flora of environmental organizations and socially oriented aid and charities.

In Putin's new policy, it is primarily the idealistically oriented first generation of NGOs as well as more specialized networking organizations that are put out of play. Of course, it is not uncommon for NGOs to report to the authorities on their activities, but as always in the case of Russia, researchers must analyze the practice and not accept the rhetorical framework presented by the authorities. Russian politicians have sold the law as if it were a copy of legislation from the United States FARA Act, and use this argument in a reinforcing way. Faced with criticism, Russian authorities can activate the cookie "You are criticizing us for doing what the United States has done" and then raising further arguments that Russia is always a "pariah" in the international context. This gives new impetus to the wave of patriotism Putin has chosen to ride, but the argument is not at all in line with the Russian NGOs' own opinion.

Untenable. The worst thing is, however, that civilian activity in Russia is declining and confidence in the state, legislation and bureaucracy is diminishing further. As of today, over 150 organizations are registered as "agents", most of them against their will. Primary social functions such as legal aid, information work, history management and environmental protection are damaging. These are primary functions the state could have benefited from in its fight against AIDS, population reduction, environmental threats and poor detention conditions. Every state needs information as well as active citizens. Russia is hardly an exception to this rule.

Even more astonishing is that Russia's civil society shows a stubborn ability to put its head forward. When the Levada Center, which conducts opinion polls in Russia, was registered as an agent in September 2016 against Director Gudkov's will, he wrote a biting press release: organizations are considered guilty of anti-patriotic and hostile activity against our country. ”That is hardly an exaggeration. It is the creative spearhead in Russia's civil society and the most self-sacrificing human rights defenders. And they are all working for a better Russia.

Flikke is associate professor at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages ​​at the University of Oslo.

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