Amnesty International: Independent NGOs under threat of extinction
Amnesty International, the global human rights organisation, has launched its report “Agents of the people: four years of the foreign agents law in Russia”.
Due to insufficient sources of funding in Russia, the adoption of the “foreign agents” law has led to independent NGOs being pushed to the brink of extinction, Amnesty concludes.
“The organisations targeted are hugely varied in terms of geographical location, the issues they work on and their internal organisational structure. However, one common thread uniting them is that their “political activity” appears to have been defined as any attempt to influence public opinion or engage citizens in the critical evaluation of government policy. At the same time, the government is effectively preventing these NGOs from accessing foreign sources of funding, contrary to international standards,” says the report.
The human rights organisation considers that today Russian authorities are gradually ‘“substituting” those organisations which ask awkward questions with “compliant” organisations and “people’s movements”, therefore creating the illusion of a healthy civil society.’ Such bodies, unable to create real initiatives themselves, are seeking to appropriate those of independent civil society organisations and activists, Amnesty explains.
“The very grave risk for the future of civil society in Russia is that, over time, only those NGOs that support government policy without question and are beholden to political patronage for their funding will survive,” says the report.
Civil society in Russia has paid a high price since the law on “foreign agents”, says the head of Amnesty International in Russia, Sergei Nikitin: people carrying out useful work in society are labelled an “agent”, and the beneficiaries are deprived of the help which they had received until now.
“Amnesty International considers that the Russian authorities should learn to take constructive criticisms from civil society organisations and should learn to work with these NGOs. The law, beyond all doubt, should be repealed, and we believe that one day this will happen.”
The report says that as of November 2016 there were, amongst others, 21 environmental organisations on the “foreign agents” list. The report’s authors believe that the main reason for their inclusion was funding from abroad, with almost any attempt to influence public opinion or comment on existing laws and practice being deemed “political activity”.
Environmental organisations have always by definition been in opposition with the authorities, says Askhat Kayumov, the Director of Dront environmental centre, which was labelled a “foreign agent” in May 2015. “Sooner or later there will be proper elections in this country; sooner or later prisons will stop beatings; sooner or later we will start worrying about disabled and older people, and the range of real human rights directives will eventually wither away. But the limb of environmental activities will never be funded because any authority will aim to deal with today’s demands from society, oligarchs, private individuals…they will try to deal with these demands at the expense of the environment,” the environmentalist said.
Dront does not have any political aims, explains Kayumov, but the authorities will oppose the organisation regardless. The environmentalist explained that after Dront appeared on the register, the public did turn away from the organisation, but also supported it: people collected money for the NGO to pay the fine and organised a festival for the city’s inhabitants in support of the organisation. The authorities come and go, but we still need air, emphasised Kayumov. “Everything is very simple as far as we’re concerned: no matter what they call us, we will continue to save the world as before,” says the head of the environmental centre.
The situation of the law on “foreign agents” is reminiscent of the battle with parasitism in the 1960s, and the battle with political opponents in the 70s, according to Ilya Shablinsky, a member of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights (CHR). This is a shameful episode in our history, and it may well continue for some time, considers the human rights defender.
The CHR has tried to find a compromise between the attempts of the authorities to establish control over the finances of NGOs without sticking labels on them, to and ensure that they have the potential to continue their work, but the authorities have rejected it, said Shablinsky: the not-for-profit community was not against governmental checks on their finances, but the authorities were only interested in fuelling a negative campaign.
According to Shablinsly, ‘The very concept of “an organisation which fulfils the function of a foreign agent” is legal nonsense, the essence of which could not be explained by either the Constitutional Court or the presidential representative in the Constitutional Court, whom I asked directly, or the Minister for Justice. This is primarily a “political, dirty label…All in all, this is the oppression and weakening of civil society, this is the oppression of and pressure on any opposition. Well yes, forty years ago they would have been imprisoned. Immediately. Today they are being stifled with fines – that’s progresss.’
In September 2016, the “AgentovNet” was launched, a project aimed at informing, consulting and protecting NGOs. The project united lawyers who are involved in litigating the cases of organisations on behalf of organisations labelled as “foreign agents”. NGOs can receive free consultations on their current situation on the project’s website. Amnesty International has already published an interactive map showing the number of “foreign agents” in the regions of the Russian Federation.
At present there are 148 “foreign agents” on the registry. 44 of the 148 were at various points excluded from the list: only 18 of them were taken off for “ceasing to carry out the function of a foreign agent”. The rest have been closed down.