Attitudes to NGOs following the ‘foreign agent’ law


On 19 November, NGO representatives discussed
a report compiled by the research group ‘Zirkon’ entitled
Public Attitude to NGOs following the tightening of
legislation concerning ‘Foreign Agents’
. ASI and Memorial organised the

Law N121- ФЗ On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the
Russian Federation on the regulation of Non-Profit Organisations acting as
‘Foreign Agents’
was signed by President Putin on 21 July. It came into force 0n 20
November. According to the law, a Non-Profit Organisation is considered to be a ‘Foreign Agent’

It participates ‘in the organisation and
execution of political acts with the aim of exerting influence on decisions
taken by State Bodies.’

‘It takes part in political protests which are
focussed on changing the way in which State Bodies execute their policies.’

It manipulates public opinion ‘towards these

It receives funding from abroad.

Zircon’s research was conducted in September. It was focussed on
examining the reactions of Russians to the amendments made to this law. It
addressed the issue of
NGOs which are financed from abroad and engage in
political activity receiving the status of ‘Foreign Agent’. It also researched
the general public attitude to NGOs and their activities. This research was
compared with the results of a similar Zircon study in 2004.

According to the deputy director of Zircon, Lyudmila Shubina, who
presented the findings of the survey, ‘Only a small proportion of the public
have had direct experience of the activities of NGOs. This means that there is
an absence of personal experience in society. General attitudes are therefore
shaped by the media. Therefore, in their answers to sociologists’ questions,
many interviewees did not relay their own opinions, but those which essentially
had been imposed upon them by the media’. In 2012 the number of people who, by
their own admission, knew nothing about the activity of NGOs was less than half
the Russian population. However, for the eight years over which the research
was conducted, the increase in awareness could have been greater’. Moreover,
the study in September 2012 recorded a more negative than positive response to
statements describing the activity of third sector organisations. Even amongst
those who had personally encountered the work of NGOs, almost every second
person considered the work insignificant and unimportant.

As compared with 2004, the number of interviewees who agreed that NGOs
safeguard the rights of citizens, exercise social monitoring and contribute to the
solving of critical social problems has diminished. On the contrary, the number
of interviewees who deem the activities of NGOs unimportant has risen. Indeed,
they see NGOs as entities serving only their own members and satisfying the
personal interests of their directors.  

The general conclusion of the research was that the current image of
NGOs in Russia has deteriorated, although the attitude of informed individuals
has somewhat improved. The background for the research, in the light of the
discussion regarding the new legislation, was unfavourable. ‘The ‘voice’ of
NGOs appeared very weak, against the background of the negative campaign
against them. Furthermore, the actions taken by the sector to strengthen its
position appeared to be less notable than the signal broadcasting the State’s
point of view, remarked Shubina. This law on non-profit ‘Foreign Agencies’ does
not affect citizens directly, it is ‘on the periphery of the public’s
awareness.’ Shubina suggests it is possible that the researchers have detected
a deterioration in attitudes to NGOs among many of the poorly informed members
of the public.

The surveys addressing the reaction of the population to the law
amendment itself are equally worthy of interest. The data collected demonstrate
that currently there is no unanimous public opinion regarding the new
legislation. It became clear that two thirds of those surveyed only became
aware of this new law when they were being interviewed for the survey.

During the interview process, a proportion of the interviewees were
asked to describe the emotional reaction provoked by the phrase ‘Foreign
Agent’. A significant proportion of those surveyed stated unanimously that it
provoked a negative reaction. About 40% agreed that an NGO which funded its activities
from abroad should be under special State supervision. However, 49% considered
the national source of donations for an NGO unimportant. It seems that if an
individual were to find themselves in difficult personal circumstances and
approached an NGO for help, then Russians would not have a negative attitude to
foreign funding.

Viktor Moisov, an analyst from Zircon, proposed a small-scale review to
compare the surveys in question. This is because they have been conducted by
various sociological centres in connection with the adoption of the law. He
indicated that the data provided by different companies differ rather
significantly. It has become clear the public is very sensitive to the methods
and procedures by which questions are posed. This confirms that at present
general public opinion regarding this new legislation is not clear. The
population does not have its own ideas and opinions regarding NGOs and the
necessity of controlling those who receive foreign funding.

The director of ASI, member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian
Federation and member of the Council of the President of the Russian Federation
for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, Elena Topoleva, remarked
that the results of the research were ‘very disappointing.’ We must inform
people better about the activities of NGOs, so that society supports them when
similar State initiatives arise. ‘In order to make a leap forward with the
perception of the third sector, we need to make a definitive effort,
consciously balancing the work of the sector with information about it’, said Ms

Those taking part in the discussion debated whether it was worth
developing the non-commercial third sector, and if so, how this should be done.
Indeed, does the sector require institutions which could serve as ‘Professional
Unions’, protecting the interests and conveying the combined opinion of the authorities
and society?

‘If we are to promote NGOs in a dynamic way, we must do this via Channel
1. If this is not done, then the majority of the population will have no
understanding of the non-profit Sector’, remarked Vyacheslav Bakhmin, a
Consultant for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Russia.

He also remarked that the negative image of NGOs demonstrated by the
research was actually the result of an ‘anti campaign’ against NGOs and the law
associated with it. Therefore the data collected did not warrant concern. The
director of the Centre for Social Connections Foundation the Institute for
Urban Economics, Mikhail Ledovsky, stated that, ‘in reality 90% of the
population had come across the work of NGOs, but were simply not aware of it.
You see, the public are not interested in the legal status of the organisation
they approach.’ Ledovsky called the study in question ‘a small slice of the
total mass of civil society.’ 

The sociologist Ivan Klimov suggests that the problem identified in the
study is much deeper; it lies in the language with which NGOs and their
activists address their audience. Here, the representatives of NGOs have a
broad scope for their activities. Klimov recommends giving people a simple and
comprehensive account which clearly illustrates what NGOs do and how they can
be useful to the public. Concluding the discussion, the director of Zircon,
Igor Zadorin, said that only a joint effort by the NGOs themselves can create
an image of the non-profit sector as a community which can be trusted and which
needs to be supported. This includes actively engaging with the public, being
sensitive to their expectations, and working cooperatively with the State.

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