Discussion of register of ‘foreign agent’ NGOs
The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation held a meeting to discuss the management of the Register of NGOs deemed foreign agents on 31 October. Representatives of the non-commercial sector and the Ministry of Justice met to discuss draft legislation entitled ‘On the Procedure for the management of the register of NGOs which function as foreign agents’. The document has been published on the agency’s website, and discussions will continue until 15 November.
The law ‘On amendments to particular Russian legislation concerning the regulation of NGOs that function as foreign agents’ was signed by the Russian president on 21 July and comes into force in November 2012. The law states that NGOs ‘involved in political activities’ and supported by foreign funds will be categorised as foreign agents. These NGOs must be entered into a special register. If NGOs that come under this legislation refuse to register, they face suspension of their activities for up to 6 months.
The Ministry of Justice’s legislation states that entry in the register is akin to an application process: NGOs that receive foreign funds and are involved in political activities would have to apply to the Ministry to be entered in the register. In addition, federal authorities, their local counterparts and local authorities will be permitted to propose NGOs for inclusion in the register. The Ministry of Justice would be responsible for verifying this information.
‘The discussions today clarified an important point: The Ministry is going to interpret the new legislation sensitively. The representatives of the Ministry gave assurance that every case will be dealt with individually’, says Darya Miloslavskaya, member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation and Director of the Russia’s branch of the International Centre.
In an interview with ASI she stressed that ‘This is important in the first few months after the legislation has been enacted’. During this period, the way in which this legislation was applied would become clear. In addition, the Chamber will prepare recommendations on the Ministry’s draft legislation, as well as discussing NGO reporting and other recommendations.
Elena Gerasimova, Director of the Centre for Social and Employment Rights, says that this legislation is undoubtedly needed, given that the law has been enacted and has to be applied in some way. In an interview with ASI, Gerasimova said that the Ministry understands the complexity and delicacy of the situation and they approach the question of what is or is not classed as ‘political activity’ in a balanced and careful manner. At the same time the Act does not define ‘political activity’. ‘The main question of how ‘political activity’ will be defined, and how this practice is to be shaped, remains open and at the discretion of particular individuals applying this law. This is a cause for concern’, Gerasimova states. That is why, in her opinion, the main question has not been answered by the officials.
Elena Topoleva, chair of the Public Chamber Commission for social policy, labour relations, and the living standards of citizens suggested excluding the provision that the Register be based on documentary information presented by federal agencies, their local counterparts, and local authorities. In an interview with ASI, Topoleva stated that she believes that should this provision be omitted, the abuse of power would be reduced. Experts believe that local authorities must take responsibility for unverified information they submit, whereas representatives of the Ministry believe that this should be decided in a court of law, after the Ministry has completed its own verification process.
In addition, the public are concerned about how the term ‘political activity’ is to be interpreted, and who will be making the ultimate decision. In the course of the meeting it was suggested that this should be delegated to the Public Council of the Ministry of Justice, or include the public in the process. But a representative of the Ministry stated that this would be impossible, Topoleva said. At the same time it is clear that the Ministry are trying to be sensible about the new law and interpret its provisions in a pragmatic way, in Topoleva’s view.
‘The overall impressions of the new law and the prognosis are bleak’, stated Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director of Memorial. If the Act is followed, a report from any local authority to the effect that an NGO is a ‘foreign agent’ can form grounds for government checks. We know only too well what difficulties are faced by, for example, human rights organisations in Russia’s regions. In effect, the only organisations protecting people from the abuse of power by the local authorities are NGOs. Zhemkova believes that now the local authorities in question are being given a direct ‘tool to discredit NGOs’. Opponents of NGOs in the regions will have a perfect opportunity to taint NGOs’ reputation. In addition, the local authorities would not be liable for any such action. Zhemkova believes that the Ministry will receive many such ‘reports’. Opponents of NGOs in local government and enforcement agencies are already abusing their positions of power, and now they are going to receive a new tool to continue doing so. In particular, this concerns NGOs that help people to get drug treatment. Zhemkova believes that if the Act is adopted in this way, ‘NGOs are likely to get involved in ongoing court cases whereby it would take them many months or years to prove they are not ‘foreign agents”. And even if an NGO clears its name through the court, no-one is going to reimburse the court costs for them.
In addition, Zhemkova believes that such enforcement measures ‘lead to dissatisfaction within the general public and protests, which is Russia is very dangerous. Our common goal is peace within the country, so we have to look for mechanisms that would lead to achieving accord; what is happening now creates confrontation and tension’, stressed Zhemkova.