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Ever more NGOs in Russia are given ‘foreign agent’ status

May 08, 2013, 16:21 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Ever more non-governmental organizations in Russia are awarded the “foreign agent” status, which implies tighter control of their activity by the state. Human rights activists fear many NGOs will have to close down, while the authorities keep persuading the public they have no intention to outlaw them or to use other means to make them curtail activity. At the same time officials have repeatedly pointed to society’s right to know where the NGOs get their money from.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office has declared another three Russian NGOs as “foreign agents, the daily Izvestia quotes a source in the PGO as saying. After a number of inquiries the law enforcement agencies have found out that the Urals Human Rights Group, the Moscow School of Political Studies and the human rights fund Public Verdict get funding from foreign sources.

“We have identified three organizations which in December 2012 through February-March 2013 received large sums of money from foreign sources, in the first place, American ones,” the source in the PGO said.

According to the PGO’s findings, the Moscow School of Political Studies got 12.8 million rubles from foreign sources. The bulk of the sum - 7.3 million rubles - was donated by the US Open Society Institute, also known as the Soros Foundation.

Another three million rubles came from the MacArthur Foundation, which supports human rights movements in 60 countries around the world.

The MSPS board of trustees and board of directors include many foreigners, such as British, French and Swedish political scientists, public activists and journalists. In the NGO’s management bodies Russia is represented by the head of the CIS affairs and cooperation agency Rossotrudnichestvo, Konstantin Kosachyov, human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and other officials and business people.

The Public Verdict foundation’s financing from foreign sources looks slightly smaller. Over three months, from last December to last February that NGO received 9.6 million rubles, Norway’s Helsinki group donated 1.5 million, the UN, another 1.3 million, and the US National Endowment for Democracy, 0.8 million.

The fund’s director, Natalya Taubina, has acknowledged that the organization does receive foreign funding, but at the same time she denied the Public Verdict was involved in political activities in Russian territory.

“We are certain that we do not indulge in political activities. We are a purely human rights organization,” she said.

The US National Endowment for Democracy also sponsors the Chelyabinsk office of the Urals Human Rights Group. Since December last year through March 2013 that NGO received more than 850,000 rubles.

A day earlier, the very same daily Izvestia quoted a source in the Prosecutor-General’s Office as saying that it had inspected one of the country’s most authoritative sociological services of the country - the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, which may be recognized as a “foreign agent,” too. According to the PGO, the Levada Center during the period from December 26, 2012 through March 24, 2013 received 3.9 million rubles from abroad.

The Levada Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, has confirmed that his organization at the end of April underwent a comprehensive inspection by the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Federal Tax Service. Gudkov acknowledged there was a high degree of probability the pollster might be classified as a “foreign agent.” However, there has been no official message to that effect from the bodies of state power yet.

“We shall never recognize ourselves as foreign agents. We still have feeble hope for the PGO’s common sense. If we are declared as foreign agents, we shall take the case to court,” Gudkov said.

He acknowledged that the pollster was receiving foreign grants and participating in many foreign projects, but at the same time remarked it was not a secret to anyone.

“We carry out a rather large amount of joint projects, including market surveys,” he said. “Also, there are student exchange programs.”

In November 2012 Russia introduced a special legal requirement obliging foreign-funded political NGOs to have themselves registered as foreign agents. Massive checks of the NGOs, including local organizations and Russian offices of international ones, have been underway in Russia since March 21. In that connection international human rights organizations, as well as official representatives of a number of Western countries have demanded the Russian authorities present explanations of what this is all about and to terminate what they see as pressures on the NGOs.

The Justice Ministry replied the checks were launched with the aim of finding out whether the NGOs activities agreed with the goals proclaimed in their charters and with Russian legislation.

The presidential council for human rights has asked the prosecutor-general to present arguments in favor of such inspections and to make their results available to the public at large. Human rights activists fear the inspections of the NGOs may result in their elimination.

President Vladimir Putin replied the Prosecutor-General’s Office was aiming “not to close down or outlaw any NGOs, but to put under control the cash flows into Russian non-governmental organizations involved in political activities inside the country, because the money is coming from abroad.”

“No one wishes to outlaw these organizations,” Putin told German media in an interview in April. “We would just like to hear them say they are engaged in political activities and financed from outside the country. Society has the right to know. It’s no use telling scare stories about arrests and confiscations. Although confiscation might be a good idea in case certain people violate the law.”

In the meantime inspections have already had the first juridical impact. In Kostroma legal proceedings have been launched against the Kostroma Center of Support for Public Initiatives and its executive director, Alexander Zamaryanov. The term “foreign agent” was officially applied to the association Golos (Voice), the human rights center Memorial, the association Agora, in Kazan, and the Committee against Torture, in Nizhni Novgorod.

At the end of April a court fined the association Golos 300,000 rubles for getting money from foreign sources. According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, over five million rubles had been transferred to its accounts. Part of the money came from the Helsinki Group in the form of the Sakharov award and also from the US National Endowment for Democracy.

Golos chiefs have disagreed with the court’s ruling. They argue their association is involved exclusively in public activities and under the law on foreign agents is not obliged to bear any additional markings.