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Russian NGOs look for loopholes to bypass foreign agents law

June 21, 2013, 16:36 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, June 21 (Itar-Tass) - The highly controversial legal act obliging those non-governmental organizations which are involved in political activities and get funding from sources outside the country to have themselves registered as “foreign agents” has forced Russian NGOs to look for alternative modes of existence. Human rights activists now refuse to take foreign grants and prefer to accept cash transfers from Russian donors. Some NGOs have even declared they are prepared to work for free. Also, some NGOs do not rule out the possibility they may obtain registration as international organizations to sidestep the foreign agents law. In the meantime, the authorities have hinted this legal act may be revised and eased somewhat.

The latest version of the law on the NGOs, containing the term “NGOs performing the functions of a foreign agent” was adopted in the summer of 2012. The “foreign agent” tag is attached to any organization that receives money from outside the country and at the same time is involved in “political activities.” The notion of political activity encompasses even the “shaping of public opinion” that might influence decisions taken by the authorities. The NGOs branded as foreign agents shall be entered into a special register of the Justice Ministry.

In March 2013 massive inspections of NGOs followed. Human rights activists slammed them as illegal. The prosecutors’ offices scrutinized about 1,000 NGOs to demand some of them should be registered as foreign agents. Human rights organization Memorial, the association in support of the voters Golos and human rights organization Agora found themselves on that list. Some NGOs were ordered to pay fines up to 500,000 rubles. Tens of others received formal warnings from the prosecutors.

As Agora’s head Pavel Chikov has told the daily Kommersant, in the context of pressures from the prosecutor’s office his organization was beginning a money-raising campaign with the aim to diversify its sources of financing. Chikov acknowledges that private donations alone are not enough for Agora to carry on, so the organization has plans for stepping up commercial activities. So far Agora has provided legal assistance on the disinterested basis. In the future it plans to ask its clients to pay. Even if this source of funding proves not enough, Agora will be prepared to take a rather drastic step and change its status from an inter-regional NGO to that of an international one.

The association Golos, which trains observers monitoring elections, is contemplating the re-registration option, too. This NGO may decide to have itself registered as a new legal entity, but it will be accepting donations only from Russian citizens. It had to stop taking foreign grants shortly before the foreign agents law took effect. To little avail, though. Golos was eventually recognized as a foreign agent.

The leader of another such organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity, has disclosed one more way of bypassing the law. It is very simple. The “parent” NGO stops all cooperation with foreign partners and relies entirely on Russian money. In the meantime, its “daughter” branch is registered as a commercial entity. It works officially on foreign contracts and but remains outside the scope of the foreign agents law. “The very same people work for and get pay from both organizations,” the source explained, adding that a dozen NGOs have already resorted to that scheme.

The NGOs in regions see a way out of the situation in encouraging volunteers. “In the context of continued pressures the NGOs may try to operate for free. Both staff members and invited volunteers have agreed to work on the disinterested basis,” the chairperson of the ecological club Ulukitkan, in the Amur Region, Natalya Kalinina, told Kommersant.

Ulukitkan is currently a party in litigation with the local prosecutor’s office, which insists that the organization is a foreign agent.

“We may try to do whatever we want. But if there is a really strong intention to put pressure on us, nothing will help,” says Grigory Melkoniants, Golos’s deputy executive director. Golos has already experienced administrative prosecution for its reluctance to join the list of “foreign agents,” but it has no intention of resorting to alternative schemes. Melkoniants warns that attempts to circumvent the law would be fraught with information pressures and “more serious charges,” for instance, those of cheating and fraud.

The wave of massive checks of non-governmental organizations seems to have subsided for now, and the NGOs may take a break for two months. That is the deadline the prosecutor’s office set to them to consider the warnings and to present proof of their innocence.

“The prosecutor’s office is waiting. Obviously, it is a political decision that it is waiting for. As usual, everything will depend on the Kremlin’s stance. Bearing in mind that Europe is in a state of shock at the sight of the latest events, I believe that the crusade against the non-commercial organizations will grind to a halt,” the daily Novaya Gazeta quotes the executive director of the association Golos, Liliya Shibanova, as saying.

By the way, the authorities agree that the law may be revised.

At a recent meeting with delegates and representatives of non-commercial organizations Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “the law enforcement practices should be studied and ways of improving this piece of legislation considered.”

The head of the presidential Council for Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, suggested leaving the current rules of the NGOs’ accountability as they are, but at the same time replacing the term “foreign agent” with something like “non- commercial organization funded from foreign sources.”

Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov called for putting the emphasis on targeted, not preventive inspections of non-governmental organizations. “It would be quite appropriate for the bodies of state power to shift the emphasis from preventive control of NGOs’ activities to individually targeted measures. In the first place inspections should concern organizations that have aroused considerable suspicion they violate the law,” Konovalov said at a meeting with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin.

He added that exposed violations by the NGOs were not systemic and that sanctions had to be taken against a handful of them.

The government-approved bill, to be submitted to the State Duma shortly, explains that unscheduled inspections of NGOs may be held if the deadline for eliminating abuse has expired, if there is evidence of extremism in the NGO’s activity, or if the NGO has violated laws in its sphere of activity. Also, surprise inspections may be held on instructions from the president or government, or as a routine supervisory measure by a prosecutor’s office.