Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov said on Tuesday he considered it possible to amend the legislation on non-governmental organizations for the term “foreign agent” not to evoke reactions “on the verge of hysterics.”
Alexander Konovalov had to explain as a minimum for the second time this year the law requiring that Russia’s all non-governmental organizations engaged in political activity, which get foreign grants, should voluntarily name themselves as “foreign agents,” the Kommersant business daily wrote. In January the justice minister told State Duma MPs that “the law’s concept is absolutely non-repressive.” He highlighted that the Justice Ministry had no powers that “would imply active and tough inspections” and the formation of long lists and other dreadful sanctions.”
Nevertheless in February-April mass raids on non-governmental organizations started at the initiative of the Prosecutor-General’s Office. Around 1,000 organizations were checked in all regions of the country. As a result, trials against Russia’s Golos Association, which monitors elections and campaigns for voters’ rights, and Memorial human rights centre that refused to name themselves as “foreign agents” began.
On Tuesday Konovalov was invited to a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights to answer questions of its members.
“There are certain approaches that allow to carry out similar activities in other forms by those, who really want to stay on this market,” he said. Konovalov cited examples of such approaches. These are “registration of commercial legal entities, for whom no “foreign agent” status is applied, and “elementary receipt of funds in cash or through individuals.”
In general all opportunities for activities of non-governmental organizations “remain available,” he said. For this reason it seems to the minister that “the whole list of “foreign agents” will always remain empty” (the law prescribes the Justice Ministry to introduce the list of “foreign agents”). Therefore Konovalov does not share concerns of human rights activists over the future of non-governmental organizations in Russia. “Let’s look at the results. Is anybody imprisoned, shot dead, banned from carrying out any activity or deported? As a result, everything will end just in a few cases,” he said recalling that “there are only two court decisions” after the checkups of non-governmental organizations in February-April.
However, these arguments did not calm down human rights activists. There are really only two court decisions, Maria Polyakova, who heads the Sergei Magnitsky case commission in the Council, said. But many non-governmental organizations received prosecutor’s office instructions. If they do not name themselves as foreign agents within three months, they will face further inspections followed by courts and fines. After repeated fines the head of a non-governmental organization will face criminal responsibility. In this respect members of the Council insist on urgent amendments to the law. In particular, the Council’s president, Mikhail Fedotov, proposed to use instead of the term “foreign agent” another term “an organization financed from foreign sources.”
Konovalov proposed in response to wait for legal proceedings. He expressed no doubt that the legislation on non-governmental organizations will be adjusted. “Both the president and the prime minister agreed with this,” he said.
The Vedomosti business daily believes that the authorities started “thinking up grounds for toughening control and increasing the number of inspections of Russia’s whole third sector.” Several days ago the government approved amendments to the law on non-governmental organizations developed by the Justice Ministry. Possibly, the thing is in miswording, but now it turns out that the list of reasons for spot checks embraces any non-governmental organizations (not only “foreign agents”), the daily wrote.
In compliance with the amendments officials will be able to conduct spot checks of any non-governmental organizations upon the application of citizens, state bodies and even by newspaper articles telling about signs of extremist activity. The reasons for such random checks will be also the information from the state bodies concerning violation of Russia’s laws and requirements of the prosecutor’s office. Finally, officials may drop in a non-governmental organization, if the deadline for correcting violations set during the previous inspection expires.
This version of amendments is a kind of a black spot, a signal of bureaucracy’s complete distrust to autonomous, public initiatives and associations not approved by the government, the daily wrote.