All Russian NGOs Could Become “Foreign Agents”

June 20, 2013
A. Astakhov / Vedomosti

[This article examines the amendments proposed by Russia’s Ministry of Justice which would expand the state’s ability to inspect and interfere in the activities of NGOs, regardless of their funding sources. These measures would extend the law passed in 2012 requiring NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”—Ed.]

Many hoped that Russian authorities would try to come up with excuses to loosen their grip on NGOs; instead, they got busy trying to think up grounds to tighten control and increase the number of inspections of the entire “third sector” in Russia.

A few days ago, the government approved the amendments to the law “On Non-Commercial Organizations,” proposed by the Ministry of Justice. It is possible that the problem was poor wording, but as of now it appears that the list of reasons that could trigger a spot inspection applies to pretty much any NGO (not only “foreign agents”). Officials will be authorized to inspect any non-profit organization upon a request from any citizen or state agency, without any advance notices or limitations. They will even be able to initiate inspections in response to media accusations of extremist activities. Other reasons for inspections could be information available to the government agencies about possible violation of the laws, as well as requests submitted by prosecutors. Finally, officials are authorized to subject any NGO to a follow-up inspection if the time provided for resolution of previously found issues has expired.

If the Duma approves these amendments, the entire Russian “third sector” could become so-called “foreign agents;” that is, the NGOs that the state has decided receive money from foreign donors to influence government policies.

To date, the daily routine of the Russian NGOs which are not funded from abroad has been relatively uneventful. At today’s rate of inspections (about 7,300 per year) the authorities would complete the audit of the “third sector” (188,000 organizations) in about 25 years. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice and other supervisory agencies must publish plans for upcoming audits. There are not many grounds to initiate unscheduled inspections that amounted to about 3% of the total inspections in 2012. Among them are complaints received from an election committee on unlawful campaign financing during elections for elected officials positions, or citizens’ complaints about the provision of substandard services.

The new regulations regarding inspections would mean that the Ministry of Justice and other supervisors would be legally bound to respond to any complaint, even the most preposterous, or a deliberately false claim. Last year there were, on average, about 117 inspections per official charged with supervising NGOs. If you consider the amount of documents requested by inspectors, the question about quality of such inspections seems rhetorical.

The government is faced with a choice: to substantially increase the number of supervisory personnel and funding of supervisory activities (3 billion roubles in 2012) in order to respond to any signal, or to continue the selective purging of the “third sector” among those who do not appear loyal enough. Officials would be able to paralyze an organization by requesting any document, or by suspending its activities. The current version of the amendments is something like a “black mark,” a sign of bureaucratic distrust of any autonomous public initiatives not officially approved by the government.