[Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitor, is the first NGO to succumb to the controversial new law forcing groups that receive foreign funds or engage in “political” activities to register as “foreign agents.” — Ed.]
The Ministry of Justice has suspended activities of the “Golos” association for six months. The organization is surprised by this decision, since it has already started the self-liquidation procedure having refused to register as a “foreign agent.” The NGO plans to register as a new entity and notes that the authorities decided to publicly suspend its activities shortly before the general elections set for September 8. However the human rights activists hope that it won’t prevent them from deploying independent observers at polling stations.
The Ministry of Justice announced, that the “Golos” association activities have been suspended for a period of six months. As the statement says, the reason for the suspension is that the association failed to submit the documents necessary to get registered as an NGO, acting as a “foreign agent.”
“Under the Federal Law ‘On Non-Commercial Organizations,’ in the event the activities of a non-commercial organization acting as a ‘foreign agent’ are suspended, its rights as a founder of a media outlet shall also be suspended, it is banned from holding any mass actions or public events. In addition it cannot open and use bank accounts, except for payments under work agreements or other business related payments, compensation for damages, payment of taxes, fees and fines,” the Ministry says in its statement.
Grigory Melkonyants, the Executive Director of “Golos” told “Gazeta.ru,” that “the Ministry of Justice decision looks strange.”
“The liquidation procedure has been initiated anyway, and the activities have been suspended under the pressure of the authorities. We are working on setting up a new structure, an association of public organizations, that under the legislation on public organizations is not required to register as a legal entity, and we are getting ready to register a new NGO. All those entities will be collectively called “Golos,” he explained.
In addition, “Golos” intends to appeal the Ministry’s decision to designate the organization as a “foreign agent”. It will also appeal with the ECHR.
In April the Ministry of Justice officially declared the “Golos” association a “foreign agent,” having accused the organization of being involved in political activities. One form of such activities the authorities considered working on a draft electoral code. The Ministry’s decision came into effect on June 14. After that the Ministry of Justice required the association to get registered as a “foreign agent,” despite the fact that the it had stopped receiving funding from abroad last November, before the Law on NGO came into effect. As a result “Golos” decided to self-liquidate and re-register itself in order to get its observers ready for the Moscow Mayor elections, set for September 8.
“The decision by the Ministry of Justice could be related to the upcoming elections, because the authorities are afraid of what we do and try do to their best to make sure the observers are not deployed,” Melkonyants believes.
However, despite being suspended as a legal entity, “Golos” acting in a different capacity will organize activities of the Public Observers Center during the upcoming mayoral elections. In addition a traditional “mapping of abuse” will be done.
According to Andrey Buzin, a lawyer and a “Golos” expert, it will be more difficult to operate under these new conditions: an unregistered organization cannot perform financial transactions, because it doesn’t have an accountant or bank accounts.
“However, I hope that the experts, including myself, will (pro bono. — “Gazeta.ru”) continue to collaborate with “Golos”, even though it doesn’t have a legal status. It’s been a predominantly social activity, anyway. “Golos” has achieved a lot. Most importantly, people, mostly in the capitals, came to understand that in Russia elections are essentially some kind of simulation,” Buzin says.
According to him, experts continue to tackle the same issues working as part of other structures: for example, Arcady Lyubarev and Alexander Kynev in Alexei Kudrin’s Public Initiatives Committee. Buzin himself will participate in the Public Observers Center.
The Law on NGOs as amended, according to which the “Golos” work has been suspended, was enacted by the State Duma last spring. The law required all “non-commercial” organizations, involved in political activities and financed from abroad, to get registered as “foreign agents”. Back then experts predicted that “Golos” would be the ultimate target of the law. Eventually some human rights organizations, such as “Agora”, “Memorial”, even “Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers” were labeled “foreign agents”.
One of the authors of the law, a “United Russia” deputy Alexander Sidyakin stressed that the Ministry of Justice “made a right decision on this case”.
“Enforcement of any legitimately enacted law is essentially implementation of a social contract. A law is legally binding, and declarations to the effect that the law is not enforceable are manifestations of nihilism. “Golos” obviously was involved in political activities and was financed from abroad. I hope that this decision will make the rest of the NGOs “reset” and abide by the law,” the legislator said.
Alexander Sidyakin also noted that if “Golos” re-registers and starts operating within the legal requirements, the authorities will have no problems with that.
“They could continue working now. Nobody prevents them from doing that. It’s just that the law requires them to register as a “foreign agent,” Sidyakin concluded.
Alexei Makarkin, the Vice-President of the Center for Political Technologies, thinks that “Golos” will continue working one way or another, but conflict with the authorities will keep escalating.
“The authorities made that first move, having enacted the legislation on NGOs and “foreign agents,” but none of the organizations voluntarily registered. Now they are about to make the next move: suspend “Golos” and evict the movement “For Human Rights” from their offices.
“Of course they can shut down the organization, but the essentially the organization is a group of activists, who can create a new structure,” the expert continues.
The political analyst predicts, that the authorities could try to come up with some new prohibitive initiatives, such as some rules whereby leaders of organizations shut down for non-compliance would be banned from setting up new entities. For example, according to the law on public rallies as amended, a person convicted for an administrative offence cannot organize a mass event. However, despite the prohibitions, there could be new applicants for organizing such events. Most likely NGOs will be able to get around most of the new restrictions.
Earlier in the week Vladimir Putin once again spoke about the importance of an NGO/”foreign agents” law in Russia. “Russia is trying to protect its internal political activities from any outside interference, and in any case, to make sure we know what is going on in terms of financing,” he said on Tuesday at a joint news conference with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niiniste.