Non-Commercial Herodias

June 6, 2013
Illustration by Sarukhanov.

[Few of the Kremlin’s moves since Putin’s return to the presidency have engendered more homegrown protest than the NGO Law, which forces civil society groups that receive foreign funds or engage in nebulously defined “political” activity to register as “foreign agents.” Here, Aleksandr Rubtsov highlights the “theatre of the absurd”-qualities to the law’s implementation. –ed.]

In a future unified and non-contradictory history text book, there will be two glorious pages – the destruction of all the independent civic associations under Stalin, culminating with the suppression of folklore study, and then the crusade against the NGOs under Putin, unleashed under the banner of massive exposure of “foreign agents”.

Why this disgrace is needed by a man who so loves to make an impression and in general follow fashion is incomprehensible. If we look at this issue from the perspective of the tactical and strategic interests of the regime, however then even here there is more harm than advantage from this entire campaign.

It would seem that the government is justifying these actions in attempts to transform ordinary authoritarianism into real neo-totalitarianism. Civic activism, even the most peaceful and non-political, has been instilling independence in people’s behavior and opinions, and a readiness to resolve problems without the government, with their own efforts, in the spirit of healthy solidarity. This is the hidden sprouting of free thinking, natural collectivism and anti-paternalism. Back in the early 1990s, there was a major seminar with all the leading NGOs which was called “Civic Initiatives: The Everyday Practice of Liberalism.” It turns out that in life, there is far more use from real liberals then from agitated patriots and statists. This is seditious in our situation from all perspectives.

Aside from everything else, this is also a particular type of unity, something similar to the current protest when the entire political spectrum, from reds to blues, from whites to browns organize into the same ranks in dislike of the official line. It is even deeper in civic initiatives, but the main thing is that it is built not on negation but purely on the positive; when a roof has to be repaired or a trench dug, usually people forget who is for the whites and who is for the reds. All of this arouses decency in people, and at the same time casts a shadow of caricature over any authority. The political leadership simply cannot sustain such moral competition. The bosses find it far more pleasant to run the problems of the population themselves through accurate “manual” decisions taken in the course of direct communication with the people, right before the eyes of a multi-million strong television audience, surreptitiously wiping away a tear of emotion. What about the girl who managed to telephone the president? They bought her a ball from money out of the federal budget!

But it seems that in the consciousness of our strategists it is all much simpler.

We can understand the desire to take the most active NGOs out of action, especially the human rights groups. But these organizations can be counted on the fingers of both hands. Why shame yourself so in front of the world, organizing such an epidemic of beating? All of these widespread inspections are too reminiscent of the runs of the “Black Marias” [government cars that came to arrest people under Stalin — ed.] in the well-known period of Russian history. That they are taking away now not people, but hard drives does not change the essence. They have restored the main thing: “they have come”. Who needs such notoriety now, especially since past tragedy, as is proper in history, is now repeating itself in the form of farce?

Perhaps we should think that this is logic in the spirit of the classic detective novel of Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton or Agatha Christie – where is it easiest to hide a leaf? In the forest. So in order to kill one person, they have doomed to death an entire unit or regiment. In just this way they can bury unnoticed Golos [the election monitoring organization — ed.] or Memorial [the human rights and historical research organization — ed.] under the pile of harmless lovers of nature and fantasy. However, here, everything is too obvious from the first glance, the effect of concealment is null, and the losses gigantic – organizational, technical, financial, and reputational.

The first signal was the lofty statement about the billion dollars from abroad, received by NGOs within four months, which turned into an embarrassment – there was nowhere to go, soon they would have to publish the entire list with the sums received but then… the situation was bad without this; at first the resounding announcement by the president…and then later (!) an investigation into who received what and for what purpose. What, in Russia the head of state does not filter his discourse?

Then, things fall apart. It turns out that Golos doesn’t receive any foreign funds. Once they were awarded some prize, but predicting they would face persecution, they refused the funds, but due to a bureaucratic slip-up, this money came to a transit (!) account, from which at the request of Golos, it was returned. Now the matter is twisted this way: you had disposal of these funds, although you didn’t receive them, so that means you did have foreign funding. Total theater of the absurd.

Another organization had grants in the past, had long ago turned them down, however it is still being forced to register as a foreign agent, since government officials have “sufficient grounds to believe” that in the future, foreign funding “may be renewed.”

Transparency International is part of an international organization whose charter specifically includes a prohibition on participation in politics. But when the Russian section was forced to acknowledge itself as a “foreign agent,” it turned out that Russia was accusing this most authoritative international organization of violating its charters, that is, of unlawful activity. The guys obviously didn’t calculate the consequences.

As a result, there were numerous complaints about the outrageous violations during the course of the inspections. The campaign was already turning into a potential scandal of rare power. Now, all pressure is being put on the courts in the hope that after judicial decisions, the numerous complaints of violations in the course of inspections can be quietly dropped.

From all of this contrivance, two basic effects are already visible to the naked eye.

First, in order for the project to supposedly work, and not turn into shooting sparrows with Grad rockets, they had to pull in a mass of foreign agents with violations, the scale and audacity of which is commensurate with the falsification of the elections, and in its blatancy even exceeds [election commission chief — ed.] Churov’s claims [that election results were not falsified –ed.]. This all goes into the money-box, and the annals for future accusations.

Second, we can at least approximately count how many peaceful and completely well-intentioned citizens have been sharply politicized by this campaign and have turned into hardened enemies of the regime. That is not only the members of NGOs that have suffered, or have only been intimidated, but all those who are with them or who have been connected to them in their causes or in life, like the ripple effect on the water.

Now all that is needed is that all the NGOs who have suffered a lot or a little to unite into an all-Russian organization of an understandable political profile.

In our country, they love to look for adventures themselves in the place they imagine.