Registering as a Foreign Agent: Pros and Cons

May 20, 2013
From left to right: Furkat Tishaev (Senior Counsel, Memorial Human Rights Center); Ivan Ninenko (Transparency International – Russia); Mikhail Anshakov (Consumer Rights Protection Society – OZPP); Svetlana Gannushkina (Civil Assistance); Alexander Cherkasov (Memorial Human Rights Center); Yan Rachinsky (International Memorial)

The number of non-profit organizations declared “foreign agents” is growing rapidly. Should the NGOs submissively register as enemies of the government facing a “global conspiracy,” or should they stand their ground? This was the subject of the discussion at The New Times.

Discussion participants: Furkat Tishaev (Senior Counsel, Memorial Human Rights Center); Ivan Ninenko (Transparency International – Russia); Mikhail Anshakov (Consumer Rights Protection Society – OZPP); Svetlana Gannushkina (Civil Assistance); Alexander Cherkasov (Memorial Human Rights Center); Yan Rachinsky (International Memorial).

Dmitry Kamyshev: They have inspected almost every one of those present here. Some of them have been declared agents. Not OZPP…

Mikhail Anshakov (Consumer Rights Protection Society – OZPP): When that law was still under discussion, we were the first to publish this announcement on our site: “We are foreign agents.” But they still haven’t gotten to us. It’s not fair: unlike our colleagues we haven’t been recognized yet.

Dmitry Kamyshev: But have you applied to the Ministry of Justice?

Mikhail Anshakov: Of course we haven’t. We don’t think the state has the right to introduce this kind of segregation, and declared right away that we would never submit any documents. By the way, we are not financed from abroad, but as you know, pretty much anybody can fall under that law. For example, a consumer comes to us for a consultation. If that consumer has a Ukrainian passport and paid us 500 rubles, that’s financing from abroad, right there.

Dmitry Kamyshev: Last summer, when that law was still under discussion, many believed that it would be applied selectively. However, now they indiscriminately designate pretty much anyone as agents – from Levada Center sociologists to environmentalists protecting cranes.

Svetlana Gannushkina (Civil Assistance): That’s because those cranes refused to follow Putin.

Alexander Cherkasov (Memorial Human Rights Center): When there is a law and there are those who enforce it, that law starts to work without any goal-setting. Especially when there are signals from above… When the Ministry of Justice reported in April that they had inspected over 500 organizations, of which only Golos had been found to be involved in political activities, a very strong reaction from above followed, and the Ministry redoubled their efforts. The Prosecutor General’s Office told them to get to work, and they did. By the way, in Moscow their inspections were not as vicious as in the regions. At least they didn’t demand measles vaccination certificates or lung x-rays from our employees. And in St. Petersburg the district prosecutors were personally running around organizations offices all day long. That is reminiscent of the situation back in the 1930s, when various government structures competed with one another [trying to find the most enemies of the people].

Organisations designated as “agents”

  1. Golos, an association in defense of voters’ rights (Moscow)
  2. Transparency International – Russia (Moscow)
  3. Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow)
  4. Public Verdict Foundation (Moscow)
  5. Moscow School of Political Studies
  6. “Memorial” Anti-Discrimination Center (St. Petersburg)
  7. “Side by Side” International LGBT Film Festival (St. Petersburg)
  8. Kostroma Center for Civic Initiatives Support
  9. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (Kostroma)
  10. Baikal Environmental Wave (Irkutsk Region)
  11. Volgograd NPO Support Center
  12. Democratic Center (Voronezh)
  13. Human Being and Law (Mari-El Republic)
  14. AmurSoEs, Amur Regional Environmental Organization
  15. Ulukitkan, Amur Environmental Club
  16. Golos-Ural (Chelyabinsk)
  17. Za Prirodu (For Nature) (Chelyabinsk)
  18. Urals Democratic Foundation (Chelyabinsk)
  19. Urals Human Rights Group (Chelyabinsk)
  20. Press Development Institute (Siberia)
  21. Golos – Siberia
  22. Siberian Environmental Center
  23. Sakhalin Environment Watch
  24. Agora, Inter-regional Association of Human Rights Organizations (Kazan)
  25. Green House (Khabarovsk region)
  26. Committee Against Torture (Nizhny Novgorod)
  27. Kirov Fishing and Hunting Society
  28. Memorial, Komi Human Rights Commission

Source: Agora Association

(May 8, 2013)

We can’t lie

Dmitry Kamyshev: Anyway, let’s make it clear, do you still entertain the possibility of registering as a foreign agent?

Svetlana Gannushkina: We don’t, because that would be a lie, and I cannot lie to the people of the Russian Federation. Our organization is not a foreign agent. Moreover, we are nobody’s agent. An agent, even in a good sense of that word, is a representative— that is someone acting on someone else’s behalf. But we are not agents, we are partners with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Besides, I specifically searched the internet for “a foreign agent”, and found lots of synonyms, none of them favorable: a crook, a spy, a traitor. Not a single one with a positive connotation. Then why should we label ourselves with definitions that have nothing to do with us? Quite obviously, what they are trying to is to defame public organizations in the eyes of the general population and public officials. If officials from the Federal Migration Service, the Interior Ministry, as well as other government ministries and departments still attend all of our workshops, then how can they continue doing that if they are officially invited by a “foreign agent”? For a judge, a book with our materials that says it was published by “a foreign agent” would be something like a hot potato. We know about some really ridiculous cases, when in the middle of a cold winter some do-gooders tried to save homeless people from freezing to death, just to hear: “Stay away from us. We are patriots, and you are foreign agents.” That is, not only officials, but the society thinks we are some kind of outcasts to stay away from.

Yan Rachinsky (International Memorial): They ask us: “why won’t you just register? A foreign agent– there’s nothing wrong about it.” Well, you can also ask why Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] wouldn’t want to be called a former Gestapo officer. The Gestapo was also just a secret state police, nothing else. However, in Russian that name has certain connotations, just like “foreign agent”.

Alexander Cherkasov: Back in the 1930s hundreds of thousands of people also confessed to being “foreign agents” before being shot. And Memorial knows better than anyone how many people this happened to. Even the memory of our own history won’t let us put up with that law. However, these considerations are in part practical, and in part emotional. There is also a different kind of consideration: none of this conforms with the obligations Russia accepted as a member of the Council of Europe.

Furkat Tishaev (Senior Counsel, Memorial Human Rights Center): Indeed, this law directly contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, at least four of its articles: Article 11 on freedom of assembly; Article 10 on freedom of expression; Article 14 on prohibition of discrimination; and Article 18 on the illegitimate limitation on the rights under the Convention.

The main problem is that the very definition of “political activities” in that law is extremely vague, while the European Convention contains certain legal and technical requirements regarding national legislation. One of those requirements is clarity of definitions, so that any person subject to this law understands the legal consequences of its application. In our case pretty much anything can fall under that definition of political activities. That is why not a single non-profit organization is able to determine, whether it is involved in such activities. As for the definition of a “foreign agent,” it’s totally clear that we’re talking about serious reputational damage for any non-profit organization.

What is important is the issue of inspections and reporting. The problem is not only the additional reporting requirements—they also broadened the list of conditions that could trigger unannounced inspections by many agencies. That means that any citizen can write a letter saying that ‘it looks like Golos is involved in extremist or political activities.’ That triggers an immediate response. A team of officials from different agencies comes on site and starts an inspection. During one such inspection it took us four full days to prepare and provide all the required reports, copy all the documents, et cetera. That is, for four full days the organization was effectively paralyzed because of one single inspection. Now imagine they have these inspections, for example, every week. In addition “agents” are subject to mandatory audit, which, according to experts’ estimates, could cost anything from 50-to-250 thousand rubles. On top of that, there are huge fines for failing to introduce yourself as a ‘foreign agent”— up to 500 thousand rubles. Any organization will be buried by all these inspections.

What it takes to become an “agent”

In theory

(The Federal Law № 121-FZ of July 20, 2012)

“A noncommercial organization, with the exception of a political party, shall be deemed as engaging in political activity carried out in the territory of the Russian Federation, if, irrespective of the goals and objectives stated in its founding documents, it takes part (including by financing) in the organization and conduct of political actions aimed at influencing the decision-making by state bodies intended for the change of state policy pursued by them, as well as in the shaping of public opinion for the aforementioned purposes.

“Political activity shall not include activity in the sphere of science, culture, the arts, health protection, disease prevention and the protection of citizens’ health, social support and protection of citizens, protection of motherhood and childhood, social support of the disabled, promotion of healthy living, physical culture and sports, protection of plant and animal life, charitable activities, and also activities in the sphere of promotion of charity and volunteerism.”

In practice

(From decisions of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice on the detection of “foreign agents”):

  • Support of those subject to political persecution, and protection of civil rights activists (HRC Memorial, Agora);

  • Independent anticorruption reviews (Transparency International – Russia);

  • Promotion of a new legislation – the Electoral Code (Golos Association);

  • Human rights report on abuse against gypsies, migrants and civil rights activists, submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture (Memorial);

  • Activities in support of the LGBT community civil rights (Side to Side);

  • A roundtable on Russia-US relations with the participation of the US Embassy Political Advisor (Kostroma Center in Support of Public Initiatives);

  • Participation in elections as observers (Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, Democratic Center);

  • Environmental protection activities, speaking at environmental conferences and petitioning officials, active lobbying for decisions regarding environment (Baikal Environmental Wave);

  • Participation in government decision-making (Amur Public Environmental Organization “AmurSoEs”); and

  • Participation in local elections (Kirov Fishing and Hunting Society)

Money and reputation

Dmitry Kamyshev: They say that NGOs do not want to register as “foreign agents” because foreign foundations are prohibited by their national legislations to finance political activities…

Alexander Cherkasov: Any activities advocating public interests, any normal social activities are declared political. For anybody who lives in a western country it’s hard to understand. They do not want to finance political activities, i.e. elections and activities of political parties, but it’s not what our definition is about. We can’t blame anybody for not understanding this insanity we have to live with.

Ivan Ninenko (Transparency International – Russia): At some point the Transparency board decided that we would not register as a “foreign agent,” primarily because Transparency International is not involved in political activities. That is one of the conditions for us to be part of the worldwide Transparency International movement. If all of a sudden we declare that we are involved in politics, that status will be revoked.

Mikhail Anshakov: I think that the government attempt to make us all “foreign agents,” is just a blatant offense against the civil society. I can’t find any other words to describe this except for the defamation of civil society by the authorities. And I suggest all of us should react to this in a coordinated way, by shaping public opinion. Unfortunately that’s all we can do in this situation. Despite all the negative PR on the state TV channels, a lot of people have a positive view of public organizations. That’s why I suggest a different strategy: to declare on our websites that we are “foreign agents,” explaining to the society that the government makes us label ourselves in that way, and we are here for you, despite being persecuted by the authorities. We have to be more active and aggressive in shaping public opinion on this, so that the authorities’ offensive backfires. And they will soon feel it.

Svetlana Gannushkina: There are not so many of us, and it is not too difficult to erase us. We do not dominate people’s minds, which is one of our big problems. When you say that people think favorably of those who help, for example, refugees, unfortunately it’s not so. I’ve heard this many times: Why do you invite them here? And it’s so hard to explain that we do not invite them.

Alexander Cherkasov: In fact, over the last year a few laws have been enacted, each of which limits fundamental rights and freedoms in one way or another. This is a targeted social engineering effort, and it’s done using some blunt instruments disguised as laws, however it’s not clear how to oppose this social engineering.

How to survive

Dmitry Kamyshev: Let’s look at that problem from the perspective of those who get your help. If you refuse to register as “agents” and are eventually closed down, these people, the beneficiaries, will be left to their own devices. From their point of view it would probably be better if you continued to operate, even under that humiliating brand.

Svetlana Gannushkina: I don’t think it would be possible to continue to live and work with that “Star of David” on the sleeve. They will not let us work— that is completely clear.

Ivan Ninenko: To register as a “foreign agent” means that at any moment you can be closed down. You will have to carefully calculate your every move: “if I do this or that, is it possible that a Mr. N from the Department E transfers a dollar to my account and they close me down?” It’s impossible to operate under such conditions.

Alexander Cherkasov: And there is also the related law on high treason. If we label ourselves as “foreign agents” and do our usual work, representing our claimants in the Strasbourg court, that means we become involved with a foreign organization and automatically fall under the Article 275 of the Criminal Code. The issue is that normal, legitimate activities of our organizations get criminalized: highlighting problems, recourse to European legal framework and legal mechanisms – all this becomes impossible. In other words, you can’t operate in a usual way once you’ve been branded as an “agent”.

Dmitry Kamyshev: What can be done?

Svetlana Gannushkina: First of all, to continue litigation by petitioning the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of this law, wait for the reaction of the European Court, and continue working— despite the fact that now it requires some titanic efforts. Also, to appeal to society – something we haven’t done so far. As to the prospects, we probably also have to talk to those who enforce the law. We attempted to engage the prosecutors, we invited them to the presidential Council for Civil Society, but they never showed up. Although behind the scenes some prosecutors say “well, you see, what we are trying to do is to establish some kind of practice in terms of enforcing this law. We want everybody to see how imperfect it is. And until we build up that practice, we can’t even raise the question about its deficiencies.” But all these are just excuses.

Dmitry Kamyshev: Maybe it makes sense to amend the charter, just not to give them an excuse to accuse you?

Ivan Ninenko: We were subject to a scheduled inspection by the Ministry of Justice. They didn’t find anything, everything was fine. No political activities. A spot check by the Prosecutor’s Office didn’t find anything either. Only after another inspection did they find some political activities in the form of anti-corruption review. But even in the most vivid nightmare none of us would imagine that an anti-corruption review – which is precisely our mission – could be interpreted as a political activity.

Svetlana Gannuskina: Just like advocacy.

Ivan Ninenko: I don’t rule out that there could be some NGOs that fell victim to the prosecutors’ reporting. But the majority were targeted and declared “agents” intentionally. The authorities never liked them and now they have a chance to close them down. They don’t really care what we write in our charter. The only way to protect ourselves is to stop doing what we do.

Furkat Tishaev: This is what the law says: “[…] notwithstanding the purposes and objectives, specified in the constituent documents […]” That is, they look at what we actually do. If an official or an employee of an organization participated in a political rally, they can say that the organization is involved in political activities. In other words, any action could be interpreted to fit the definitions in the law. That’s why no tricks will help.

Underground and dissidents

Dmitry Kamyshev: As one of our opposition activists once said with sarcasm: “It would be better if we had a situation similar to that in Belarus— everybody knows that everything is forbidden, so everybody just quietly works underground.” How does this option sound?

Alexander Cherkasov: The point is to preserve ourselves in the form of openly-acting public organizations, not some secret societies. That’s why I don’t think it is an option. A term that would better describe the situation would be “dissent,” that means we can live as free people in a country that is not free. Underground is not an option.

Ivan Ninenko: Transparency International by its nature cannot go underground. It would be a totally different organization, with different kind of activities.

Dmitry Kamyshev: Are there any other legal tricks? For example, to get registered under a slightly different name after they close you down?

Mikhail Anshakov: Just in case, I have a package of documents for a public organization with a similar name. I’m totally aware that in case of a shakedown we can just open another account for a new legal entity.

Alexander Cherkasov: Tricks won’t help. About 15 years ago I was in the Northern Caucasus, and this is what I heard from the local Cossacks after they’d had more than a couple of rounds of drinks, that they believed that global Zionism conspired to use Armenians to create an Islamic state on the territory between the Black and Caspian seas. Basically today the search for foreign agents, not just by Cossacks, but on a national scale is very similar in terms of purposefulness and diligence.

Svetlana Gannushkina: It’s this terrible narrow-mindedness of the authorities. Their favorite expression is: he who pays the piper calls the tune. All they know is groveling— it’s their mindset. For Russia it’s a big tragedy.