Russian Non-Profits Face Confiscation of Foreign Funds

April 8, 2013
Photo: Dmitry Dukhanin / Kommersant

Mikhail Starshinov, a deputy of the State Duma from United Russia and a representative of the All-Russian Popular Front, is proposing to confiscate funds from non-profit organizations (NPOs) that do not wish to register as “foreign agents.” The “front man” is certain that this is not “theft”, as it is only a “prophylactic measure.” Mr. Starshinov announced his idea immediately after President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Russian NGOs have received “almost a billion dollars” from overseas, and that they “should be confiscated if people are violating the law.”

Starshinov told Kommersant that after discussion with his fellow faction members tomorrow, he intends to propose in the lower house amendments to the legislation on NPOs providing for the confiscation of funds from organizations refusing to register as “foreign agents.”

“NPOs should go and register, but they aren’t doing that for some reason,” the deputy explained his initiative, noting that the money will be confiscated from the NPO violators “in the full amount.”

“Many say: but that is robbery, no money will be left. Well, then you shouldn’t violate the law,” Starshinov told Kommersant. “This is a restraining, prophylactic measure.” The confiscated funds, in Mr. Starshinov’s conception, should be sent to some “fund from which they will be re-distributed to representatives of well-meaning NPOs for lines of activity that are more of a priority.”

“For example, work with children and the disabled–where they consider it needed,” the deputy explained. He noted in addition that the impressive fines for refusal to register as a “foreign agent” (up to 500,000 rubles) had turned out to be insufficient. “Evidently, they have so much money that they are too lazy to pay the fine,” Mr. Starshinov surmised, declining to provide details about the “issue of procedure.”

“There are the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s General, let them draw the appropriate conclusions.” We will recall that Mr. Starshinov is the co-author of several notorious laws: that subjects of the Russian Federation should determine the procedures for election of their own governors; on the stiffening of punishments for violations at rallies; and also the law “on foreign agents” itself.

Yaroslav Nilov (of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), the head of the State Duma Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations, told Kommersant that the existing fines are “sufficiently strict” in fact, and that he “does not understand how to implement the law”.

“Today we decide to take away the money from an NPO and give it to others, then the next day we’re going to take profits from companies that didn’t pay their taxes and give it to others?” The deputy is concerned that after the law is passed, “they will say that we are pressuring civil society. This is a painful issue, for which we are criticized in the West.”

“The Council will become acquainted with the draft law with great interest as soon as it is ready,” Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights. He added that the Council’s conclusion will likely “be negative.”

“From the perspective of normal law, this is not possible, but even stranger laws are being passed in our country,” he added.

Elena Panfilova, head of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, commented to Kommersant regarding the Starshinov’s initiative.

“I’m more worried that in the public discussion of foreign agents, the part about political activity is disappearing.” In her words, “public opinion is being pushed toward thinking foreign money means already foreign agent.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Starshinov’s statement coincided with an interview with Vladimir Putin by the German television and radio company ARD, posted on the presidential site on April 5. The president states in it that “an entire network” of 654 non-profit organizations is operating in Russia receiving money from abroad. “Just in the first months after we passed the relevant law regarding these organizations , can you imagine how much money has come in from abroad? I didn’t even know: 28.3 billion rubles — that’s almost a billion dollars,” he said, noting also that “maybe this should be confiscated if people are violating the law.”

Grigory Melkonyants, Deputy Executive Director of Golos believes these figures named are “absurd,” since it would mean “for four months on the average every NPO would receive 43 million rubles.”

“That looks incredible, given that the major foreign donors (including USAID–Kommersant) have already left Russia and the financing has been sharply curtailed. I realize that they need to shock everyone with large numbers and justify their paranoia with inspections and raids on NPOs, but even so, they should still think about what is really the case,” he wrote on his Facebook page (on NPO raids, including Golos, see Kommersant’s April 4 article).

Nevertheless, Melkonyants believes that “these sums could really exist and could wind up in the statistics,” if “business organizations close to the state are pumping up some one-day NPOs from off shore accounts to escape taxes.”

“Civic organizations have never had this kind of money,” Elena Panfilova also told Kommersant.