By Lada Korotun
Russian noncommercial organizations (NCOs) engaged in political activities and financed from abroad may have to register as “foreign agents” and face audits and spot checks under a new bill on NCOs, which is currently undergoing its first reading in the State Duma.
Though based on foreign experience and though some of its clauses actually repeat word for word a similar law in the United States, the bill aroused heated discussions among Russian NCOs. Most of them protested the term “foreign agent” for fears of being looked upon as spies. But there is no need for them to take offence as it’s exactly the same term as the one used in the U.S. law.
The bill bestows “foreign agent” status not on all NCOs but only on those engaged in political activities. The latter will be obliged to submit reports to government agencies twice a year and not once a year like the rest, plus annual audits. Also, if such NCOs publish materials, in printed media or on the Internet, they will be obliged to disclose the names of their sponsors. The bill imposes no bans, it just introduces civilized rules of the game, said Irina Yarovaya, chairwoman of the State Duma Security and Anti-Corruption Committee.
“We have thoroughly studied all international experience. Our legislative initiative aims at introducing international civil control standards in Russia. The bill is not about restrictions, it’s about regulations, greater openness, transparency, and proof that noncommercial organizations engaged in political activities and financed from foreign sources can work in Russia on legal grounds like they do in other countries.”
The term “foreign agent” will be applied to foreign-financed NCOs that really participate in political processes and political life in Russia, organize political actions or campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion or government policies. The bill specifies their responsibilities, violations of which will be punishable by fines of up to 1 million rubles or prison terms of up to several years.
Three parliamentary factions – United Russia, the Liberal Democrats and the Communists – have voiced their support for the bill. The Communist Party thinks that the current definition of the NGO is rather vague and will press for a more distinct one that would clearly specify a difference between public, political and noncommercial organizations.
There are 230,000 NGOs in Russia now. Most of them do not submit any reports. Others submit balance sheets that give no clue as to what their real activity is actually like. Direct allocations from the national budgets of foreign states account for the bulk of the overseas finances of Russian NCOs, the rest comed from international companies or individuals. The new bill will tighten control over foreign donations.
The head of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights watchdog Lyudmila Alexeyeva is against the term “foreign agent” because it might scare people from an NCO they would otherwise be willing to support.
“Never will the Moscow Helsinki Group register as a foreign agent, because we are not foreign agents, even though my organization does exist on foreign money. The only chance to preserve one’s honor is to reject foreign financing.”
Leader of the United Russia faction in the Duma Andrei Vorobyov cited the American and European laws that set even tougher rules for local NCOs.
“In the United States, a similar law has been in force since 1938. In Germany, NCOs that receive foreign aid are liable to pay a 30% income tax. In Britain, public accountability is compulsory for any such organization. In France, the prefect’s approval is required to create an NCO. There is nothing humiliating in the term “foreign agent”. Why, there are real estate agents, trade agents, insurance agents, and so on…”
If the bill clears its first reading, the second and third readings may follow within a week.